I’ve been using the new Lime electric scooters in Indy. It’s been three days’ worth of rides, and my capsule review is in: They’re really fun. And…I’m glad they’re here. And…

Let me circle back for a moment. The tight turn radius makes it easy.

For those who haven’t visited downtown Indy in a while, a quick recap: Dockless electric scooters arrived in downtown Indy in mid-June, and less than two weeks later, they seem to be everywhere. You unlock them with an app on your smartphone. One ride costs a dollar, plus 15 cents per minute of ride-time. You leave them wherever you end up, with only the scooter companies’ official etiquette, at this point, to guide you.

Those who are using the scooters seem to love them. Committed walkers, joggers, and drivers seem less than thrilled. Under current ordinances, these dockless rental vehicles (not just scooters, but bikes, too) are something of a gray area, so the City-County Council is working on an ordinance to govern their use. Council Vice President Zach Adamson has pointed out that motorized vehicles are currently prohibited from spaces like the Cultural Trail, the Monon Trail, and the sidewalk.

The scooter companies—in Indianapolis, currently Bird and Lime—tout the scooters as a supplement to the city’s public transportation system. If your nearest bus stop or BlueIndy station is half a mile or more from home, the notion goes, you might appreciate a quick and practical ride there and back.

Built for Speed

There’s no denying these things have been engineered for fun. You start the scooter with a quick, old-school push off—then the thumb-operated throttle takes over, with top speeds of around 15 miles per hour. (And even faster downhill.) But keeping the scooter much under maximum speed is tricky. As you try to hold the thumb switch steady, you can feel the throttle stutter a bit—like it’s not sure whether you’re trying to speed up or slow down.

Just speed up then, you think to yourself, giving in to the rush of sweet, unfettered electric propulsion. Did I mention how fun they are?

Those who worry about safety are right to worry: More people are riding without helmets than with them, and at scooter speed, a front wheel stuck in a crack or pothole could launch you toward a course of rehabilitation that lasts for years. If you ride in the street, as the scooter companies encourage, you’re competing with bikes, other cars, and phones for drivers’ attention. One thing is for certain: No one, whether on street, bike path, or sidewalk—whether on scooter, on bike, on foot, or in a car—can simply assume they will be seen and avoided.

But this has been the case for a while now. It hasn’t fundamentally changed since the scooters arrived.

Thinking This Through

Before we start making rules about where these scooters can and can’t go, let’s take a moment to reflect on our reasons for deciding in the first place. I’d argue that indignation and hand-wringing over where certain vehicles do and don’t belong is more a matter of long-unchallenged assumptions than of actual sense. As has been pointed out in a number of recent scooter discussions: What is a car, exactly, if not a dockless vehicle you leave wherever it suits you?

Societally, we’ve worked through our car problems—parking, traffic, safety, driver education—because we benefit from the convenience they provide. We shoulder great costs in terms of pollution and energy dependence to keep up the habit. Are Limes and Birds really so different because they don’t have a path that “belongs” to them?

When I think about what adding these scooters to our transportation system means, I think of the Monon Trail—especially the densely traveled miles between 54th Street and 86th Street. I like to run along there occasionally, but on a nice evening or a weekend, it’s crowded. You’ve got runners, cyclists, walkers, skaters, kids (inside strollers and out), and pets. There’s no bike lane. It’s a free-for-all. I stay alert. I stay in my “line.” I look over my shoulder before I move out of it.

When we built the Monon over 20 years ago, people wondered whether anyone would use such a thing. Now it’s got growing pains. But so far, we haven’t banned bikes, or pets, or kids. We’ve figured out how to get along.

An ordinance can create a vision of the ideal order, but it can’t necessarily persuade people to follow it. Enforcement plays a part, sure. But so does education. And so does culture. And this is where our communications community can possibly be of some help.

Last summer, as part of its “Hot on the Trails: A Road-Free Guide to Exploring Central Indiana,” Indianapolis Monthly published a smart, funny etiquette guide for Monon Trail users. It’s worth a look as we think about how we adapt to Birds, Limes, and whatever comes next.

Not only because the guide is smart and funny—though those coatings make the pill of etiquette more of a pleasure—but also because it’s full of real observations about the misuse of the trail community space, with easy-to-follow suggestions for making it a better community. All without banishing anyone.

As this discussion evolves over the coming months and years, and as small rent-to-ride scooters and bikes are followed by small rent-to-ride electric cars, a rejuvenated bus system, and maybe even rent-to-ride flying cars (we can dream!) perhaps we can start to have a smart and open-hearted conversation about how our streets and sidewalks are set up, and how we can safely and comfortably accommodate vehicles of all sizes and models in every corner of our city.

And maybe, if we take the time to work at it, we can even have a little fun along the way.

Update:

On Thursday, June 29, the City-County Council’s Public Works Committee voted 8 to 1 in favor of sending a proposal about the scooters to the full board.

The new rules will:

  • Determine where the scooters can be ridden, and how they can be parked, in and out of the public right of way
  • Prohibit blocking of entrances, driveways, or streets
  • Create rules that companies like Bird and Lime must comply with in order to operate in the city
  • Create mandatory licensing fees for such businesses
  • Require information, safety education, and precautions like a bell, lights, and a speedometer

The next meeting of the full council is Monday, July 16.

Update, 7/17/2018: The City-County Council approved regulations that would allow the scooters back on the streets—at a price considerably higher than the purveyors have paid in other cities. The city will charge the scooter companies $15,000 a year, plus a dollar a day per scooter. If you’re Bird and you have 500 scooters in Indy, it’s going to cost you $197,500 a year to operate.