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If scooters are legalized, they will be privately owned by companies like BIRD. (Photo by Phillip Pessar | CC BY 2.0)

As Pennsylvania considers a bill to legalize electric scooters on public streets, Penn students may soon find themselves zipping across campus.

The City of Philadelphia is currently considering approving the use electric scooters, and a new bill introduced in February in the Pennsylvania state house would allow low-speed scooters in the state. As of now, electric scooters are not street legal in Philadelphia, but the statewide bill would change that.

If passed, electric scooters could not only be a fun way to travel, but a safer mode of transportation that alleviates the city’s congestion problem, said Engineering professor Megan Ryerson, who serves as the UPS Chair of Transportation at Penn and specializes in transportation infrastructure planning.

Penn has not signaled a clear policy on scooters. Inconsistent enforcement and unclear rules continue to leave students unsure of when they can and cannot ride their scooters and skateboards on campus. 

If the state decides to legalize scooters at their next hearing on April 18, Philadelphia can either comply to allow electric scooters on streets or file an exemption to ban scooters that has to be approved by the state.

On Feb. 26, Ryerson spoke in favor of electric scooters and highlighted their role as a new form of transport to the Philadelphia City Council Committee on Transportation and Public Utilities at a public hearing.

“Philadelphia is an old city with old transportation infrastructure and we need to be proactively looking for new modes of transportation that get people where they need to go, not in a car,” Ryerson said.

Megan Ryerson, Penn Engineering professor and UPS Chair of Transportation, says electric scooters could not only become a safer mode of transportation that alleviates the city’s congestion problem, but could also offer people a fun way to travel.

In September 2018, Vox reported the e-scooters are already operating in 65 American cities and have become an increasingly popular mode of urban transportation. But the rise of scooters have also caused concerns on college campuses, with Miami University of Ohio banning the scooters in July 2018.

Scooters can help create more demand for safety transportation infrastructure, Ryerson said. Although the city has protected bike lanes, Ryerson said the government is not building them quickly enough. Legalizing electric scooters may prompt the city government to step up in its efforts to build safer transportation infrastructure.

Besides the potential for increased safety, scooters can also be a fun way to travel.

“We should be allowed to enjoy getting around instead of just doing it because we have to get somewhere,” Ryerson said. “Scooters offer this new mobility option particularly for people who don’t want to bike and a new mobility option that’s not cars.” 

If scooters are legalized, they will be privately owned by companies like BIRD, a scooter-sharing company that first started in Santa Monica, California in September 2017. Riders can download BIRD’s app to unlock scooters, and after paying a $1 unlocking fee, the app charges a per-minute usage fee that differs depending on the city.

Mackenzie Long, a Spokesperson at BIRD, said scooters are a low-cost and environmentally-friendly transport option that can be helpful to college students. 

“When I was a student, I didn’t have a car on my campus. I didn’t have an easy way to get around town and connect the local businesses,” Long said. “[Having scooters around the campus] is a great option for students and staff and faculty who maybe can’t afford a parking space, who don’t have a car with them, but still want to have a way to get around town that’s fun and easy and affordable.”  

Yet the scooters' impact on the environment was questioned by some.

Engineering senior Lucia Game's senior design project investigated a way to make electric scooters a greener mode of transportation. Game said while BIRD scooters are an innovative way of traveling, the scooters still need to be recharged frequently. Instead, Game said installing solar panels onto the scooters could make them more sustainable.

BIRD subcontracts charging to independent individuals. Individuals pick scooters up around the city, take them back to their homes to charge them, and then returns the scooters to designated locations. 

“The benefit of why people walk everywhere is because you control your schedule and go walk the places you need to be," Game said. “Scooters, especially scooters that have the stations in appropriate locations, will allow students to have more flexibility in the way that they can travel." 

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