City Hall

What’s Really Going On With Rental Scooters in Dallas?

A scooter rider in Copenhagen shows off his moves.
A scooter rider in Copenhagen shows off his moves. News Oresund, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons
In early May, a company called Spin demoed its latest scooter technology outside of Dallas City Hall, prompting FOX 4 News to speculate that scooter rentals may return this fall. That’s when the spin started.

“The scooters are back. This won’t go well,” the Dallas Morning News editorial board declared on May 13. “The Scooters Are Back. This Could Be Awesome,” countered D Magazine’s Alex Macon the next day.

If nothing else, the rift in how local media responded shows how divisive rental scooters have become in Dallas. But it also demonstrates a broader divide, one about the future of the city itself.

Rental scooters were paused last September, and despite briefly making an appearance in Deep Ellum this month, City Hall says the program still hasn’t launched again. The City Hall spokesperson also said the Department of Transportation has plans to brief City Council in the coming months on their proposed timeline and strategy regarding dockless vehicles, but did not elaborate further on when exactly that would happen.

That means that scooter rentals are stuck in limbo, and no one knows for how long. Though technically legal under the Dockless Vehicle ordinance, scooter rentals were halted by an order from the Director of Transportation. And because it was framed as a public safety issue, it didn’t need a City Council decision.

A deadly shooting on August 28, 2020, in Deep Ellum was the proverbial pothole that broke the scooter's wheels. It came amid an investigation into complaints about misuse of dockless rental scooters led by two former City Council members, David Blewett and Adam Medrano.

Along with the Dallas Police Department and former director of transportation Michael Rogers, Blewett and Medrano hyped the narrative that scooters put the public at risk. Within 48 hours of the shooting, all rental scooter operations ceased, and within a week, the scooters disappeared from the streets.

At the time, it seemed like scooter critics had won. “Good riddance to a scooter program that failed,” wrote the Dallas Morning News editorial board at the time.

But a lot has changed since then.

The three main players involved in the decision to halt scooter operations last September have left their roles. Former City Council member Blewett blew his reelection campaign and lost to opponent Paul Ridley. Medrano reached his limit of four consecutive terms. Former director of transportation Rogers left the role last year to become a deputy city manager in the suburb of Glenn Heights, and has since been replaced by former assistant director, Ghassan Khankarli.

With the anti-scooter clique gone, the pro-scooter crowd has an opportunity to change the narrative, and everything suggests they will do just that.

Now in City Council, Paul Ridley has suggested that he supports returning the scooters to Dallas streets as part of a broader effort to promote alternative forms of transportation, though he still hasn’t spoke with the new director of transportation, Khankarli, about the issue.

“I’m open-minded about scooters and will look for ways to make them a safe and viable transportation option,” Ridley told the Observer.

"I’m open-minded about scooters and will look for ways to make them a safe and viable transportation option technology." - Paul Ridley, City Council member

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Around 20 miles up Interstate 75, Plano could provide a blueprint. Earlier this month, the scooter rental company Bird launched in Plano for the first time after the city adopted a new set of regulations aimed to curb some of the same issues that led Dallas to halt scooter operations.

No doubt, Dallas officials have an eye on Plano’s scooter revival. Meanwhile, Spin has pitched new technology aimed to address the concerns of scooter critics, such as sidewalk riding detection.

Krista Nightengale, executive director of Better Block Foundation, a Dallas nonprofit dedicated to reshaping urban environments, believes scooters can be brought back successfully with the right regulations and technology, such as adding a requirement that users have a driver's license and limiting the number of scooters deployed in a given area.

But she also says much more needs to be done to make them a viable option for more people. “Dallas has a long way to go in creating more infrastructure on the streets for bikes and scooters like protected lanes, racks and dedicated parking areas,” Nightengale said.

In many ways, the debate over scooters as a public safety hazard misses the forest for the trees. The focus on the public safety hazard aspect of scooters often sidesteps broader conversations about infrastructure priorities, how we share the public right of way and whether we mandate minimum parking requirements for future development.

“The battle lines that people have drawn are over the table scraps that have been thrown to us from the dominion of cars,” said Nathaniel Barrett, a small real estate developer in Dallas who regularly tweets about urban reform.

In other words, the great scooter debate is a proxy battle about the supremacy of cars, and attempts to ban scooters under the guise of public safety are a smokescreen for the status quo.

“The battle lines that people have drawn are over the table scraps that have been thrown to us from the dominion of cars,” Nathaniel Barrett, real estate developer

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Claims that scooters are a deadly menace conveniently disregard grim motor vehicle mortality statistics. The argument that criminals use scooters for quick getaways ignores the legacy of Bonnie and Clyde. Complaints that scooters take up road space seem absurd amidst rush hour traffic.

The real safety issue, scooter advocates say, isn’t about scooter riders’ personal responsibility or even the companies themselves. It’s about infrastructure.

Take the fact that Dallas doesn’t have many protected lanes for alternative modes of transportation, whether bicycles or scooters. Riders often have to choose between a potholed street crowded with cars or a narrow and bumpy sidewalk, and can end up in dangerous situations.

Of course, there’s no doubt that some people hop on scooters while they’re hammered and that others go on mischievous joyrides, but the fact remains: scooters are far less dangerous than driving drunk or drag racing, for instance. Dallas could invest in protected lanes for scooter riders and bicyclists, addressing opponents’ concerns while also cutting down on the number of cars on the road.

Others insist that the scooters clutter the sidewalks. It’s a fair point: no one can argue that a pile of scooters on the sidewalk doesn’t act as a barricade, say, for someone with a disability who may not be able to move them from the path. But the same could be said of the thousands of incomplete sidewalks across Dallas — including one right outside the new Southern Dallas Government Center.

“[Scooters] are a great form of transportation if they don't have to compete with space on sidewalks with pedestrians or cars on streets,” said Patrick Kennedy, who teaches Sustainable Development at Southern Methodist University and sits on the board of directors for DART. “We need bike/scooter lanes and on-street parking spaces converted into corrals.”

Investing in special lanes, parking racks and parking corrals would improve the city even if the scooter rental companies went belly up and skipped town. But chances are they won’t. Other cities have already successfully regulated scooter parking, or have required scooters to have a built-in lock system that ensures they don't end up becoming obstacles to pedestrians or drivers.

"[Scooters] are a great form of transportation if they don't have to compete with space on sidewalks with pedestrians or cars on streets,” said Patrick Kennedy, DART board of directors

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Is it all easier said than done? Sure. It would require political will and a boatload of investment. It would also require repurposing space currently reserved for cars — protected lanes mean less space for cars and parking corrals mean fewer street parking spaces. But would fewer cars on Dallas’ streets ultimately be a good thing? Yes.

In a recent article at Dallas Morning News, architecture critic Mark Lamster argued that minimum parking requirements prioritize cars over all other forms of transportation, increase the cost of affordable housing and encourage sprawl. If we peeled away minimum parking requirements, the city would need to invest in alternative transportation.

The NIMBYs will certainly go on arguing that scooters should be banned for public safety purposes. So what? Let them complain. But the sheer popularity of rental scooters showed us there might be a future where car drivers aren't the only ones who can get around town conveniently. In any case, getting there will be a bumpy ride.
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Steven Monacelli has been contributing to the Dallas Observer since 2020. He regularly covers local social movements and occasionally writes about food.
Contact: Steven Monacelli