On some college campuses, it’s nearly impossible to walk between buildings without seeing a menagerie of electric scooters. Their ease of use — it can take just minutes to download a rental app and turn a mile-long hike into a brisk ride — has made them a popular option for students and staff alike.
But the cons of e-scooters, like clogged sidewalks and the risk to public safety, outweigh the pros, according to critics. With the vehicles’ rise in popularity has come a corresponding rise in e-scooter-related emergency room visits, a surge of nearly 450% from 2017 to 2021, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission.
Riders most frequently suffered fractures, bruises and scrapes to their arms, legs, head and neck, the commission found. From 2017 to 2021, 68 people died riding e-scooters. Accidents with motor vehicles and user-control issues were the leading causes of those fatal crashes, according to the commission.
As a result, some colleges have had enough and are banning electric scooters from campus.
Boston College announced a ban on electric transportation devices, including e-scooters and hoverboards, as of Dec. 22.
“Many faculty, staff, and students have reported near-collisions and limited access to facilities because of scooters, and recharging lithium batteries in such vehicles has resulted in numerous fires around the United States,” an open letter from Boston College safety officials said. “Additionally, a number of BC students have suffered injuries from e-scooter falls, and such accidents have caused serious injuries on college campuses across the country.”
Under the ban, the college can confiscate any e-scooter found on campus, and offenders can be sanctioned. Electric bikes are still allowed, although not inside campus facilities.
But a majority of the safety concerns associated with e-scooters could be addressed as infrastructure issues, instead of outright banning an accessible transportation option, according to Christopher Cherry, micromobility expert and associate department head of undergraduate studies at the University of Tennessee Knoxville.
“There’s no doubt that scooter riders can pose a risk, to themselves most often and sometimes to others,” Cherry said. “Our infrastructure is woefully inadequate for bicyclists, pedestrians and scooter riders. Scooter traffic has exacerbated the optics of that and shined a pretty bright light on where the problems in our network are.”
If colleges are encouraging people to ditch their cars, however, they need to be prepared for less experienced scooter and bike riders, according to Cherry. Colleges, especially those with campuswide sustainability and accessibility goals, should offer scooter and bike pathways that are separated from cars and pedestrians, he said.
He also recommended college leaders consider a clear parking policy for e-scooters and hold operators accountable for maintaining the devices and keeping them safe to ride. But, he said, bans are often easier to implement and maintain than nuanced policies, making them attractive options for colleges.
Fordham University, in New York City, went a step further than Boston College. Beginning Jan. 3, the university prohibited all battery-powered transportation, including e-bikes, from its campus.
In an open letter, Fordham’s associate vice president for public safety, Robert Fitzer, cited recent New York Fire Department data on fire hazards caused by lithium-ion batteries — like those found in electric scooters and bikes — as motivation for the ban.
Fordham declined to comment beyond its announcement.
In 2022, six people were killed and almost 140 injured in fires caused by lithium-ion batteries in New York City, according to the city’s fire department. The batteries are also used in portable consumer electronics like laptops and cellphones, and the fire department did not break down which types of devices were involved in these incidents.
Columbia University, also in New York City, banned e-scooters from its housing facilities in 2021 over similar fire concerns.
Cherry acknowledged the batteries are a potential risk and should be considered when college leaders create transportation safety plans.
“The challenge is to contextualize that risk within the larger transportation framework,” he said. “We know cars are a very dangerous element in any pedestrian realm. So if you’re banning scooters, one logical follow-up is, are you banning cars as well?”
He compared the fires caused by lithium-ion batteries to the roughly 20 pedestrians killed in traffic accidents in the U.S. each day. In New York City, 231 people died in traffic accidents in 2022 to date. E-scooters are experiencing a high level of scrutiny but people have become numb to the risks associated with cars, Cherry said.
Boston College and Fordham are hardly the first to nix e-scooters. Several colleges banned the vehicles back in 2019 when cities and towns increasingly brought e-scooters to public sidewalks through pilot programs.
In fall 2019, Marquette University, in Milwaukee, prohibited e-scooters after the city introduced dockless scooters in one such pilot program. The university’s policy remains in place today.
The bans didn’t stick everywhere. San Diego State University banned all electronic transportation on campus in March 2019, publicly announcing the change the following August.
But the university walked back that policy in Oct 2021, following an annual review of transportation demand and accessibility, as required by the California State University system.
San Diego State currently partners with Bird, a micromobility company, to offer e-scooter rentals on campus. Riders must keep to designated areas and give pedestrians the right of way. Electric bikes and scooters are still banned from San Diego State’s residence halls.