Streets for People / One Year In Lama E-Scooters Are Proving to Be a Success. We Need to Make It Easier for Them to Expand
By Chris Hamilton. This story is cross posted in KONK Life newspaper on March 1 2023. Follow us at Friends of Car-Free Key West & Duval Street/Historic Downtown on Facebook, Twitter and check out all our Streets for People stories here.
Last March we brought news of a gleaming new e-scooter (the stand-up kind) share service, starting in downtown Key West that whisks visitors around town in an eco-friendly way to shop, dine and visit attractions without need of a personal car, Uber, golf cart or loud, smoke spewing, gas-powered moped. The system, with the friendly name Lama, is the brainchild of local entrepreneur Marc Meisel, who has four stations with 48 scooters at his H2O Suites, Santa Maria Suites and Southwinds Motel properties. We test drove a scooter for a morning and loved it. One year later we’re happy to report that Lama has been a huge success.
According to Lama officials over 4,400 rides have been taken in the first year covering 18,000 miles and reducing about 2,600 vehicle trips on Key West’ streets saving all of us traffic and parking congestion headaches. Riders report going to attractions, beaches, shopping, and restaurants in support of our local economy. Best of all there have been zero accidents or injuries in a testament to the system’s deployment of numerous safety features.
Mr. Meisel says he’s enthusiastic about expanding the program to additional, mostly other hotel locations, throughout the City. And given their popularity he’d like to introduce e-bikes – they can fit into the same docks as the e-scooters – to further decrease the number of vehicles on our streets. But Mr. Meisel says they are facing challenges in expanding the program due to the strict regulations enforced by the City. We’d like to see City officials streamline the process for alternative modes and make it easier to get more people on bikes and scooters instead of defaulting to cars. Think about this. 28 percent of car trips are 1 mile are less. 40 percent are less than 2 miles and 50 percent of car trips are 3 miles are less. Getting more people to use alternatives to cars, especially for these short trips, will make our little island less congested, cleaner, greener, healthier, and more prosperous. Let’s dive into some of the details.
Simple, Elegant, Easy to Use
Here’s my notes on how the Lama system works from when I took my test ride:
- Scooters are parked and charged at Lama charging racks located at Santa Maria Suites, Southwinds Motel and H2O Suites.
- Anyone, not just hotel guests, may use the system – as long as you’re 18 years of age and have a valid form of government identification and credit card.
- Riders utilize the Lama app to rent the scooters and are charged $9 hour or $36 max per day.
- You open your app, press “Scan & unlock”, and a camera opens up for you to scan the bar code on an individual scooter. Once verified, the scooter will unlock. You unplug the charger and away you go. It’s that easy.
- The system enables the rider to “pause the ride,” as many times as they like, to shop, dine and visit attractions and lock the scooter to a bike rack. This “pause” prevents someone else from unlocking and thus using the scooter and is why it is considered a round trip instead of point-to-point rental.
- At the end of the ride, you simply “Scan & lock” the bike the same way you unlocked it. And remember to plug in the charging cable. Easy breezy.
- Helmets are available at the front desks. Note – I didn’t feel it necessary to wear one while riding the scooter, just as I don’t in riding my one speed bike around town. If you are going slow enough it just isn’t needed.
Watch this video to see how the company explains the customer experience.
With the weight of the scooter in the battery at the bottom, the scooter feels grounded and sturdy. The footboard is wider than most scooters too – which makes it easy to get steady footing. You must push the scooter a bit before the throttle will engage, preventing it from jumping away from you. Using the throttle and hand brake are very intuitive. Within minutes I felt comfortable keeping up with traffic, weaving around potholes and stopping and starting.
Innovative Roundtrip Rental Solves Right-of-Way, Charging and “Abandoned Scooter Problems
Mr. Meisel saw a need to provide his guests with another alternative to get around in addition to the bikes they rent. But he realized that dockless scooters, which traditionally operate with the pickup and drop off transaction conducted on the street via an app, has been problematic in other cities. In fact, Key West doesn’t allow these kinds of operations in the City right-of-way, which has been the Achilles heel of several other failed attempts at Key West based private bikeshare, public bikeshare and Zipcar carshare.
In other cities across the country, traditional dockless rideshare e-scooter programs like Lime, Spin, Bird and Lyft, operate when a customer sees an e-scooter on the street and then uses an app to unlock it and go. Lama Mobility was designed to operate as a round trip rental, like the way bicycles are rented traditionally from a storefront or as we often see here in Key West, at a hotel.
Mr. Meisel said their system was designed this way because one of the biggest complaints of electric scooters in other cities is the problem of abandoned scooters’ littering sidewalks, parks, and other public spaces. The other problem is keeping those scooters charged.
By creating docking stations where the scooter is charged while it’s parked, it solves the charging problem. Putting the docking station on a hotel property where the user picks up AND returns the scooter to the station means they won’t be left somewhere else. That takes care of the problem of “abandoned” scooters littering sidewalks and it solves the Key West specific problem of moving the transaction off the City’s right-of-way too.
Here’s how Marc Meisel explains how this has worked with the hotels:
“By hotels offering Lama e-scooters and having them conveniently located at a charging rack in their parking lot, guests of that hotel, if they drove or rented a car, do not need to use their cars, and can opt to use a Lama e-scooter while their vehicle is parked in the hotel parking lot during their stay. The other benefit of locating Lama e-scooters at hotels is that guests who rent the Lama’s will eventually return to the hotel. Therefore, the Lama’s are not littering public spaces throughout h city but instead being taken back to the hotels and put into their docking station to charge for the next customer. To date, with over 4,000 rides logged only 3 scooters were not returned to their Lama’s docking stations.”
Safety Education and Features Are Built Into the System
When I took my test ride a mom and two teenage kids asked where they could get these. It was pointed out that one must be 18 years old to use the system. When you download the app, the next step is to take a front and back picture of your driver’s license and then a selfie. Within a few seconds, the system verifies you have a valid permit and verifies you are the person with that license. This prevents fraud and is a good safety feature.
Safety education is built into the system so that riders are readily aware of how to operate the scooters and of the rules of the road. The app walks users through instructional/safety information and videos. That same information is then displayed on the charging rack monitors. There are bright front and back lights on the scooters, a loud bell and the device can’t go more than 15 mph. Let’s say that again because it is such an important point. The e-scooters can’t go more than 15 mph! All users must be 18 years of age.
As most of us are now aware, Key West prohibits e-bicycles and e-scooters on sidewalks except on the Multi-use paths or promenades on North and South Roosevelt, Bertha, and Atlantic. As part of the safety education and rules of the road on the app and at the station, Lama stresses to customers that you aren’t allowed to ride on the sidewalk. One gets the message loud and clear.
Additional Safety Features Can Be Added to the System
These cool scooters have a feature that allows the company to put a virtual fence around an area where the Lama scooter won’t be able to operate. For example, there’s a block of residential homes behind one of the hotels that asked for this. In theory it would allow the City to ask Lama to say, restrict the maximum 15 mph speed of the vehicles in certain zones to something less. For example, if wanted, you could set the maximum speed at 10 mph for heavily used areas like Duval Street. Or you could even have the scooter not be able to operate when it hit a certain zone like Mallory Square where you don’t want them mixing with pedestrians.
Survey Says Scooters Reduce Car Traffic
Lama emailed customers who used the system between March 4 and May 31 a 3-question survey. Here’s what they found out:
- 70 percent of the riders are hotel guests of the 3 properties.
- Over 60 percent of riders traveled to restaurants and bars and over 50 percent went shopping. Attractions and beaches were popular destinations too.
- 68 percent of riders would have used a personal vehicle, taxi or rideshare service if they didn’t have the Lama e-scooter to get around. 23 percent would have walked, and 4 percent would have biked.
Here’s an important point. While a little more than a quarter of users would have simply walked or rode a regular bicycle, 72 percent would have used their personal or rental vehicle, a taxi or rideshare company like Uber or rented a gas-powered scooter. THAT’S a lot of car trips taken off our congested little downtown streets.
Said Mr. Meisel of the results:
“Lama Mobility has proven to be a safe method of transportation that tourists have welcomed as an alternative method to using an Uber or their vehicle to explore Key West. As seen on the attached heat map, people have been using Lama e-scooters to visit attractions, explore, shop, and dine all over Key West (Old Town, New Town, and some locations in Stock Island). They have been exploring and shopping in an environmentally friendly way that has not been adding to the traffic, parking, or noise pollution problems we currently have with cars and gas-powered mopeds. Meanwhile, the hotels we serve have been applauded by their guests for providing a fun, eco-friendly way to get around. Many guests have commented that they would only have seen or done so much of the island with the scooters.”
Lama Is Part of the Solution So Let’s Get the Regulations Off Their Back and Let Them, And Others, Innovate to Make Our Island Better
It is no secret that we’re enthusiastic proponents of getting around by bike, walk and transit as a means of helping our island and especially our congested downtown prosper and be more people friendly. So, expanding Lama, especially since the City doesn’t have to pay a dime for any of it, seems like a no-brainer net public good. So why isn’t Mr. Meisel more quickly following up on year one success with expansion? Here’s how he explains it:
“I am enthusiastic about expanding the program and introducing Lama e-bikes to assist in helping reduce the issues in Key West revolving around automobiles, including traffic, parking, and noise pollution, to name a few. The City of Key West regulates what they call Recreation Rental Vehicles, which is what the Lama e-scooters fall under. It took over 9 months to go through the City of Key West’s approval process for the 48 Lama Mobility electric scooters. A lot of money is spent on legal fees, application fees, traffic studies and more. Each location requires a separate application, traffic study and more. You can’t walk in with an application, fulfilling all the requirements, and obtain a license like in many other jurisdictions. There is no guarantee that the City will allow any more as it was difficult to get these in place.”
He’s also leaving out the part that once he has his application, study and fees for each individual location initially approved by staff, they then have to be routed through a bunch of different departments for sign off and then the company has to walk these applications through Planning Board, perhaps HARC and then the City Commission. It’s not like the Lama Mobility Company wants to dispose of nuclear waste. They simply want to add more stations – on private property – and more bikes and scooters. A GOOD THING. That and their initial stations and scooters were approved once already. And this report looks like it would meet the requirements of a parking study that says they don’t contribute to more traffic, rather they reduce traffic.
Recent research from Carnegie Mellon University, among other sources, shows how replacing short car trips with bike and scooter trips can lead to less congestion. Remember those short trip stats we gave you above where half of all car trips are 3 miles or less? So getting people out of cars and into quiet, eco-friendly alternatives like the Lama e-scooters for these trips is a good thing. It nicely compliments efforts like the Duval Loop. It makes our downtown a more friendly, green, and prosperous place.
Our question is WHY isn’t City Hall expediting these kinds of programs instead of overregulating them? Why aren’t we putting in more bike racks and bike lanes? Why aren’t we pedestrianizing more downtown streets? Why isn’t there more frequent service on our Duval Loop? Why aren’t we spending marketing money to educate visitors that they don’t need a car to get around? And why aren’t we properly managing our parking so that we direct short-term parkers to meters and longer-term visitors and workers to long-term lots and garages instead of letting them park for free in our neighborhoods? All these things, including e-scooter and e-bike share, would make our historic downtown and whole island healthy, green, sustainable, equitable, prosperous, affordable, and happier too. Thanks to smart people at Lama Mobility like Marc Meisel we have a path to progress.
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