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Disability Lawsuit Targets San Diego Over Dockless Scooters

Alex Montoya, who was born missing his right leg and both arms, stands next t...

Photo by Andrew Bowen

Above: Alex Montoya, who was born missing his right leg and both arms, stands next to a cluster of scooters on an East Village sidewalk, Feb. 7, 2019.

GUEST: Andrew Bowen, metro reporter, KPBS News

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As the San Diego City Council begins debating regulations for motorized scooters this week, the city is also preparing to respond to a lawsuit claiming the new devices have caused discrimination against people with disabilities.

The lawsuit, which was filed in a federal district court last month and seeks to be a class action, claims both the city and scooter rental companies Lime, Bird and Razor have failed to prevent people from riding or parking scooters on sidewalks. Scooters have blocked people with disabilities from accessing the public right-of-way, the plaintiffs claim, and have turned sidewalks into a "vehicle highway" where pedestrians are at risk of injury.

"People with disabilities who wish to travel in the City using the City's walkways are being forced to either put their physical safety at risk or just stay home," the complaint reads. "This is not a choice that they should have to make."

The lawsuit seeks a court order prohibiting scooters from being parked or operated on sidewalks, crosswalks, curb ramps and other walkways.

Scooters started showing up in San Diego and cities across the country roughly a year ago. Complaints about the devices came just as swiftly, and some cities have banned private rental companies from placing scooters on their streets and sidewalks.

San Diego has taken a far more cautious approach to scooter regulations, with some city leaders warning that reacting too hastily could cause the city to miss out on their potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, most of which come from cars and trucks. Mayor Kevin Faulconer's proposed regulations would, among other things, require scooter rental companies to automatically reduce speeds in certain high-pedestrian areas.

RELATED: Company Goes After Dockless Scooters Parked On Private Property

Alex Montoya, one of the named plaintiffs in the lawsuit, was born missing his right leg and both his arms. He uses prosthetic limbs and said he chose to live in the East Village because it was easier for him to get around without a car.

Montoya said since the arrival of scooters downtown, he has had to remain hypervigilant to avoid getting knocked down by scooter riders, most of whom he observes riding on the sidewalk.

"It's really such a scary endeavor," he said. "Because of my prosthetic leg, I can't get out of the way as quickly."

Riding motorized scooters on sidewalks is illegal under California law, as is parking them — or any other object — in such a way that blocks pedestrian or disabled access to public walkways. Montoya said he has not seen those laws well enforced downtown.

San Diego Police Department data show there were 551 citations issued to people for riding a scooter on the sidewalk in 2018. Police issued more than four times as many citations to people riding without a helmet — something that is no longer illegal for people 18 and older.

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Sophie Wolfram, director of programs at the nonprofit Climate Action Campaign, said it is unacceptable that people with disabilities fear for their safety because of scooters. She said people's tendency to ride on sidewalks shows how unsafe they feel sharing a lane with cars. Plans for protected bike lanes downtown and throughout the region have faced numerous delays.

"It's not fair to ask people to risk their necks every time they want to make a trip on a scooter by riding in traffic," Wolfram said. "So there's a lot that the city can do and needs to do to build protected space that makes it safe for scooters. And when the city does that ... it also makes it safer for pedestrians to reclaim the sidewalk for slower uses."

Wolfram added that much of the criticism of scooters — that they are nuisances, eyesores or safety hazards — can easily be applied to cars, as well.

"I think one way that the disruption scooters have brought has been useful is that they have exposed some biases we have about how we should move around our city, and what kinds of mobility devices we accept having strewn about our city," she said.

The San Diego City Attorney's Office said it would respond to the complaint through the courts. Bird and Razor could not be reached for comment. A spokeswoman for Lime said the company has invested $3 million in a safety education campaign, frequently gives away free helmets and employs a team of on-the-ground responders to move illegally parked scooters.

Montoya said he was encouraged by the mayor's willingness to regulated scooters, and that he understands their appeal as an alternative to cars.

"I think the scooters are a great invention," Montoya said. "But I think if they are here to stay, they need to be really regulate in a way that's safe for everyone."

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