Bundled-up do-gooders fanned out across the beach, while scuba gear-clad divers readied for their shallow, coastline descent into the frigid waters of Commencement Bay.
Dark skies, low temperatures and a biting wind couldn’t deter the local chapter of the national Surfrider nonprofit organization from holding its regularly scheduled beach cleanup Jan. 11.
This time, the monthly cleanup took volunteers to Old Town Dock in Tacoma, where dozens spent the afternoon removing the typical collection of senseless waste — from bottles and cans to the disintegrating chunks of Styrofoam that chip off old docks in rough weather.
Last year alone, as a result of 10 such cleanups, South Sound Surfrider collected more than 5,000 pounds of garbage from area beaches and waterways.
For the first cleanup of the new year, they were expecting more of the same.
They got it, and then some.
The surprise came when divers began pulling up what quickly turned into a sizable collection of two-wheeled electric Lime scooters, one by one.
“We hadn’t encountered that before,” said Ranell Nystrom, a spokesperson and volunteer member of South Sound Surfrider’s executive committee.
In total, by the time the two-hour cleanup concluded, nine corroded and crustacean-covered Lime scooters had been brought to the surface, Nystrom said.
“There are more down there that were visible,” Nystrom told The News Tribune a few days later. “We just ran out of time.”
Surprised by the find — and also perturbed — volunteers lined the scooters up along the pier for everyone to see. Many took pictures and began sharing the images online.
From there, the reaction was swift, which should come as no surprise given the potent mixture of triggers involved.
Environmentalists were predictably and rightfully riled by the human stupidity on display, while some with a negative view of electronic scooters also took the chance to sound off.
All told, hundreds of comments poured in.
Many wondered why on earth a person would needlessly throw a scooter into the water (the obvious question).
A few also directed their ire at Lime, the company responsible for bringing the scooters to Tacoma in the first place.
“We saw this a lot in October. Both NYC and DC. (Electric scooters seem) to be a great concept with a lousy outcome,” offered just one of the 400 commenters on Grit City Magazine’s post.
“I predicted this result way back before these green nuisances were unleashed on our sidewalks,” wrote another.
HOW MANY SCOOTERS ARE MISSING?
Nystrom has volunteered with Surfrider’s local chapter for the last five years and lived in Tacoma for the last 19. She signed up because of her “love of the ocean” and desire to protect it, she said.
Like many fellow Surfrider volunteers, the unplanned scooter recovery effort left her with plenty of significant questions about how it happened and where we go from here.
Specifically, Nystrom wants to know why Lime hasn’t done a better job retrieving scooters thrown seaward, and what the company is doing to prevent it.
She also wants to know what steps the city is taking — or might take in the future — to prevent the problem.
Most of all, how many scooters have gone missing in Tacoma, including the untold number she believes currently rest below the water’s surface?
All seem fair question, especially with Tacoma seemingly poised to move forward with its effort to support and foster electronic scooters and e-bikes.
“They are plaguing our waterways, and we really had no idea until the other day that that was the case,” Nystrom said. “It’s a real concern.”
LIME SAYS VANDALISM IS RARE
Opinions of the problem, and its significance, rest in the eye of the beholder.
Reached for comment, a spokesperson for Lime emailed a statement to The News Tribune, saying in part the company “takes vandalism seriously and will pursue appropriate legal action against those that damage or vandalize our property.”
“Vandalizing property is a crime and only harms those who rely on these vehicles everyday as an affordable, convenient way to get around,” the statement added.
Lime, which has had as many as 500 scooters on the street in Tacoma at one time, was unable to say how many scooters have gone missing here since operations were launched.
The company can track lost scooters using GPS technology and regular servicing, though it’s imperfect, the spokesperson said, and when the battery dies it loses that ability. It’s unclear what impact being submerged in water has.
In the same email, the Lime representative largely sought to put the problem in what the company clearly feels is the proper context, stressing that less than 1 percent of Lime’s worldwide fleet of scooters has been vandalized.
It’s an infrequent problem, and the company does everything it can to prevent vandalism and recover lost scooters, the spokesperson added.
Lime wants to be successful and forge successful relationships with cities like Tacoma, the company says, and it’s always working to improve.
Overall, given the potential for electric scooters to cut down on car trips and the use of fossil fuels, Lime firmly believes it provides a positive impact for the environment.
Since launching in Tacoma in 2018, Lime has recorded 340,000 trips, the company said.
SCOOTERS ‘NOT A PASSING FAD’
That’s not to say the phenomenon of scooters in the water (cue the Deep Purple riff) is limited to Tacoma.
Last year in Portland, divers recovered more than 50 electric scooters from the Willamette River, according to the Oregonian.
In one month in 2018, as Slate reported, more than 60 Bird scooters were pulled from a lake in Oakland, California.
Despite the challenges, Liz Kaster, the city’s new active transportation manager, remains enthused about the potential for e-scooters in Tacoma.
Kaster told The News Tribune this week that the city’s “micro-mobility pilot program,” which began in September 2018, is in its final stages and being evaluated.
Moving forward, Kaster said, the plan is to formalize and issue a request for proposals, in hopes of soon coming to an agreement with a company willing to provide transportation options like electronic bikes and e-scooters on an “ongoing” basis.
Despite some hiccups and awkward lessons, Kaster believes the experiment has been a success so far.
Since the pilot program launched, she says, there have been more than 86,000 unique riders, logging more than 430,000 miles.
According to a city analysis, Kaster said, one in three trips on a Lime scooter or e-bike has replaced a trip that would have otherwise been taken by car.
Kaster, who has been on the job since the end of September, admitted that it was “really surprising” to her to see “just how much these are being used throughout the city.”
“This isn’t just a toy or a passing fad. This is a mode people are using for transposition,” Kaster said. “Obviously, there are challenges associated with this, and there are definitely growing pains as we figure out how to make this mode work, especially within a given transportation system and infrastructure that maybe didn’t predict that (scooters) are coming.”
While Kaster clearly sees the promise e-scooters carry, she’s not immediately dismissive of complaints — including those now being raised by Surfrider and others concerned by the prospect of scooters littering the bay floor.
She says it’s one of many things the city will consider as it crafts its RFP, which could include clearer language and requirements surrounding lost scooter recovery.
Right now, Kaster says, Lime’s permit requirements “don’t appear to specifically address scooters thrown in the water,” though the broader topic of scooter recovery is covered. She wasn’t immediately certain how those rules might apply.
“I think we’ll definitely ask about their approach to the removal of things that go into the water and prevention of this happening in the first place,” Kaster said.
“It’s absolutely disappointing,” she added “It’s not what we want to see.”
That feels like it should go without saying.
To Nystrom and others, the real question is simple:
How much responsibility do companies like Lime hold when scooters get chucked in Puget Sound and what more can be done to prevent it?
“In this day and age, with the pollution problem that we have in our waters, corporate responsibility is really important,” Nystrom said.
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