A scooter is parked in the middle of the sidewalk across the street from a Spin docking station at Schenley Plaza. Disability advocates say the vehicles take up valuable sidewalk space. Photo by Ann Belser.

On Sunday, Feb. 19, Lawrence Chertik, a territory sales manager for NuCO2, went to Southern Tier Brewery on the North Shore where he had two beers. It was about 9 p.m. when he hopped on a Spin scooter to travel less than a mile to his apartment at Allegheny Center.

On the way home Chertik, 35, hit a pothole.

His sister, Kate Chertik, said the police pieced together what happened next. 

They told her Lawrence Chertik flipped forward, his head hit the pavement, and his body hit the handlebars. He sat on the curb for about 10 minutes getting his bearings, then walked the rest of the way home before collapsing in the lobby of his apartment building where he was found. 

There he suffered his first of four cardiac arrests. Medics took him to Allegheny General Hospital where he underwent emergency surgery.

The impact on the scooter’s handlebar ruptured his spleen and caused internal bleeding. His parents and sister rushed to be by his side for the final hours of his life. Lawrence Chertik died at 4:30 a.m. on Monday, Feb. 20.

The coroner’s report, in its austere style, stated: “Lawrence John Chertik, a 35-year-old white male, died as a result of splenic rupture following a fall from a motorized scooter.”

Kate Chertik said when the police found him, the Spin app was still open on his phone. As his family was settling his accounts, they found that Spin had charged him $40 for that final ride.

“He loved the scooters,” Kate Chertik said, later adding: “I hate to say it’s a stupid way to die, but this was a stupid way to die.”

Nearly two months later Kim Lucas, the director of Pittsburgh’s Department of Mobility and Infrastructure, known by the acronym DOMI, reported to City Council that out of the 1 million rides taken on Spin scooters, the city had had “37 total reports of injury through the designated reporting systems. And zero fatalities.”

The problem is that the reporting system relies on users who have a problem, such as an accident that causes injury, tapping a button (an exclamation point in the corner of the screen) on the app. There they can report a problem.

In Lawrence Chertik’s case, he died before reporting his injury or even reporting on the app that his ride had ended. That’s why his family found that Spin charged him $40.

Lawrence Chertik. Photo courtesy of the Chertik family.

Pilot program nears an end

Spin, which was chosen by DOMI for a two-year pilot program for rental scooters in the city in 2021, was the subject of the April 12 Pittsburgh City Council meeting with representatives of the company, DOMI and the mayor’s office. The council meeting was immediately followed by a public hearing. 

While it is still illegal to ride a motorized scooter on a roadway in Pennsylvania, Spin scooters were granted an exception for the two-year pilot program within Pittsburgh city limits by an act of the  Pennsylvania General Assembly. 

The pilot is due to end when the state legislation authorizing the program expires on June 30.

Now, a bill that would allow electric scooters to be treated the same as bicycles statewide has cleared the state’s Senate Transportation Committee and will come before the state Senate for a vote before going to the House for approval.

Lucas told City Council that the city issued a request for proposals that allows a single scooter company to operate, which essentially kept Pittsburgh from being inundated with scooters from a bunch of different companies as other cities have been.

Lucas said the permit set policies by which the company has to abide. Spin must be responsive to complaints about scooters blocking roadways, riders have to be 18 years or older, and riders are encouraged, but not required, to wear helmets.

When the pilot program started, the company was allowed to deploy just 1,000 scooters, but Lucas said that has increased to 1,500.

She also said the company had provided nearly 1 million rides since the program started in July 2021 and has 200,000 unique users on the app.

Spin criticism

Critics question what the goal of the program is.

Lucas said one-third of users reported that they had used a scooter instead of taking a car trip, thereby reducing emissions.

But Laura Chu Wiens, executive director of Pittsburghers for Public Transit, noted that Spin’s survey of its users had a series of dropdown menus and a user could check all that applied. So a user may have said they used a scooter instead of a car — but that may have been just one of many trips. On other trips, the scooter may have replaced walking.

In fact, Wiens noted, 67% of respondents said the scooter had replaced walking, biking or public transit trips, all of which have a lower carbon footprint than the scooters, which, in addition to having to be charged, are also repositioned around the city by workers in vans.

During the public hearing with City Council on April 12 about the scooters, some users praised them.

In a written statement, Kasia Thomas said she uses scooters to travel between her home and the Murray Avenue business district. And, since she works near the Hot Metal Bridge in South Oakland, she is able to use a scooter to get across the bridge quickly for lunch. “A walk from my building to East Carson takes about 20-25 minutes. The scooter ride takes about 10 minutes,” Thomas wrote.

Other supporters of the program similarly praised the convenience of scooters for making short trips quickly.

But the majority of people responding to City Council spoke about problems caused by scooters, including the inability of people with disabilities to use them.

Dr. Bonnie Fan, a former data scientist for the Chicago Transit Authority, told City Council that there is already a lack of space on sidewalks because of cars parked on sidewalks and construction signs. 

“What’s more, scooters are inaccessible to those with mobility impairments. According to the latest Census, about 44,000 Pittsburghers have a disability, about 15% of the city. This so-called ‘last-mile transportation solution’ excluded those who needed mobility access while simultaneously increasing inaccessibility on our already limited sidewalks for those same people.”

A scooter illegally parked in front of a fire hydrant on Linden Avenue. Photo by Ann Belser.

Missing data on accidents

While Lucas reported there had been just 37 injuries and no fatalities, her numbers were flawed in part because those are just the injuries that scooter users reported using the Spin app.

When users rent a scooter, they agree to report injuries and file a police report if they are injured. They also agree not to ride on sidewalks, and to park properly when finished with their trips. But riding on sidewalks and leaving scooters so that they block sidewalks were both mentioned as ongoing problems during the public hearing.

Though the Pittsburgh Police department files reports on accidents, they are not forwarded to DOMI, which instead chooses to rely on 2-year-old crash data from the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT) to determine problem spots in the city.

In response to an email request and a follow-up Right-to-Know request for the reports that Spin was required to file monthly and quarterly about trip data and injuries, DOMI provided just trip data, saying that Spin reported injuries on a “dashboard” and that was not available. DOMI also did not respond to follow-up questions about how it independently verifies the company’s reporting.

No one compiles official records of injuries from scooter accidents. Allegheny Health Network said its hospitals have treated 12 injuries from scooters; UPMC does not keep statistics on scooter accidents.

It’s not just Pittsburgh that is having trouble identifying injuries from scooters. In November 2022 the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) issued the report, Micromobility: Data challenges associated with assessing the prevalence and risk of electric scooters and electric bicycle fatalities and injuries.

The NTSB found that there were at least 119 deaths between 2017 and 2021, but also said there is “a lack of complete, consistent and reliable data” which “makes assessing risk nearly impossible.”

The board recommended creating a code for e-scooters and e-bikes to add to police crash data and emergency room admission data so the crashes can be tracked and the risks of injuries and fatalities assessed.

An abandoned Spin scooter in the Strip District. Photo by Brian Hyslop.

Blocking access

Andrew Tennenbaum didn’t report his scooter injury to the company because he wasn’t on a scooter when he suffered a serious injury in a scooter collision. Tennenbaum was riding an ebike on Dec. 17, 2021. He was heading north on Federal Street at 10 p.m. to get some groceries at Adan Market when his bicycle struck a scooter that was lying across the bike lane. He was thrown from his bike, nearly into the path of a bus.

“If the angle had been a little bit different I would have been dead. There is a thud and then a burst of pain and you aren’t really sure how bad it is. A good samaritan stopped to help,” he said.

The man who stopped called an ambulance and Tennenbaum was taken to the hospital to undergo surgery to repair a badly broken collarbone. He still has screws and a plate on the bone from the injury.

Other residents agreed that scooters are littered around the city, although Lucas praised Spin for having a swift response time, often within an hour, to complaints of scooters that were blocking access.

Blocked sidewalks, bike lanes and parking spaces were a main bone of contention for residents who spoke during the public hearing.

“Spin scooters have been nothing but a nuisance in our community,” Colleen Shuda, the Polish Hill Civic Association board president, wrote to City Council. “They are littered in the street, parking in the middle of sidewalks or left to take up street parking that is often so hard to come by and very valuable to residents.”

Paul O’Hanlon of Regent Square, who uses a motorized wheelchair for mobility, asked what the attendees of the public hearing would think if he blocked the door to City Council Chambers so they could not leave for an hour after the hearing.

So who is riding?

The scooters, which were introduced in July 2021, had their highest popularity, in terms of rides, in September and October of that year, when college students returned.

Between July 1, 2021, and Feb. 28, 2023, Spin reported there were 903,174 rides taken on its scooters. The average trip length is just over a mile and a quarter, which depending on traffic and traffic signals, costs about $5 per ride.

A look at the day-by-day numbers reported shows the scooters averaged 1,488 trips a day during the course of the pilot, with the highest ridership on September 18, 2021, when 5,898 trips were taken. The lowest ridership on any given day was zero rides, such as on Jan. 17 and 18, 2022, when the temperature was in the 20s and there were eight inches of snow on the ground.

Ridership fell off once the novelty wore off, but there are definite spikes in use when the colleges are in session and dips on school vacations.

Lawrence Chertik celebrated the holiday season with his 9-year-old niece Amelia Mackowick at the UPMC Rink at PPG Place in 2022. Two months later, Chertik was killed when the Spin scooter he rented hit a pothole. Photo courtesy of the Chertik family.

City Council reaction

Members of City Council had a mix of praise and criticism for the program.

Councilmember Barb Warwick of Greenfield, who called for the meeting on the pilot program, pointed out that the cost of a private scooter is $500, or about the cost of 100 Spin trips. She said if private scooters were permitted, “You’re not going to leave your own scooter on the sidewalk, that kind of gets rid of all of our issues.” 

Warwick also noted that there was a referendum in Paris on April 3 regarding e-scooters and that “89% of voters decided to get rid of them” because of the same issues Pittsburgh is facing.

Councilmember Bruce Kraus of the South Side said that while there had been some “growing pains,” now “I’m actually kind of pleasantly surprised that it has turned out the way that it has.”

Kraus said parking is tight in his neighborhood and scooters may be part of the solution for urban vehicle congestion.

“The answer to parking is not building more parking, it’s reducing vehicles,” Kraus said.

Councilmember Erika Strassburger had mixed reactions to the scooters.

“I never want to limit the types of transit options we have,” she said, but “what I don’t love to see is they present tremendous challenges for certain populations.”

Scooters left around sidewalks block access to people using wheelchairs and present tripping hazards to people with visual impairments.

“That’s really impacting someone’s life,” Strassburger said.

Kate Chertik, who called her brother the human embodiment of a Steelers bar with friends all over the world, wrote a letter to the council asking who she could talk to in order to convince them to end the scooter program.

She said her brother would call her a “buzzkill” for speaking out against the scooters that he loved so much, but she has her own reason for wanting to end the program.

“I don’t want another family to go through what we went through.”

Ann Belser

Ann Belser is the owner of Print, a newspaper covering Pittsburgh's East End communities. After receiving a master’s degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, she moved to Squirrel Hill and was a staff writer for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette for 20 years where she covered local communities, county government, courts and business.