Feature: E-scooters enter into Italian city streets amid pandemic, fail to please all

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ROME, June 23 (Xinhua) -- As Italy continues to ease coronavirus lockdown rules, pedestrians returning to the streets are finding themselves competing for space with a kind of vehicle that hardly existed in the country before the lockdown -- electric scooters.

With many offices and shops closed and without much tourism or major events like concerts and sporting events, the streets of major Italian cities are seeing noticeably less foot traffic than they did before the arrival of the coronavirus earlier this year. But in many areas, electric scooters are filling that void, silently zipping between pedestrians on sidewalks and competing with automobiles on narrow streets and alleyways.

Italian cities already had a few kinds of shared mobility available before the national lockdown entered into force in March, mostly electric mopeds, bicycles, and a few types of e-bikes. But because of their small size and ease of use, none of them had the kind of impact electric scooters are having.

Though there have been few reports of serious accidents, the Italian media has reported many dozens of cases of minor accidents between pedestrians, children, and even pets and people driving electric scooters. Last week, the country saw its first death when a 60-year-old man on an electric scooter collided with a car near Bologna.

Earlier this month, police in the northern region of Veneto issued what is believed to be the country's first fine to someone found to be driving an electric scooter while intoxicated. In the southern city of Bari, at least 25 people have been fined for breaking traffic laws while on electric scooters, and police have announced special initiatives aimed at enforcing rules for the use of the scooters in at least a dozen Italian cities including Rome and Milan.

"There are around 50,000 electric scooters in Italy right now and we are already seeing all these problems," Giordano Biserni, president of the Association of Supporters of Traffic Police, or ASAPS, an advocacy group, told Xinhua. "What's going to happen when there are 500,000?"

With the support of environmental and health groups and many municipal governments, that benchmark will be reached sooner rather than later.

Environmentalists say that those using an electric scooter often use it in place of a car, producing less pollution and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Health groups see them as a way to keep people off public transportation, where the coronavirus and other illnesses can be easily transmitted. City leaders, meanwhile, see the use of the scooters as a way to reduce traffic congestion and parking issues while putting less strain on infrastructure.

The national government is even working on incentives to underwrite much of the costs for buying such scooters, up to 500 euros (560 U.S. dollars), which are now mostly provided by ride-sharing services.

"There are many benefits to the use of electric scooters," Edoardo Zanchini, vice-president of the environmental lobby group Legambiente, said in an interview. "But we probably need more emphasis on education, on how to use them safely so we don't create new problems while addressing old ones."

Zanchini said that even under current circumstances the risks associated with electric scooters may be overblown.

"In Italy, 3,000 people a year die during tens of thousands of traffic accidents," he said. "Not to underplay the issues they raise, but these scooters are new and so every incident seems to make the news."

Biserni agreed that electric scooters can represent an important tool in Italy's fight against pollution, congestion, and other problems. But he said the country should take immediate action to force best practices before the bad habits of usage become ingrained.

"These scooters should not be used on sidewalks. They have to be limited to the streets and bike lanes," he said. "The government incentives need to include education about how they are used correctly. We need to think about helmets and insurance. We can't just allow thousands of electric scooters onto the streets without making any changes and assume it'll be OK." Enditem

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