A month after Virginia Tech’s freshman orientation in the fall of 2019, Livingstone Bond found a Spin scooter outside a freshman dorm still running on another person’s account. For the next couple hours, he practiced all kinds of daring tricks — multiple people on board, riding with no hands, and seated on the moving scooter’s deck like a motorcycle.
Then he found an empty ramp outside a dining hall and had an idea.
If he and a friend started from opposite ends of the ramp and raced at each other — Bond from the bottom on the scooter and his friend from the top on foot — they should have enough momentum that his friend could jump over him and the 40-inch tall scooter.
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Then he found an empty ramp outside a dining hall and had an idea.
If he and a friend started from opposite ends of the ramp and raced at each other — Bond from the bottom on the scooter and his friend from the top on foot — they should have enough momentum that his friend could jump over him and the 40-inch-tall scooter.
Bond sat upright with his knees to his chest on the tangerine-colored electric scooter, twisted the throttle of the 31-pound vehicle to its maximum speed of 12 miles per hour, and climbed the ramp. But when his friend jumped, he slammed into the handlebars, which whipped into Bond’s upper lip. Bond tasted blood.
“I licked my lip and then realized that there was a section just missing. It was just through the lip to the teeth,” Bond said. “I definitely needed stitches.”
Stories like Bond’s have made e-scooters a major concern on college campuses since they were first introduced five years ago. To micromobility companies like Lime and Spin, colleges were the perfect place for scooters to flourish: thousands of tech-savvy young people on campuses with limited car use, forced to walk just far enough to break a sweat.
Scooter companies approached colleges the same way they did cities — ask for forgiveness, not permission. Staging “pop-up” tours at campuses across the country, Bird, a major micromobility company, deposited hundreds of scooters on campuses, encouraging students to try them out. Many of the colleges didn’t know they were part of the tour until the vehicles appeared.
As companies clogged campuses with hundreds of scooters, they caused more and more problems. Unused scooters turned into litter, left tilted across the sidewalk or dumped in rivers. Some of them spontaneously caught fire. Riders, often inexperienced and occasionally drunk, weaved through busy sidewalks and bike lanes, tripped over potholes, crashed into unsuspecting pedestrians, and collided with cars, sometimes with deadly consequences.
Last year an Indiana University student was, according to an incident report, driving an e-scooter after consuming alcohol when he hit a bump in the road and lost control, later dying of his injuries. Another IU student was killed a month later after being hit by a drunk driver. Later the same year, a San Jose State University football player on a scooter died after being struck by a school bus. And this past summer, a University of Michigan student was riding a scooter near midnight when he collided with an oncoming car and died.
Between accidents and complaints, Spin and other scooter companies faced a growing lack of trust and several “uphill battles” during their first few years of operation, said John Lankford, senior director of partnerships, policy, and communications at Spin. Several campuses, including Columbia, Fordham, Marquette, Pace, and San Diego State Universities, banned the vehicles because of near crashes and fire hazards.
“As we started to build our program, we were essentially working against that public perception and having a lot of those conversations about how to do this safely, what are the right frameworks so that we can take advantage of the benefits and avoid the downsides,” Lankford said.
With the scooter client base beginning to crumble, Spin, a major player in the college market, turned to Virginia Tech in an attempt to clear its name.
The company paid the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute $460,000 to study the risks of deploying scooters at colleges and whether the benefits outweighed them. It would be the first to evaluate the vehicles on a campus in a “naturalistic environment,” according to the study.
Virginia Tech considers itself a “living laboratory,” said Mike Mollenhauer, the transportation institute’s division director of technology implementation and the principal investigator for the study. The institute has also conducted research on self-driving cars and road-safety technology.
According to a contract between Virginia Tech and Spin, the study sought develop “a replicable and extendable decision-making sandbox to help apply the findings to other potential deployment sites.”
“Through positive public relations,” the document states, “Spin will be able to point to another example of where they’ve worked with a campus and community to deploy safely while minimizing any negative effects of deployment.”
The university planned to introduce about 200 Spin scooters to the campus during the 2019-2020 academic year and use the results of the study to decide whether to keep the devices permanently. (The study paused during the pandemic and resumed in the fall of 2021.)
Unlike many campuses where students can ride through surrounding neighborhoods, the scooters operated only on Virginia Tech’s grounds, allowing researchers to isolate scooter uses and risks on a college campus.
Researchers also attached a specialty device that included a camera, accelerometer, and gyroscope to 52 of the scooters to track their acceleration and location. Through camera footage and data from a local hospital, they identified crashes or near crashes, which the study classified as any time the scooter or rider came in contact with an external object, such as a pedestrian or the ground.
The group also applied several safety measures. Scooters automatically shut down 30 minutes before dusk, usually around 7 or 8 p.m. Riders also couldn’t use them during specific weather conditions, such as heavy rain or snow, and on days with increased pedestrian traffic, like during football games. The scooters could not exceed 12 miles per hour, rather than 15, which is typical of Spin scooters, and were barred from the Drillfield, a particularly crowded area in the heart of campus surrounded by several steep slopes.
After the scooters were dispatched, researchers noticed what Elizabeth White, program and business manager at the institute, saw as a “novelty effect.” Students trying out the scooters for the first time often used them unsafely, White said, and tried to test the devices’ limits. The institute shared meeting minutes with The Chronicle that described a student riding a scooter through a window in an academic building in what White referred to as a “hit and run.” Another student rode one through their dorm hallway, causing $5,000 in damage.
Throughout the study, Spin reported 160,000 total rides across all scooters, but the institute identified only 243 crashes or near crashes on the scooters with cameras attached to them. The campus health center also logged 34 total injuries, including knee scrapes and wrist injuries, attributed to both rental and personally owned scooters. None of the crashes were fatal.
Most colleges don’t impose controls as strict as Virginia Tech’s, such as speed limits, geofenced areas, and time restrictions, which could have affected the study’s findings. On many campuses, scooters can operate in the surrounding cities, where more cars are present, and after dark. White said those factors could contribute to more dangerous riding environments with reduced visibility and high traffic levels.
Researchers found that infrastructure caused 60 percent of crashes or near crashes. Several scooter riders fell after hitting a curb or other object in the road, while others had trouble transitioning between surfaces like gravel to grass. Another 15 percent of crashes occurred because of conflicts with other road users, such as pedestrians, vehicles, bicycles, and other scooter riders.
Rider behavior caused the remainder of incidents. Several videos showed riders exceeding 12 miles per hour on sloped areas of campus, trick riding, such as attempting donuts or wheelies, group riding, and weaving the scooters between people.
After Spin and the transportation institute concluded their research, they presented it to a college working group, which is currently compiling suggestions for policy and infrastructure changes to make Virginia Tech’s campus safer for scooter riders, said Michael Stowe, a university spokesperson, in a statement to The Chronicle. Nearly six months after the study was published, Virginia Tech still has not permitted rental scooters to operate on campus.
Prior to the Virginia Tech study, Spin didn’t have much data to establish whether scooters were safe for college students. It could sometimes take several months to even two years to develop partnerships with colleges, Lankford said.
The company often starts its college deployments with a “conservative” approach, Lankford said. Before releasing the scooters, Spin representatives work with campus officials to determine specific regulations, such as the best places to geofence or limit speeds.
Spin also used what it learned from the Virginia Tech study to create a “campus ambassador” program that colleges can opt into. Through the program, Spin pays students to serve as representatives for the company by helping maintain the scooter fleet and encouraging their peers to ride safely. The company is also developing a new technology for scooters to detect when a rider might be on dangerous terrain, such as gravel or a sidewalk, and direct them to a safer riding location.
Colleges can also offer education programs, such as deployment days, when students can practice using scooters without the risk of vehicles or pedestrians. During the study, Virginia Tech offered free helmets and safety literature for riders to read before they could rent a scooter.
Safety features like those work only if they’re actually used, though, said Ralph Buehler, professor in urban affairs and planning at Virginia Tech and one of the researchers. Only about 1 percent of riders used helmets during the study, and it’s hard to say how many riders actually paid attention to the safety materials, he said.
The safest way to deploy scooters is by updating campus infrastructure, Buehler said. Colleges need to provide safe places for students to ride — like bike lanes — resurface uneven roads, and ensure that riders aren’t at risk for a major vehicle collision. And, in some cases, spending money and resources on major infrastructure changes might not be worth it. Some colleges simply aren’t fit for scooters, he said.
“I don’t think the scooters themselves have been the problem in this system. It’s more how they’re used,” Buehler said. “It’s not just the vehicle or the person on the vehicle, it’s about where they can ride and how they can circulate on campus.”
An avid cyclist, motorcyclist, and backpacker, Bond, who graduated in 2023, is no stranger to injuries or testing his riding abilities. He’s jumped off plenty of staircases, attempted bike tricks, and once even rode his motorcycle 260 miles from his home in northern Virginia to Virginia Tech.
So after the crash, Bond wasn’t fazed. He went to the emergency room to get a few stitches in his lip. Though his face was swollen and he had a black eye, within a few weeks he’d recovered and was back to riding his motorcycle.
If Bond saw a scooter (and didn’t have to pay to use it), he said he would “definitely” still get on it. They’re fast enough to excite, he said, but not too fast to be dangerous, as long as the rider knows their limits.
“There is like a nerve that cracks when you get on one. You’re just like, ‘I want to make bad decisions,’” Bond said. “And not necessarily regrettable decisions or expensive medical decisions. It’s just fun.”