Thursday, June 7, 2018

Pedestrians, bikers: Beware autonomous vehicles on sidewalks

Florida Weekly 'Outdoors' column, 6/6/18


As if we as pedestrians don’t have enough to deal with when taking a walk, run, or bike ride, another element is soon to be added: delivery bots. Motorists frequently fail to stop where indicated and encroach into crosswalks, and sometimes obstruct pathways by parking illegally, making sidewalks and bike paths unsafe.

Delivery bots are a version of autonomous vehicles that use pedestrian facilities rather than roads. At first blush it would seem easier for AV developers than having to deal with roadway motor traffic. But anyone who’s navigated busy sidewalks or shopping malls will understand just how unpredictable human behavior is when people are walking, not to mention running, cycling, skateboarding, skating or operating assistive devices on a pathway, especially when it’s congested.

Those of us working in the pedestrian safety world were very concerned when Segways were introduced in 2002, especially given the pre-release work done by the developer to ensure they’d be allowed just about anywhere. Although it was originally based on devices intended to assist those with mobility disabilities, the self-balancing, electric Segway is not technically in the category of devices such as motorized wheelchairs and power scooters. However, similar to those assistive mobility devices, they are potentially allowed to be used anywhere. The term “potentially” is important because local jurisdictions have the option to regulate them, which is not the case for most devices officially intended to assist those with disabilities, which are covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Prior to release of the Segway the developer lobbied each state legislature to gain special status for the devices. Per their own website, their efforts were quite productive: “All Segway and Ninebot products may be used in all 50 states on private property with the permission of the property owner. As of February 2016, 45 states and the District of Columbia have enacted legislation to allow their use on sidewalks, bike paths, and certain roads. The laws differ from state to state, so it is important that potential purchasers and users carefully review their state regulations and comply with any special requirements.” Florida’s law (FSS 316.2068) is quite liberal, allowing them on sidewalks, shared use paths and any road where bicycles are allowed (i.e. any road other than limited access highways).

The Florida Department of Transportation and any county or municipality may regulate Segway use on roads, sidewalks, bicycle paths or public lands under its jurisdiction if they determine such regulation is necessary for safety reasons. In Lee County there are few limits on the use.

For those concerned about safety on facilities intended for pedestrians, these heavy Segways that function unlike any other vehicle and have a very low and heavy center of gravity — at pedestrians’ ankles and shins — did not proliferate as envisioned, resulting in a collective sigh of relief after it became clear the major flaws in its design pretty much relegate it to uses such as warehouses, security patrols and managed tourist outings in lieu of walking tours. Reliable stats on crashes involving Segways are hard to come by but plenty of anecdotal examples can be found on the internet, most involving operator injury or death. The CEO of Segway died in a Segway incident. Operator injury or death would not be the case with delivery bots since there will be no operators.

Just as is the case with AVs on our roads, delivery bots are still “learning” how to operate in unpredictable and ever-changing environments. The good news is that unlike Segways, they’re slow (so far), operating at about the speed of a brisk walk. They’re already delivering food in some test cities and are common sights in hospitals and businesses. On public sidewalks they so far usually require a human chaperone to deal with the many variables, such as curb ramps, blind spots, turning vehicles, and of course, moving and stationary people. The obvious goal of developers is to make them fully autonomous. They’re working towards that end by attempting during testing to replicate human behavior, something that can be quite bizarre at times. As is the case with experimental AVs mixing with traffic on our roads during this phase of its development, allowing delivery bots to interact with humans before they’ve been proven safe is not the way to test a product because it puts the public at risk without our agreeing to be part of the test.

So far, we’ve been wise enough to disallow golf carts and other motorized vehicles the legal use of pedestrian facilities, even with pressure to reverse the ban — and lack enforcement, at least in certain neighborhoods. Bikes, which can be just as problematic, may be regulated off any pathway intended for pedestrians but aren’t in most of Lee County and its municipalities, meaning there are plenty of conflicts and potential for injury. Segways are generally allowed on all sidewalks, other pathways and roads in Lee County but their numbers are few. Overhead drones are becoming quite common and so far, I’ve not found any reports of one landing on an unsuspecting person.

Now we’ll be facing delivery bots. Next up — flying cars. What can go wrong? Keep an eye on to learn more about the many perils faced by pedestrians here in the most dangerous county in America to be a lowly pedestrian.¦

- Dan Moser is a long-time bicycle/pedestrian advocate and traffic safety professional who cycles, runs and walks regularly for transportation, recreation and fitness. Contact him at and 334-6417. 

For Lee County cycling and tri events visit Caloosa Riders Bicycle Club (; Florida Mudcutters (; and SW Florida Biking Meetup Group ( The Florida Bicycle Association ( is your source for statewide happenings. BikeWalkLee’s blog site has all the information you’ll need to stay abreast of advocacy efforts in Southwest Florida as well as statewide and nationally.

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