Miami Beach blames tourists for scooter problems and wants to restrict rentals

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A cyclist pedaling up Collins Avenue in the bike lane during spring break wound up in the hospital after two tourists on a rented motorized scooter crashed into him from behind, sending the man flying onto the pavement and knocking out his front teeth.

It’s the type of incident police say happens all too often in Miami Beach as visitors zip around the island on motorized scooters, sometimes weaving in and out of traffic, driving on the wrong side of the road or darting into bike lanes and crosswalks. Residents have even spotted scooter operators stopping traffic to take selfies and recording video on Snapchat before falling onto the street.

So far this year, Miami Beach police have issued more than 800 tickets to scooter drivers.

Now, the City Commission is considering a ban on scooter rentals during the month of March and over Memorial Day weekend, two of the busiest times for tourism. Proponents, including Commissioner John Elizabeth Alemán, who sponsored the legislation, say it will make the city safer and alleviate traffic problems. “We need to start trying something because residents and visitors alike are in danger,” she said.

But scooter rental shops on Miami Beach say the proposed ban would devastate their businesses. They argue that most visitors operate the vehicles responsibly and that the businesses shouldn’t be punished for a handful of bad drivers.

“It would be a big problem and we would have to think of other ways to keep the business alive,” said Antonio La Rosa, the manager at Scooter Super Shop on 900 Washington Ave.

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( Left to right) Gil Nahmani, Jason Chute, Anthony V. Melvin and Michael Belica ride scooters in Miami Beach on Friday, May 4, 2018.

Over a three-day period in March, the scooter shop made around $12,000 — as much as the business usually earns in two months. La Rosa acknowledged that the shop sees “a little bit of everything” from scooter drivers, but said most follow the law. Scooter Super Shop tries to emphasize the rules in its rental contract, he said, so customers understand the consequences of disobeying traffic laws.

“In our contracts it makes the customer more aware of how to behave,” he said. “They won’t just be in trouble with us, but also with the cops and the city.”

Miami Beach police say that during peak tourism periods, however, scooters overwhelm the city, making it impossible to enforce all of the rules.

In March, when thousands of young people poured into Miami Beach for spring break, police gave out more than 450 tickets to scooter drivers. It’s unclear how many of those tickets were given to residents, but the number of citations in March was more than double the number in the first two months of the year combined.

“During the height of spring break we couldn’t keep up with the volume of violations,” Police Chief Dan Oates told the City Commission at a recent meeting.

Some residents and city officials say the scooters contribute to the crowd control problems and sense of disorder that overtake the South Beach entertainment district during busy holidays.

“I think we’re trying to get rid of the ‘anything goes’ mindset that is way too prevalent,” said Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber.

The scooter ban is one more step the city is considering as it tries to deal with quality of life issues, such as noise complaints and public drunkenness, in areas frequented by tourists. Miami Beach police recently announced a crackdown on drivers blasting loud music from car stereos.

‘Like driving a convertible’

On Friday afternoon, Jeremy Schreder, 48, and Roland Heizinger, 56, dropped into Beach Scooter Rental in Sunset Harbour. The couple visits Miami Beach from Toronto at least once a year and they always opt for a scooter instead of a rental car.

“It’s the easiest way to get around. For me, in this climate, it’s the best thing,” Heizinger said. “The wind in your hair — it’s almost like driving a convertible, but it’s cooler.”

Barbara Martins and Ryan Maniscalco, both 24, were returning a scooter they had rented for 24 hours to see the sights on the last day of their trip before returning to Boston.

“You don’t want to get stuck in the car” on Miami Beach, Maniscalco said. “It’s not the same.”

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David Buzaglo, the owner of Beach Scooter Rentals in Miami Beach.

Before they can take a scooter for a spin, customers at Beach Scooter Rental have to sign a contract that includes a list of rules and initial next to each one to show they’ve read it. Owner David Buzaglo said most of his customers obey the law and that it’s often Miami-Dade residents driving their own scooters who cause problems.

“Some of the customers are a little bit rough but we have the way to control it. We enforce the law,” he said. Instead of banning rentals, he added, “Let’s deal with the problem with the law we have already and let’s enforce all the rules.”

Touring Miami Beach on a scooter is a popular way to see the city for all types of visitors, Buzaglo said, including young couples hoping to save money on a car rental, wealthy travelers who want to avoid parking headaches, and tourists looking for fun.

Buzaglo owns another South Beach rental shop as well as a scooter delivery service and estimates that his business earns 40 percent of its profits during Memorial Day weekend and spring break. His 12 employees also depend on these busy periods for overtime, he said. “All the year you’re waiting for a few months you’re going to get a paycheck.”

‘A feeling of lawlessness’

Miami Beach isn’t the only city that has struggled to control the use of scooters as the motor vehicles have become increasingly popular. Panama City Beach, Florida, passed ordinances last year banning scooter rental businesses starting in 2020 and restricting the hours for rentals until then. In response, local rental shops sued the city. Key West also has restrictions limiting the number of scooter rentals.

The proposed rental ban in Miami Beach would prevent businesses from renting scooters and mopeds during the designated dates, but wouldn’t apply to residents driving their own motorized vehicles. Scooter rental shops in Miami Beach would be required to put stickers on their scooters so police could quickly distinguish them from privately owned scooters.

If the commission votes to pass the restrictions at its May 16 meeting, the rental ban would go into effect before Memorial Day weekend, although rental businesses would likely get additional time to mark their scooters, Alemán said.

The goal isn’t to harm small businesses, she added, but she believes rental shops need to take some responsibility for the problems caused by scooters. “Once your product becomes a public safety problem, you have to realize that you’re part of a larger community and you have to make some concessions,” she said.

The Ocean Drive Association, which represents businesses along the popular tourist street, supports this approach. “It’s just a feeling of lawlessness and I think that sets a tone,” said Mike Palma, executive vice president of hospitality for the company that owns The Clevelander and chairman of the Ocean Drive Association, speaking at a recent commission meeting. “We want to send the message that you can come to Miami Beach, you can have fun, you can have a great time, but we want to enforce the law.”

‘A Band-Aid’

Commissioner Ricky Arriola doesn’t think a rental ban will make much of a difference, however. At an April commission meeting where the proposal was discussed, Arriola was the only no vote, although other commissioners also raised concerns about the potential impacts on businesses.

“It’s a Band-Aid. It’s not going to solve the problem,” Arriola said, adding that the proposed rental ban could end up making traffic worse if visitors opt for rental cars instead of smaller vehicles.

“Businesses make investments and then we cut them off at the knees during their busiest, most profitable periods,” he added. “That doesn’t seem fair to me.”

Buzaglo agrees. If the rental ban passes, he said, he plans to get a warehouse in Wynwood or downtown Miami and move at least part of his business across the bay. He said tourists looking to rent scooters will also likely leave the Beach.

That’s true for Steven Snow, 46, a Los Angeles resident who has been traveling to Miami Beach for Memorial Day weekend for the past 20 years. Reached by phone on Friday, Snow said renting a scooter has always been an integral part of his trip because it’s an easy way to sightsee and get around the island.

“The scooter always relaxes my mind,” he said. “Without the scooter, I don’t know what I would do. I might not come back.”

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