Time to ask what, if anything, is going on with Mayor Jenny Durkan, the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT), and an e-scooter rental program for Seattle.
Initially reluctant for Seattle to jump into scooters, last May Mayor Durkan under pressure from scooter fans took notice of scooter enthusiasm of programs spreading from California all around the country. She posted in Geekwire a promise to roll out Seattle’s own pilot program. Seattle would “do it right” based on lessons learned from other cities. The rent-a-scooter companies waited expectantly from little nearby beachheads: Everett, Tacoma, Redmond, Bothell. Some proponents for Seattle wondered if they sniffed stall, not commitment.
For its part, SDOT seemed frozen in the headlights until finally in late August the Mayor announced that a pilot program design would emerge from “community-driven” engagement. “Stakeholder outreach” began. Two months now has passed, and yet still not one word from SDOT on what substance might be offered from other cities’ experience or a shred of detail on what the Seattle program might look like. Talk of a February launch, probably a Seattle year’s worst possible month for e-scooters, quickly quieted and no firm 2020 launch target has been announced.
Mayor Durkan must have hoped that cities’ clear templates would drop from the sky for framing a “do it right” pilot. The last two months have shown the risk of grounding a policy pronouncement on wishful thinking. Around the country, the city-by-city– by-city steady stream of bad injury statistics, skinned elbows and broken bones to horrendous brain trauma to fatalities, has not abated.
Yet scooters still manifest a seemingly irresistible force of soaring popularity among the users. That, however, has collided with the immovable object of ordinary citizens’ dismay at dodging and sometimes being hit by fast riders on sidewalks irrespective of most communities’ no-riding-on-sidewalks laws, including a statewide prohibition everywhere in scooter-crazy California. Scooters-for-rent have also annoyingly and dangerously littered sidewalks and public spaces across the country when they have been casually, conveniently, indifferently abandoned by one rider to await being picked up by another.
Given the last two months, the best the lesson Seattle can glean from other cities’ experience is that rented scooters are bound to be a bumpy ride.
There are seemingly positive results to point to in Portland’s carefully crafted second pilot, though not without continuing concerns. Auckland, NZ is tracking Portland (albeit with footpath riding at a 6 mph speed limit). Washington, D.C., with newly proposed stringent requirements (even beyond its existing 10 mph scooter top speed regulation), is expecting to grow its program soon from 5,250 to 10,000 scooters. Chicago has just wound up a four-month pilot program that excludes the Loop, and which now enters an indefinite post-pilot evaluation. This week, San Francisco rejuvenates with updated conditions and more scooters and vendors its program, which had survived first an outright ban in mid-2018 and then a tightly constricted year-long pilot reconsideration.
However, CBS News spent its summer e-scooter attention first on backlash, then “scooter rage,” then e-scooters being not so low-carbon and eco-friendly, and again most recently the great e-scooter backlash. AP news had already weighed in on “more injuries, fatalities.” In early September, the New York Times, having committed months of deep reporting to scooters in their San Diego boom town, ran a major blistering piece on how San Diego had reached the point in July of having to crack down on scooters. Ten days ago the San Diego Union Tribune reported exhaustively on how San Diego’s new July regulations had replaced the carrot with the stick to better manage the city’s 10,000 scooter swarm: Hundreds of riders ticketed for sidewalk riding and other violations; 3,700 scooters picked up and impounded for parking violations.
In September in the wake of the crackdown, San Diego vendors Skip and Uber’s Jump pulled up stakes and left town. Its permit in jeopardy (outcome till pending) for repeated violations, Lime holds on. Students arriving for fall classes at San Diego State University met a new campus public safety ban not only on e-scooters, but e-bikes, motorized skateboards, and hoverboards. San Diego surgeons tracking trauma injuries published in August The Emerging E-pidemic of of E-scooters reinforcing concerns about scooter riding’s inherent risks and victims’ often impairment from alcohol or drugs and the non-use of helmets. Even old-fashioned staid Segway sightseeing tours were feeling the heat following the city’s $1.7 million settlement pay-out in a guest’s injury case as another wrongful death case against the city caused by a broken sidewalk moves forward in court.
SDOT questing for community driven public engagement from a few stakeholders hasn’t clued Seattle in to any of this from scooter-torn San Diego. But KIRO 7’s viewers on September 30 filled some of the gap with its first-hand San Diego’s scooter problems that Seattle will want to avoid. Meanwhile, the King County Medical Society’s official podcast shed light here on the injury statistics, brain trauma, and helmets.
Echoes of San Diego are coming in from around the country. Injuries, sidewalk riding and parking clutter are everywhere the problem, for example, elsewhere in California. Police have engaged in ticketing crackdowns not only in Los Angeles, but in Santa Monica, the Mecca of the e-scooter boom, where scooters have been banned not only in municipal parks and sidewalks but also on its pedestrian promenade and its popular beachfront bike path.
Elsewhere, Metro Atlanta is now in the midst of scooter ban and regulation turmoil in the wake of four e-scooter fatalities. Little Rock pulled the plug mid-way through a Lime pilot. Denver’s shared e-scooters were first allowed in 2018 to be ridden on sidewalks. But in August, following a pilot program survey reporting that half of 2,000 respondents reported a hit or near miss while walking, the Public Works Department recommended a sidewalk riding ban to protect the safety of the elderly, people with disabilities, and children. This ban the City Council unanimously adopted – just days after Denver’s first e-scooter fatality from careless riding in traffic. Despite the ban, on October 6th a scooter rider on a sidewalk crashed into a wheelchair user and damaged his wheelchair.
In Minneapolis, people with disabilities last week took their safety and accessibility concerns directly to federal court, suing the city and the e-scooter rental companies for violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Several cities’ programs had earlier been affected by Lime recalls of thousands of scooters for battery fire fears, and snapping baseboads and a warning to customers about braking defects. In June, Skip’s scooters were removed from the streets in San Francisco and Washington, D.C. following a battery fire.
In New York City, e-scooter regulatory battles of another kind have recently been foreshadowed. Mayor DeBlasio refuses to permit Uber’s Jump bikes to expand on Staten Island and ultimately more broadly unless the rider app terms and conditions are purged of riders’ automatic acceptance of forced arbitration, giving up rights to sue for injury or damages. Neither the city nor Jump will budge.
The sidewalk issues are almost everywhere being resolved against legalizing sidewalk riding. Seattle’s ordinance already bans e-scooter riding on sidewalks. The anti-sidewalk-riding state law in California has been no deterrent to vendors’ enthusiastic entry into the state. It’s pretty much the prevailing norm: Portland (not in the parks, either), Spokane, Denver, Salt Lake City, Phoenix, Edmonton, Cincinnati, Charlotte (uptown). Atlanta (up to $1,000 fine), Washington D.C. (Central Business District), Twin Cities (state law), Chicago, Dallas, Austin (downtown restrictions). Cities struggle to enforce those rules and against sidewalk clutter. Sometimes the vendors offer interesting proscriptions of their own. Jump, for example, says, “Avoid hills on scooters,” an interesting point SDOT and Mayor Durkan might note for Seattle.
As for the vexing problem of achieving proper parking, Singapore is using technology for bike share that SDOT could adopt for scooters. Riders finishing a ride must tap into a QR code proving the bike is left in the authorized parking zones or pay a $3.60 surcharge on the rental fee. Three strikes and your rental privilege is suspended. The mis-parked bike rate in the trial has fallen from 44% to 13%. Brisbane is pushing very hard for mandatory helmet riding.
Some cities have turned to Just Say No on e-scooter rentals rather struggling to fix program challenges. A year ago, for example, New Orleans abruptly shelved the development of a pilot: no way to think millions of tourists were going to competently explore New Orleans on e-scooters. Other local reasoning is perhaps more surprising. Breckenridge voted in August to “stay scooter free.” Scooter rentals are also not yet welcome in bike-friendly Boulder. According to CityLab, “the region’s large and influential cyclist community has been less-than-enthusiastic about welcoming battery-powered interlopers.”
What’s happening in Boulder reflects interesting pushback now even seen in Europe. E-scooter skepticism from cyclists is reportedly full on in Amsterdam and Copenhagan, the utopias of Seattle’s most committed transportation urbanists. The contagion of cyclist disaffection has also reached Paris, Berlin, and Stockholm. In London, e-scooters are frozen at a regulatory Mad Tea Party: illegal on sidewalks, illegal on streets; riders venturing out of the big private London Olympic Park business campus face the ticket-writing Bobbies.
Pretty obvious lessons do emerge. Don’t start too big. Do earnestly protect the rights and safety of non-users. Don’t pretend rules will be followed without enforcement. Insist on defect-free and properly maintained devices. Accept that sooner or later the city will pay for a rider’s injury when her scooter has hit a city pothole. Create incentives for use of helmets. Keep our sidewalks scooter free.
What will SDOT propose? Five months after the Mayor declared in Geekwire for a pilot program, two months after SDOT announced its planning had started, all that’s so far clear is that SDOT is not prepared to enliven “community-driven public engagement” by providing any information on other cities’ experience. That’s quite the opposite of Mayor Durkan’s declaration for how to chart the course forward. All we know so far is that opacity rides freely in Seattle.