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Monday, November 18, 2019

Scooter Wars: As Seattle Ponders, Other Cities Take A Bumpy Ride

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 concernsAuckland, 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), ChicagoDallas,  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.  

Photo by Arthur Ogleznev on Unsplash

Doug MacDonald
Doug MacDonald
Doug MacDonald has served as chief executive in infrastructure agencies in Massachusetts (Greater Boston drinking water/wastewater) and Washington State (Secretary of Transportation, 2001-2007). His best job was fifty years ago as a rural extension agent in the Peace Corps in Malawi in southern Africa. He has written on the environment, transportation and politics for professional and general publications for many years.

7 COMMENTS

  1. Douglas,
    Personally I feel that if the city could roll out a rapid deployment of a protected and connected network of bike/scooter/skateboard/solo wheel lanes, then those people would be able to navigate our city streets in relative safety. Without the special lanes, scooters, children, and families on bikes, solo wheels and the like will continue to use the sidewalks as the only safe passage through our city streets. Without this network, the speed differential between a walking speed of 3 mph and any of the afore mentioned modes becomes problematic for all groups. A scooter barely balances at 3mph and sadly, our sidewalk widths are grossly inadequate for the growing volume of pedestrian traffic we already have.

    IMHO if we can expedite the protected & connected bike network (ala 2nd Ave Protected Bike Lane and yes, it might be difficult but the payoff is the safety of our citizens), we could achieve a modicum of safety for a growing number of people and encourage others to use alternate forms of transportation for short trips within the downtown core as well as commute trips in and out of the city while freeing up too-narrow sidewalks for people walking.
    Let’s do this!

  2. Robin. It would be great to see all those protected lanes for bicycles, scooters, electric skateboards, hoverboards and everything else that’s coming in “micro-mobility.” Meanwhile, it appears in Seattle we think we would have a safety problem, a big one. Riders feel the scooters aren’t safe on the streets? Those who don’t ride feel the scooters leave them vulnerable and unsafe on the sidewalks? I walked out of Top Pot Doughnuts on 3rd Avenue Friday morning with a friend of mine (and yours) from SDOT. A private e-scooter on the sidewalks – no bell, of course — nearly whacked up both, missed us by inches! As I see it, one count of not safe (the streets) and another count of not safe (the sidewalks) would just add up to a two-count Scooters Not Safe. I don’t see Unsafe Sidewalks as an acceptable interim until all the new protected bike lanes come – if ever that happens. How would that be a “mobility choice” consistent with Vision Zero?

    However, e-scooter companies do seem perfectly willing to mount huge shared scooter programs – tens of thousands of scooters — where riding on sidewalks is prohibited by state law. It’s hardly slowed anybody down in California! We can at least learn that from other cities’ experience.

  3. Thx Doug – It is fascinating that rational thinking and planful consumers such as yourself (and I believe myself) are not engaged by the City but must “barge’ their way into the communication exchange from the outside to participate in the process…this is the same bureaucratic phenomenon that has occurred with the poorly designed and implemented “Urban Refugee” (homeless) programing. Convinced “they” know what they are doing and the data keeps mounting “they” don’t…

    Regards,
    Dick

  4. Please, not more lanes. Like the late great Ben Hamilton-Baillie, I believe that safety lies in defensive attention to the road and eye contact with others using it. If we’re going to try scooters, let’s do it in a gradual, limited way while bicyclists try sharing lanes.
    That said, it seems to me that the cities that benefit most from e-scooters are the flat ones with large blocks and few pedestrians. Seattle’s not a great example.

    • well said Clair – not against scooters just concerned about where they will be allowed to roam…and…the lack of contract negotiating skills when people are pushing a dream…

      Regards,
      Dick

    • I spent 3 days in Cleveland in September, commuting by Lime Scooter from a west side neighborhood to the downtown core. It was about a 2.5 mile ride, took 20 minutes, and was the model of scootering done right.

      Cleveland’s wide city streets, mild hills (there are few, actually!) and relatively modest traffic made riding in the margin between the curb and car lane totally reasonable. Cleveland also has painted scooter parking spaces in convenient locations. There’s a system, and you don’t have to work very hard to follow it.

      Seattle’s comparative gridlock, narrow downtown lanes, and steep grades seem like a scooter nightmare waiting to happen – especially if the path of least resistance forces most casual riders and commuters to the sidewalks. That would be a massive public safety fail. We don’t need any *more* of those, do we?

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