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Bird Dockless scooters

Despite hurt feelings, Council members embrace electric scooters

Wednesday, April 25, 2018 by Jack Craver

Rushing to respond to electric scooters that have taken over downtown, City Council will consider an ordinance on Thursday to establish rules regarding the increasingly popular devices.

The proposed ordinance, drafted by city transportation staff, will allow the Transportation Department to issue licenses that allow companies to put their products on city streets and sidewalks. It would also allow the transportation director to “modify” the license and set limits on the number of devices allowed to be placed on city right of way. The city is proposing that each company pay $30 for each scooter for a license that lasts six months.

So far, it looks like most Council members appreciate the opportunity that dockless electric scooters present in a city choked by congestion and limited public transit options.

But their enthusiasm is tempered, to varying degrees, by the fact that the scooters that have taken over downtown over the last two weeks are the result of two California-based companies brazenly disregarding city regulations.

“I think that dockless scooters and bicycles are an exciting possibility,” said Council Member Ann Kitchen, the chair of the Mobility Committee, at Tuesday’s Council work session. “But I have some concerns about the way this has played out.”

The city Transportation Department had begun working with at least one electric bike and scooter provider, LimeBike, to implement a pilot program in June. However, when rival company Bird suddenly unleashed its scooters without seeking any permission from the city, LimeBike promptly followed suit, arguing that it could not wait for city permitting while its rival was already developing a customer base here.

“There needs to be some kind of recognition that those companies should not have a competitive advantage because they went forward and put their scooters on the street before it was permitted to do so,” said Kitchen.

Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo was more specific. “I hope that we will look at penalties for companies,” she said, noting that she had been eagerly awaiting the arrival of the scooters via the city’s pilot program and had thoroughly enjoyed trying out one of the devices in front of City Hall a few weeks ago.

In other cities where it has deployed its devices, Bird has treated crackdowns by city officials as simply a cost of doing business. In Santa Monica, California, where it is based, the company recently paid $300,000 to settle a lawsuit from the city over its unpermitted vehicles.

Tovo implored the companies to demonstrate a willingness to collaborate with the city in good faith.

“I want to not have to boycott your companies,” said Tovo.

Council Member Alison Alter also wondered what could be done about users leaving the scooters on private property. She has received complaints from businesses that don’t want scooters on their properties, and she hopes that fines for “noncompliance” by users or the companies will be part of the city’s eventual regulatory scheme.

Alter also highlighted the implications of having hundreds or potentially thousands of devices around the city that run on lithium-ion batteries, which are considered hazardous materials that should not be disposed of along with regular trash or recycling.

Council Member Leslie Pool said the city would have to consider where scooters should be encouraged or expected to travel.

“I’m not sure I see scooters in traffic lanes along with buses and trucks and cars,” she said. “I’m also not sure they belong on sidewalks … they go so much faster than pedestrians.”

Pool noted, however, that bicycles – which travel at similar speeds to the scooters – are also allowed on sidewalks.

“I love the scooters,” said Council Member Ora Houston. “I think it’s an opportunity for people who will be losing bus routes in the eastern part of my district.”

However, Houston expressed concerns about the question of which city agency would be responsible for impounding noncompliant scooters, saying that “people can get squirrelly when civilians are impounding vehicles.” She also suggested that the companies should be required to provide scooters across the entire city, not just the downtown area.

Council Member Greg Casar expressed concern that language in the proposal that broadly prohibits individuals or companies from offering goods or services in the city of right of way could lead to a crackdown on unlicensed street vendors, particularly those who are homeless. Casar noted that the ordinance explicitly carved out an exception for nonprofits selling items to fund homelessness initiatives.

“But if you’re a person who is on the verge of homelessness and you’re trying to sell bottled water to prevent being homeless,” you are behaving illegally, said Casar, who has pushed for the city to adopt policies aimed at facilitating street commerce, from selling art to car window cleanings.

Photo by Caleb Pritchard.

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