Our View: A scooter invasion

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A new state bill, parts of which go into effect July 1, aims to define e-scooters in the state code and give local governments the power to regulate the vehicles. (Missy Schrott)
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There’s an old tale, likely an urban legend, that in 1895, when the first two automobiles arrived in an Ohio town, they promptly drove down Main Street and crashed into each other. The new transportation technology was poorly understood and unregulated and, not surprisingly, resulted in disaster.

True or not, that story is analogous to what’s currently happening in Alexandria with motorized scooters.

In January, scooters started popping up all over Alexandria, mostly in Old Town and Del Ray, to no fanfare and with little warning. During the past few months, more and more scooters have appeared bearing the names of six separate companies, with a seventh approved but not yet operational.

Under a nine-month pilot program approved last November, more than 1,400 scooters can potentially, and legally, roam city streets and be deposited on sidewalks throughout Alexandria.

In a multi-part series that begins today on page one with the story, “Scooters bolt into Alexandria,” the Times will explore various aspects of the scooter issue. We will do likewise on our opinion pages, both in editorials and in letters from readers.

As council began discussing the issue near the end of Tuesday night’s marathon budget work session/legislative meeting, Mayor Justin Wilson jokingly said, despite the public outcry, if scooters are the biggest problem facing Alexandria, then our city is clearly in good shape.

While the mayor is technically right – scooters don’t pose an existential threat to our city – it’s also difficult to recall an issue that caused as much disruption in such a short time in Alexandria.

There are many facets to this topic. Like many technological innovations, dockless scooters have sprung up seemingly overnight and spread like kudzu through a southern field. Cities have been left playing catch up, as across the country, e-scooter operators have set up shop first and asked for permission later, and then only when they were forced to do so.

So our pilot program is a reaction to an existing reality. Which is not to say that scooters can’t be rounded up and expelled if Alexandrians decide we don’t want them.

Our chief concern right now is with the process. Why didn’t we ban the unauthorized scooters when they cropped up last year and have a discussion about whether they’re wanted or appropriate in Alexandria before launching a pilot?

Pilot programs, when advocated by city staff as this one appears to be, quickly become fait accomplis. “Success” is measured by usage data, without a city-wide discussion about whether such usage is even desirable.

Put another way, not every technological innovation is a step forward. We are reminded of the old Steve Martin movie, “The Jerk,” in which Martin’s character invents a new form of eyeglasses, that, unfortunately, result in vision problems for wearers. A millionaire after the innovation, Martin winds up broke and homeless after being sued.

And so we ask, would scooters be a net gain for Alexandria? What are the potential benefits and do they counteract the obvious drawbacks in safety and aesthetics?

Like city council members, we have been hearing from people all over town who have observed unsafe use of the scooters and who are outraged that they’ve been dumped throughout our historic city like trash.

A Rosemont resident reported that a scooter was left in a flower bed in her yard on a side street. An Old Town resident said she saw someone “surfing” down King Street, helmetless, with one foot on an electric scooter and the other on a rolling chair.

We are hard pressed to see the benefits of e-scooters in Alexandria. While some people may commute on them, our non-scientific observation is that the vast majority of users in Alexandria are joy-riders, many under-age, going down city streets – or sidewalks – without helmets.

We think their presence in Old Town detracts from the experience of visitors who come to see our history. We know they detract from the livability of residents, like the 83-year-old woman who tripped on scooters sprawled on the side- walk in front of her condo.

Before being blinded by twigs, we need to step back and consider the forest.

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