By Cody Mello-Klein | [email protected]
With spring in full bloom, the birds are out and chirping in Alexandria, and joining the flock, to the dismay of many residents, is a new breed of Bird.
Electric and nimble, the tech company Bird’s dockless, motorized e-scooters are popping up on every sidewalk and street corner, not to mention the odd flower bed, in Old Town as part of the city’s pilot program for the high-tech transportation phenomenon. And Bird is only one of seven flocks that have permits to roost in all parts of Alexandria.
While some residents view the scooters as a convenient way to get to the Metro or work, many are concerned about perceived public safety hazards caused by this disruptive technology and are left questioning the rules and regulations governing this new presence in Alexandria.
“I can honestly say that in all my years living in Old Town, I have never seen an issue ignite such immediate and strong concern as this one has,” Greg Wilson, an Old Town resident, said in an email.
A migrating flock
The city’s scooter pilot program is part of a larger, nationwide movement toward electric, dockless transportation, one that has swept through Virginia rapidly and, at times, unchecked like wildfire.
In August 2018, Bird descended on Richmond with a fleet of unsanctioned scooters. By the time the city government learned of the new presence in its city, people were already riding the scooters.
Richmond officials sent out Department of Public Works employees to collect the scooters, and, by the afternoon of the same day, Bird scooters were off the streets. Richmond’s city council ended up approving a permit program for companies like Bird, which went into effect in March 2019.
A similar unpermitted rollout occurred in Arlington, which adopted its own pilot in October 2018. By that time, however, riders were coming into Alexandria from Arlington and D.C. on scooters that the city government had no way to regulate.
“This is really a story that’s played out across all these disruptive technolo- gies whether it’s food trucks, whether it’s Uber and Lyft. They’re all technologies that kind of show up and force the government to catch up,” Mayor Justin Wilson said. “We said, ‘How do we put some sort of regulatory framework around these to determine whether this is something we want to figure out how to accommodate or just ban?’”
City council approved the pilot program on Nov. 13, 2018 and the first approved scooters began appearing in January 2019.
By this point, scooters were officially a presence in Virginia, and as local municipalities worked to control the flood of e-scooters, state legislators rushed to craft a bill to regulate the devices. The bill passed through the Virginia General Assembly on Feb. 21, and Gov. Ralph Northam signed the bill in late March.
The bill outlines several regulations pertaining to the maximum speed – 20 miles per hour – and weight – 100 pounds – of the devices, while also mandating that riders use hand signals and yield to pedestrians. Riders must also be 14 years or older to ride a scooter, according to the bill, and are permitted to ride on sidewalks. Notably, the bill provided local governments the freedom to adapt these regulations to suit their particular needs – as well as the ability to ban scooters outright.
Alexandria city officials used that freedom to craft a pilot program that upheld many of the same rules and regulations, while prohibiting scooters on sidewalks. Other changes in Alexandria include a minimum age of 18 years, not 14, and the maximum speed is 15 miles per hour, not 20.
Six of the seven scooter companies permitted in the nine-month pilot program have begun operating in Alexandria. The seven permitted companies are Lime, Lyft, Bird, Bolt, Skip and Spin, which are currently operating, while Jump is permitted but not yet operational, according to Yon Lambert, director of the Department of Transportation and Environmental Services, and Christine Mayeur, Complete Streets Coordinator in T&ES.
Process and procedure
If a company wants to deploy scooters in Alexandria, it needs to fill out an application, provide certificates of insurance and pay both $5,000 in surety bonds and a $5,000 permitting fee in compliance with the Memorandum of Understanding, according to Mayeur. T&ES and its permitting department then reviews and signs the application and issues a permit.
The MOU outlines the rules and regulations that any company must comply with in order to operate in Alexandria.
According to the MOU, companies must respond “promptly,” or within two hours of a report or complaint from a user. The MOU also limits companies to a maximum of 200 devices, although companies can request an additional 25 devices if their 200 devices have been used an average of at least three trips per day. According to data gathered by T&ES, there are an average of 700 to 800 scooters deployed per day in total by all six companies operating in Alexandria.
Mayeur said she monitors the 200-device limit closely.
“Every time I see a number that’s over 200, even if it’s 202, I’m contacting [the company],” Mayeur said.
By design, the bulk of responsibility has been placed on the scooter companies. Per the MOU, the companies are charged with educating riders on parking rules and city and state laws and with providing data to the city.
At Tuesday night’s city council legislative meeting, Lambert talked about difficulties T&ES has encountered so far in enforcing the MOU and said the city has the ability to unilaterally change some aspects of the pilot program. Several changes are in the works, Lambert said, and T&ES employees will soon begin impounding scooters when permitted companies are in violation and non-responsive.
A disruptive technology
While the MOU is designed to keep companies in check, it does not control rider behavior, which remains a concern for many residents.
“I think the way it’s coming here, as it has in many communities, the technology is way ahead of the legislators. There are no regulations,” Mike Doyle, founder of Alexandria Families for Safe Streets, said. “… It’s a tragedy waiting to happen with the way these scooters are being handled by people that are oblivious to road safety rules, that blow through stop signs.”
There has been one reported crash and two minor injuries related to scooters, all of which were due to mechanical issues with the devices themselves, according to Mayeur. Virginia state law doesn’t require bike riders or scooter riders over the age of 14 to wear helmets.
It’s no coincidence that the number of complaints has risen exponentially in the last few months. The majority of the seven permitted companies rolled out scooters in late February and early March, just as the sun started to shine and flowers started to bloom. Lambert said 79 percent of the 22,000 trips that have been taken over the past four months of the pilot occurred in the last month.
Old Town and Del Ray have been hot spots for scooters, but the sheer number of scooters on Alexandria’s streets has drawn intense opposition from residents who are tired of seeing toppled heaps of scooters in front of their doors and blocking sidewalks.
“A couple of weeks ago I came out of my house—I live in the Torpedo Factory apartments on North Union Street — to find two scooters blocking the sidewalk,” Diana Banat, an 83-year-old resident, said. “They were too heavy and entangled for me to pick up and as I passed them, I tripped and almost fell.”
Other residents believe the haphazardly parked scooters mar Old Town’s historic charm.
“The residents here love its charm and the history we inherited,” Michael Maibach, an Old Town resident, said in an email. “This is why tourists come here from all over the world. They don’t come here to rent scooters, but to walk our sidewalks, enjoy our old homes and tall trees and see where George Washington once lived and gathered our nation’s Founders.”
Accounts from residents also noted underage riders and scooters barreling down sidewalks at high speeds.
The responsibility of educating riders might fall on the companies, but on-the-ground behavior rarely matches the safety guidelines outlined in an app’s terms of agreement. Enforcement still falls on police and the city, and in Alexandria scooters present a new enforcement challenge for police officers and city officials.
“The difficulty from our perspective sometimes is our ability to capture them. They move rather quickly and disappear rather quickly,” Alexandria Police Chief Michael Brown said. “… We are working our way through that in trying to do the en- forcement.”
The pilot program’s emphasis on corporate responsiveness has created a challenge for city staff.
Riders and pedestrians’ first course of action should be contacting the company with complaints and reports, especially with parking, Mayeur said.
“They have the contractors, they have the staff on the ground that can come and respond,” Mayeur said. “They have two hours per our MOU to respond.”
If one of these companies does not respond within two hours, the city can confiscate the scooter in question. The company is then responsible for paying any penalties or fees incurred by illegally parking devices, according to the MOU.
“One thing that we can certainly do is impound vehicles,” Lambert said. “That’s one area where we’re looking at whether we might need to start doing a little more frequently because of the concerns with improper parking.”
T&ES staff will more aggressively patrol hot spots like Old Town and Del Ray for violations during the duration of the pilot, according to Lambert.
In the most extreme cases, if an operator does not correct a violation of the MOU within one week, the city can suspend or revoke its permit with the operator, although T&ES has not yet taken this action. In response to a question from Councilor John Chapman at Tuesday’s legislative meeting, Lambert also confirmed that the city has the right to unilaterally end the pilot at any time.
Four months into the pilot program, city staff is facing tremendous pushback from the public on a program that is, by pure statistical usage metrics, a success.
“We think people are using them and using them properly to get to transit, but we’re also seeing things that give us pause,” Lambert said. “We are seeing a lot of scooters that are being improperly parked and they’re being parked where they are blocking ramps or entrances and exits to businesses. We have lots of concerns about safety.”
More than 100 city residents signed a letter addressed to the mayor, members of city council and the city attorney that urged staff to cancel the pilot. Meanwhile, the numbers indicate that the program is popular with riders.
Moving forward in the pilot, T&ES staff, alongside police, are trying to adapt to and accommodate a disruptive new presence, Lambert said.
The APD aims to start conducting targeted enforcement efforts on weekends to tackle the highest volume of scooter-related traffic violations, Brown said, and T&ES is exploring ways to mitigate the parking issues that plague the program.
“We have been looking at where it wouldn’t impact parking and where we have the space on the street to designate some spaces for the scooters to either be staged or parked by users and then asking that the vendors reflect that in their apps,” Mayeur said.
According to Lambert, T&ES is also looking at ways to work with operators to geofence certain areas in Alexandria so that the apps prohibit riders from parking in those areas.
The pilot program is still in a fledgling state, even as riders rush to take flight and city officials, police officers and residents try to adapt and wrestle with a disruptive technology.
“I think we need to come up with a set of rules that works for Alexandria. If that means [scooters are] not part of the future, that’s certainly fine. If there’s some way to come up with a set of rules that makes sense, then that works too,” Wilson said. “… The question is, ‘Is this something that’s like [Uber] or is this something that’s not able to be accommodated?’”
The sudden appearance of hundreds of scooters in Alexandria the last few months has left many residents outraged, while raising questions of accountability and safety. This is the first article in a multi-part series exploring the issue.