By Cody Mello-Klein | [email protected]
City council deliberations during the April 23 legislative meeting were primarily devoted to budget add/deletes, however, as has been the case with Alexandria’s residents, conversation ultimately turned to the topic of e-scooters.
Amid public outcry and questions over safety and corporate accountability from several councilors, staff from the Department of Transportation and Environmental Services presented an update on the pilot program after its first four months.
“We think that there are certainly some benefits from what we are seeing in terms ridership on the scooters … but at the same time we’re also seeing some things that we think require the city change in the way we manage the program,” Yon Lambert, director of T&ES, said.
According to data gathered by T&ES through the six scooter companies currently operating in Alexandria, there have been 22,726 rides over the past four months. The vast majority – 17,927 rides or 79 percent of the total number of rides – occurred in the last month.
Despite, or perhaps because of, the growing usage of scooters, Lambert identified several concerns T&ES has with the program, including safety for pedestrians, the police department’s ability to control unsafe or illegal behavior, parking violations and corporate responsiveness about those violations.
“We’re hearing from folks that the scooter companies themselves are not being responsive per the terms of the [memorandum of understanding],” Lambert said.
According to the MOU that every scooter company must sign to operate in Alexandria, if a rider or resident reports the location of an improperly parked scooter, the company has two hours in which to respond – otherwise T&ES can impound the scooter.
In lieu of a dedicated T&ES team, the companies involved in the pilot have contractors who are supposed to address these violations.
Vice Mayor Elizabeth Bennett-Parker and several other councilors expressed con- cern, based on emails and letters from residents, that the scooter companies have been less than responsive per the terms of the MOU.
Lambert noted that some companies have been more responsive than others but largely agreed with the evaluation and emphasized that moving forward T&ES will start to impound more scooters should the companies not respond within the designated two hours.
“It seems to make some sense for us to use some city resources to make sure that we are holding the vendors’ feet to the fire, and if they are not actually able to be responsive then we have the ability within the MOU to actually impound those vehicles and take them out of the right of way,” Lambert said.
According to Lambert, T&ES is set to enact stricter impounding efforts on offending companies this week.
“It seems like a lot of manpower and a lot of money is going into it [and] that’s not our job,” Councilor Amy Jackson said.
Lambert noted that the $5,000 permitting fee and $5,000 surety bond that every company has to pay are meant to pay for these administrative costs. However, both Bennett-Parker and Jackson argued that the sheer number of scooters on the streets complicates enforcement for the city and companies.
“I think if the program is to continue, we should definitely consider reducing the number of scooters and perhaps also the number of companies or some combination thereof,” Bennett-Parker said in an interview.
Under the MOU, each company can apply for a maximum of 200 vehicles, but if they meet certain usage criteria they can add up to 25 more. According to the staff report, there have been between 60 and 180 active scooters from each company on an average day.
As a point of comparison, Jackson asked staff about Capital BikeShare, with which the city has worked to provide docking stations around the city. According to staff, there are 31 Capital BikeShare stations in Alexandria, each of which has between eight and 12 bikes.
“So not 750 to 850 bikes are out there?” Jackson said in response.
Councilor Mo Seifeldein expressed concern that the central appeal of the scooters – their dockless design – could pose an inherent challenge to enforcement.
(Opinion: A scooter invasion)
“We’re not really going to be able to enforce that,” Seifeldein said. “I mean, we can tell ourselves that, but we’re not really going to be able to tell every rider, ‘You stop at this particular location.’ Because that loses the whole purpose of these scooters.”
As a point of clarification, Councilor John Chapman asked Lambert what would happen if council decided to cancel the pilot program early.
Lambert said council has the authority to end the pilot at any time, but recommended that council consider the pilot as a way to experiment with technology that could potentially play a major role in the future of transportation.
“What we are seeing in terms of dockless mobility, in my professional judgement as a transportation professional, we think that this type of mobility is going to become increasingly important in urban areas,” Lambert said.
Lambert also recommended several potential changes that could address some of the program’s issues, including adding messaging on the streets and social media to educate riders, using targeted enforcement efforts and investigating the use of “corrals,” which would be designated parking areas for scooters. He said T&ES could work with companies to create no-parking zones for scooters in high traffic areas like Old Town and update the MOU to require that riders carry a driver’s license and companies to provide more detailed reporting.
“I think it’s important to implement these extra measures and regulations now and evaluate those and then we can evaluate those modifications and their effects and decide what’s best for Alexandria going forward,” Bennett-Parker said.