By Cody Mello-Klein | [email protected]
Since the early days of Alexandria’s e-scooter pilot program, voices of opposition have called for more regulation of the vehicles and their riders – or outright cancellation of the program.
The former is being addressed by a new state bill, some provisions of which take effect July 1 and others Jan. 1, 2020.
The new bill increases the ability of localities to regulate scooters in some ways, but there is still confusion and uncertainty regarding certain aspects of the pilot program.
Outright cancellation of the program is no closer to happening, although the new bill does not change the city’s existing right to cancel its pilot program at any time.
House bill 2752, which aims to define e-scooters in the state code and grant local governments the authority to regulate scooters on their own terms, was proposed by Del. Todd Pillion (R-4) near the start of the Virginia General Assembly 2019 session in January. It was quickly passed by the assembly in February and signed by Gov. Ralph Northam in March.
Once it takes effect, the bill will make several changes to Title 46.2, the section of the Code of Virginia that addresses motor vehicles.
Altered language in section 46.2-100 now defines motorized scooters as any vehicle that is designed to allow a rider to sit or stand, has no vehicle identification number issued by a manufacturer, is powered in any way by an electric motor, weighs less than 100 pounds and has a maximum speed of 20 miles per hour.
Several other sections in the amended Title 46.2 outline regulations for rider behavior. Riders cannot operate scooters on highways and must be 14 years or older to ride, unless supervised by someone 18 years or older, according to the new law.
Under the city’s pilot program, the seven permitted companies are able to determine the minimum age of its riders. The majority of companies operating in Alexandria require riders to be 14 years or older or, in some cases, have a valid driver’s license. The new state law will outweigh previous regulations set by the companies.
The language defining motorized vehicles and certain regulations for rider behavior will go into effect on July 1.
For many, the most significant and relevant aspects of the state law involve sidewalk riding and the city’s ability to regulate it. Many of these provisions of the bill will go into effect on Jan. 1, 2020.
Once effected next year, section 46.2-903 will state that e-scooters can be ridden on sidewalks “unless otherwise prohibited.” Section 46.2- 904 will grant a county, city or town the ability to prohibit scooters “on designated sidewalks or crosswalks” through a local ordinance, while section 46.2-1315 will officially grant localities the power to establish pilot programs as long as they are in compliance with Title 46.2.
Notably, none of HB2752’s changes to Title 46.2 impact the ability for a locality to can- cel its pilot program. The city still has the power to cancel or suspend its pilot program at any time, if city council decides to do so.
Part of section 46.2-904 also addresses the parking issues that have concerned Old Town residents. It states that scooters can’t be parked anywhere “that impedes the normal movement of pedestrian or other traffic or where such parking is prohibited by official traffic control devices.” This provision goes into effect July 1.
A violation of section 46.2-904 or any ordinance adopted in line with this section is punishable by a civil penalty for riders of up to $50. According to Alexandria Police Chief Michael Brown, officers still face challenges enforcing scooter regulations – most notably stopping riders who can maneuver quickly and easily through traffic. Ongoing enforcement challenges leave it unclear how this aspect of the bill will be enforced.
Localities will only be able to regulate scooters according to the provisions of this title but can choose to what extent they do so, according to state law.
Under the old state code, city officials faced challenges regulating sidewalk riding, Hillary Orr, deputy director of the Alexandria Department of Transportation and Environmental Services, said.
“As I understand, right now we could ban scooters on certain sidewalks … but you have to [designate] every block,” Orr said. “That’s the challenge and then trying to help people understand where those blocks are.”
The city has prohibited sidewalk riding as part of its program, but the ambiguity in state and local laws that address scooters has hindered enforcement efforts.
“There are gaps in the current law, which make it difficult for us to enforce some of the laws that people are accustomed to,” Brown said.
The simple act of defining scooters under the new state code grants city government the power to pursue more serious scooter regulation, especially as it pertains to sidewalk riding, Orr said.
“The city could make its own ordinance against it,” Orr said. “That’s where the city has the authority to regulate scooters riding on sidewalks, once they’re defined in state code.”
Although the additions to Title 46.2 ostensibly empower the city, some language indicates that these new state-level regulations could impinge on local regulations, at least for a specific period of time.
Language toward the end of Title 46.2 outlines that section 46.2-1315 will not impact “existing regulations, ordinances or pilot projects currently being implemented.”
But additional language complicates the city’s given ability to regulate sidewalk riding.
“It allegedly gives a municipality like Alexandria the authority to prohibit scooters on sidewalks. But there’s another code section that mandates that that is not to go into effect until January 2020,” Yvonne Callahan, a retired lawyer and current vice president of the Old Town Civ- ic Association, said.
Section 46.2-903, which allows scooters to ride on sidewalks unless prohibited by a local ordinance, will not take effect until January 2020. Section 46.2-904, which allows a city to create an ordinance to prohibit scooters on “designated” sidewalks will go into effect on July 1. The latter affords localities some measure of control until the delayed effective date of the former.
While certain sections of the pilot don’t take effect until January 2020, others could limit the city’s power if certain actions aren’t taken by January 2020, Callahan said.
“[Section 46.2-1315] also provides that the city may establish a licensing agreement with the scooter companies,” Callahan said. “… The city is given the authority to license scooters, but if they don’t do that by January 2020, they lose the right to do it.”
The City of Alexandria does not currently operate with licensing agreements, which would resemble licensed taxi operations. Instead, it uses a permitting system.
Section 46.2-1315’s January 2020 cutoff only negates the city’s ability to license. It does not affect a city’s ability to set up a pilot program or permit, control or ban scooters under its own pilot program.
“It does not appear to set any kind of ‘start a pilot or you’re dead,’” Callahan said. “There’s no language to that effect except that it does say, [paraphrased] ‘This act shall not be construed to impact any pilot project currently being implemented as authorized by existing law.’”
The delayed effective date for certain sections of the bill could complicate the city’s regulatory efforts, but it also provides the city with more time to evaluate the effectiveness of its own program, Craig Fifer, the city’s communications director, said.
“If the new law had an effective date of July 1, we may have had to make a decision without enough data and analysis,” Fifer said. “The January 2020 effective date for some provisions doesn’t have a foreseeable impact on our local authority to regulate via an ordinance.”
The city’s charter still affords it some authority. According to section 2.04 of the city’s charter, the city can regulate the operation of vehicles, manage and control traffic and prevent any obstruction of rights-of-way, Fifer said.
The new state law aims to give cities like Alexandria more power to control a transportation revolution that arrived with little warning. While delayed start dates for specific code sections could impact just how much power the city really has at the moment, city staff are looking forward to wresting back some control in a situation that has left people in the community, and in city hall, with more questions than answers.
“The new legislation lets the city define how the program looks,” Orr said.