By Cody Mello-Klein | [email protected]
Alexandria’s e-scooter pilot program is nearing the end of the road in September, and community members have lingering questions about the program’s merits and faults. A recent pilot program update memo from city staff to city council answers some of those questions – and raises others.
The memo, sent to council by city staff on July 23, provides a detailed update, with ridership data, crash and accident statistics and projected next steps the city will consider taking with the program.
After being approved in November 2018, the city’s e-scooter pilot program commenced in January 2019 with Lime, the first permitted scooter company, launching its fleet of dockless electric vehicles onto the city’s streets. Since then, five more companies have received permits and signed memorandums of understanding with the city. All permits expire on Sept. 30, although the city is able to administratively extend the program until the end of October while staff evaluates the program and crafts a recommendation for council.
Community concerns around safety, parking and the program’s aesthetic impact on Old Town have been present since the beginning, and the memo documents hundreds of complaints from residents during the memo’s January through May timeframe. But data in the memo also reveals usage levels that indicate the program has taken off with riders.
From January through the end of May, 18,050 registered users of the apps have started or ended 101,515 scooter trips in Alexandria, according to the memo. Eighty percent of those trips took place in April and May. Between January and May, riders travelled 91,644 miles, with the average trip lasting between between 10 and 15 minutes and spanning just under one mile.
The total number of trips roughly coincides with the arrival of summer, the change in weather and rise in tourism, according to the memo. Riders took 4,198 trips in February. That number quickly jumped to 13,845 in March and then to 42,200 in April before falling to 39,682 in May.
According to the memo, the six scooter companies currently permitted to oper- ate in the city – Lime, Lyft, Bolt, Bird, Skip and Spin – have each deployed 50 to 180 vehicles per day on average, totaling, on average, 650 to 700 scooters in Alexandria per day. Per the MOU, each company can deploy a maximum of 200 scooters.
A handful of crashes and injuries have been reported since the pilot began, though the memo notes that the number of actual crashes is likely higher than the reported tally.
“It is acknowledged that known crashes and injuries are likely less than the actual reporting due to non-reporting,” according to the memo.
The memo notes two crashes, neither of which resulted in police reports or injuries, while the Times has learned of two additional crashes in recent weeks.
The first crash occurred in April when a rider was hit by a car and received only “minor scrapes,” according to the memo. The second occurred in May and “involved the rider and property damage” new North West and Princess streets.
A third crash occurred on July 18, but, due to the memo’s data only extending through May, was not included in this report. In this case, a man was hospitalized after crashing a scooter near the intersection fo Gibbon and South Royal streets. The man suffered a minor head injury and was transported to the George Washington University Hospital where he was treated and released, according to Craig Fifer, the city’s communications director.
A fourth crash occurred on Saturday at the intersection of Main Line Boulevard and Potomac Avenue, according to a city news alert. The rider was transported to the hospital, and no other vehicle was involved with the crash.
The scooter companies also reported six “minor injuries” between January and May involving riders and the scooters, including hand pains caused by rough riding and incidents with potholes or other immobile street objects.
Community members have had ongoing concerns about safety for riders and pedestrians along with improper parking and riding. According to the memo, community members voiced those concerns, en masse, to both staff and the companies.
Community members reported 97 parking issues and 324 “other” issues to the scooter companies. Meanwhile, city staff received around 800 comments or reported issues from the community, the city’s Call.Click.Connect service received 213 tickets and the dockless mobility email address received more than 500 emails.
Staff’s memo to council notes common themes from the community input it received, including improper parking of scooters; pedestrian safety especially for elderly people and those with disabilities; the loss of Old Town’s historic character; and questions about the law and legislation around scooters. The city has been evaluating community input — particularly from those in Old Town where 65 percent of scooter usage takes place — and making some mid-pilot adjustments based on the feedback.
Some of those mid-pilot adjustments were implemented early in the pilot program. For instance, the city posted variable message boards on King Street and near the waterfront in May, warning scooter operators that sidewalk riding is prohibited.
The city also communicated to the companies the need to increase or modify safety messaging in the apps themselves, according to the memo. Some companies, including Bolt, now show notifications about local rules every time the app is opened. Others, such as Bird, have safety messaging, but users have to look for it in the “How to Ride” section of the app.
The city is also working on its own form of rider education.
“One of the things that we’re currently working on right now is kind of like a door hanger but it’s a scooter hanger where we’ve got information for users,” Hillary Orr, deputy director of the Department of Transportation and Environmental Services, said.
The city worked with the Alexandria Police Department to increase targeted enforcement and education efforts on weekends in areas where ridership is high. Those efforts resulted in six citations for sidewalk riding and reckless driving and 138 stops where officers warned and educated scooter riders after stop sign violations, sidewalk riding or underage operation.
The city also formed its own enforcement effort: a scooter task force made up of T&ES employees who straighten, report and impound scooters. The MOU states that a company must retrieve any improperly parked vehicle within two hours, or the city can impound it and charge the company for the time and staff hours required to transport and house the vehicle.
T&ES staff straightened 230 scooters, reported three improperly parked scooters and impounded 31 scooters. Staff also noted several instances of vandalism to the scooters, such as people putting the vehicles into trash cans, kicking them and even throwing them into bodies of water.
Other adjustments to the pilot, including geofencing and scooter corrals, have taken longer to implement.
“We have worked with the companies to geofence certain areas based on feedback based on the community,” Orr said. “Right now, people can ride through those areas. What the geofencing means, and what the technology is right now, is that people cannot start or end a trip there.”
So far, the city has geofenced Market Square, Waterfront Park, the City of Alexandria Marina and areas around Alexandria Metro stops for the duration of the summer Metro shutdown. The private streets in and around Ford’s Landing Townhomes were also geofenced after the homeowners’ association sent a letter to the scooter companies requesting the area be off limits for scooters.
Staff is also trying to implement scooter corrals “that will not impact vehicle parking” in 10 high-use areas, according to the memo. The first corrals are set to be installed in Old Town this weekend, Orr said in an email.
Staff is considering a variety of other major changes to the program, like mandating that all companies require riders to have a driver’s license and strive for more equitable deployment throughout the city. But with two months left in the pilot, city staff are currently intent on collecting and evaluating data from the companies and community before a recommendation is made to city council, Orr said.
“We’re not going to be making any adjustments before [September] because it’s not worth the time to go through that with the com- panies,” Orr said. “What we’re looking at is, if we don’t cancel, what adjustments would we want to include in the MOUs. We have some general thoughts on that, but we’re also going to be basing that on input from the community.”
Looking past September, the staff memo cites the potential for a phase two pilot, one that would allow staff additional time to adapt to a rapidly changing technology before implementing something permanent.
“Other cities have gone through the pilot process, they’ve seen what’s worked and what hasn’t worked, what regulations need to be changed and before instituting a full-fledged program that’s a little bit harder to alter, they’ll go through a phase two [pilot] because technology is changing so fast,” Christine Mayeur, T&ES’ Complete Streets program manager, said. “There are things that are changing that a phase two pilot could help us test out, to see what’s working and allow us to be a little more flexible.”
Whether a phase two pilot is part of staff’s recommendation or not is still uncertain. Staff are still inundated with messages from concerned residents, while ridership remains high. The city will have to sort through community input, company-provided data and its own internal numbers to determine whether there is a path forward for e-scooters in Alexandria, and if so, how that path should be constructed.
“The community input that we get as we do outreach over the next few months will really help us figure out if that’s the right move and also what we would want to look at during the [phase two] pilot if we went down that path,” Orr said.