By Cody Mello-Klein | [email protected]
Are scooters a vibrant new part of Alexandria’s transportation puzzle or a dangerous eyesore? That’s the question, and city residents have five more days, until Oct. 15, to weigh in on city staff’s recommendations for a phase two e-scooter pilot program.
City staff presented a set of draft recommendations for the phase two scooter pilot to city council on Oct. 2, bringing the program’s future to the forefront of the conversation.
As the city’s controversial, yet highly used, scooter pilot program nears the end of its initial ride, city staff, council and the community have begun to ask, “What is the future of scooters in Alexandria?” Staff’s recommended changes for a phase two pilot, and the window for resident input, come ahead of city council’s scheduled vote on the program in November and the end of the original pilot on Dec. 31, 2019.
For the past nine months, Alexandria’s city staff and city council – like others around the country – have wrestled with how to regulate fleets of dockless scooters. The city initiated a pilot program in January 2019, with the first permitted scooter company, Lime, deploying its fleet that month.
To enter the program and deploy scooters in Alexandria, each of the city’s seven permitted scooter companies had to pay a $5,000 fee and sign a memorandum of understanding, agreeing to certain city rules and regulations.
A rocky start
The scooter program has been fiercely contested by some community members since its inception. Those who oppose the program have expressed concern about pedestrian safety due to scooters riding and parking on sidewalks, the seeming lack of enforcement by police and city staff and the failure of scooter companies to timely respond to reports of improperly parked scooters.
At the same time, many Alexandrians and visitors have found the scooters useful for last mile connections to public transit and joyrides. Between January and August there were 201,340 scooter trips, according to data presented to council during the Oct. 2 legislative meeting by Department of Transportation and Environmental Services staff. In that same time frame, 114,510 total active users have travelled 195,017 miles.
T&ES made mid-pilot adjustments in order to address certain concerns. Staff implemented scooter corrals and geofencing to keep scooters off sidewalks and from starting and stopping rides in certain areas. The city also gave scooter companies hang tags with educational safety messages and contact information to place on their devices.
For some, the mid-pilot changes failed to address equity, safety and enforcement issues. City Councilor Mo Seifeldein went so far as to call for the suspension of the program in June based on these concerns.
Phase two pilot
The draft recommendations proposed by T&ES aim to lay out a road map for a potential permanent scooter program. The proposed changes would be implemented in a phase two pilot, which, if approved by council in November, would last for the entirety of 2020.
In the draft recommendations, staff proposed reducing the speed limit on streets from 20 to 15 miles per hour, requiring anyone under the age of 14 to wear a helmet, establishing an ad hoc scooter task force and crafting a stricter MOU with potentially higher permit fees to cover the cost of the program.
The proposed change garnering the most attention from the community would allow scooters, like bicycles, to ride on sidewalks unless they’re explicitly banned from doing so. Bikes are permitted to ride on sidewalks except on King Street and two blocks on Union Street, Hillary Orr, deputy director of T&ES, said.
Despite the changes proposed for a phase two pilot, some city councilors and community members remain skeptical about the program’s future.
“I’m not particularly sold on scooters quite yet,” Vice Mayor Elizabeth Bennett-Parker said at the Oct. 2 legislative meeting. “While I appreciate the opportunity to address the [last] mile problem with public transportation, I do share many of the concerns that we’ve heard from the community.”
“You are brewing a [recipe] for pedestrians’, bicyclists’ [and] scooterists’ road rage,” Danko Kramar, an Old Town resident, said. “… Why have tax dollars gone into making bicycle lanes on the street?”
In the draft recommendations, staff proposed a speed limit of 6 to 8 miles per hour on sidewalks, but Orr said the department is still working with the police department to determine what’s best.
“The speed limit on the sidewalk, we’re still working with police to figure out if that’s even feasible,” Orr said. “So, that might change by the time we have a final recommendation. We just want to get some feedback on the community about that.”
In August, staff published a community feedback form, which garnered 2,914 responses, according to the staff presentation. Thirty-eight percent of respondents, around 1,100, had ridden a scooter. Of those riders, 26 percent said they mostly ride in bike lanes, while 53 percent said they would prefer to ride in a bike lane if possible.
The enforcement question
Staff’s proposed changes include a requirement by companies to place scooters in parking corrals when possible. And while some members of council, including Amy Jackson, said the corrals have made a difference, councilors and community members alike remain concerned about police officers’ ability to enforce rider behavior in general.
“I think we need to be serious about enforcement with all forms of transportation,” Councilor John Chapman said. “Adding additional modes of transportation, I would think that would add additional eyes, additional enforcement, but it doesn’t seem that it’s necessarily done that.”
“The city should have been doing something to make it more clear that they want to have law enforcement of this, not just civil enforcement of this,” Yvonne Callahan, vice president of the Old Town Civic Association, said.
One tool the city has been using to help control rider behavior is geofencing, a GPS-based technology that allows the scooter companies to mark certain areas off limits for parking scooters. Market Square, Waterfront Park and certain Metro stations during the summer shutdown were geofenced.
While geofencing can prevent rides from starting and stopping in a particular area, it doesn’t currently disable scooters that are brought into these areas from other locations from operating.
Staff is exploring potential no-ride zones as well, Orr said.
“What we’re trying to get the technology to do is drop down to about three miles per hour when you enter a zone,” Orr said. “And again, the GPS is not that accurate, so we couldn’t do a sidewalk. It would have to be a park or a bigger area. But it would drop down to a speed limit where effectively you can’t balance, so you would have to walk it.”
Geofencing has been an underused resource, Chapman said.
“I think there’s a lot of opportunity there that has not been realized,” Chapman said. “We have a technical opportunity to put boundaries around where people can place scooters, and we haven’t done that. I think we leave a lot open to folks in terms of where they can place things.”
The most pressing issue for many on the dais remains the ongoing lack of equitable distribution of scooters throughout the city. For Seifeldein, equity is a make or break issue, one that he feels hasn’t been addressed at all in the current pilot.
“The city is on the verge of implementing a policy that widens the equity gap,” Seifeldein said in an emailed statement. “As a general matter, City polices must be set to serve the best interest of all residents.”
Orr clarified that staff doesn’t have a full data set that details where scooters are being deployed and ridden, which would help in determining where the equity gaps are. A July 23 staff memo identified that a significant majority of scooter usage – 65 percent – occurred in Old Town.
“I don’t think that’s something that we should allow because our job is not to ensure that this business meets its bottom-line quota and returns of income,” Chapman said. “It’s to ensure that all our residents have an opportunity at all of the options for transit.”
One of staff’s proposed changes would require companies to deploy or rebalance their fleets in different neighborhoods and participate in income-based discount programs, according to the staff presentation.
Both Seifeldein and Chapman remained unconvinced and questioned whether staff has implemented changes quickly enough in the past.
Meanwhile, some community members, especially riders, are optimistic about the changes.
“I feel the new revisions are a perfect example of the city learning and listening from the original pilot program,” Ethan McAfee, an Old Town resident and scooter rider, said. “It is clear by the over 200,000 rides that there is a clear demand for the service and that [the city] is doing its part to increase public transportation options and lower parking and traffic issues.”
Even opponents of the program expressed hesitant praise for some of staff’s proposed changes, particularly the ad hoc scooter task force, which was originally proposed by local civic associations.
“The ad hoc scooter task force, I’m very glad for that. I wish it’d been done sooner,” Callahan said. “… Depending on who the city manager puts on there, it could be quite good.”
“We would try to get an equitable composition to represent as many groups as possible,” Orr said.
The path forward
Staff’s proposed changes have not entirely addressed the concerns expressed by community or city council members. With a vote that will determine the program’s future or elimination next month, staff and council members are looking at potential paths forward.
Bennett-Parker suggested creating a competitive points-based process for determining which companies can participate in the program. Staff is also looking into the potential of establishing a fee-per-scooter in order to create more strict measures for companies and possibly reduce the number of companies participating in the program, Orr said.
“I know staff is working on changes that would create higher bars for scooter companies, including higher fees that would cover our costs and that would serve to reduce the number of companies operating,” Bennett-Parker said in an email.
But the path forward is uncertain for many cities struggling to adapt to the rapidly evolving micro-mobility industry.
New companies, such as Charge, a company focused on providing infrastructure for scooters like parking space-sized charging stations, have sprung up around the industry. Charge aims to save companies money – and communities the headache – by confining e-scooters to defined city infrastructure.
“Our thesis is by corralling them in a series of smart city type approaches with our virtual docks, our physical docks … you’re able to actually keep your city streets and sidewalks compliant with everything from [the Americans with Disabilities Act] to normal common-sense quality of life,” Charge Chief Executive Officer Andrew Fox said.
With all this change, staff and council members and the community continue to question whether the micro-mobility revolution can be a vital, feasible part of the city.
“I think [scooters] have the ability to be meaningful,” Chapman said. “I just think we have to regulate them properly.”
The Transportation Commission will hold a public hearing on the proposed changes at its Oct. 16 meeting, according to the city’s website. City council will vote on the pilot program’s future later this fall.
The public can provide feedback on the recommended changes through an online feedback form through Oct. 15: www.research.net/r/AlexandriaVa-ScooterPilotDraftRecs.
(Check out the Times’ Scooters in Alexandria series)