By Cody Mello-Klein | [email protected]
City council is set to vote on the future of the e-scooter pilot program on Saturday.
The vote is the culmination of a year’s worth of work and data collection by staff and controversy and concerns among residents.
Department of Transportation and Environmental Services staff are recommending that council approve a phase II e-scooter pilot program, an ordinance to adopt scooter regulations in city code and a resolution that would create an ad hoc scooter task force.
Doing so would extend the program another year, providing staff time to adapt and change the program, according to staff.
“I think we’ve learned a lot from the pilot and we still feel like there’s a lot more to learn. That’s why we’re recommending a phase II,” Katye North, Mobility Divisions chief, said.
After scooter companies started deploying fleets of dockless electric scooters in the city without notice during summer 2018, staff recommended council adopt a pilot program that could provide a regulatory framework for the disruptive new technology.
Council approved the program in November 2018 and the pilot launched in January.
Since then, seven scooter companies have signed the city’s memorandums of understanding.
From the get-go, scooters attracted riders, whether they were commuters making a last mile connection to the Metro or joyriders out for a weekend ride. On average, there are about 15,000 users per month who have taken 230,000 total trips, according to a Nov. 26 staff presentation to council. That averages out to about 26,000 trips per month.
In determining the future of scooters in Alexandria, Mayor Justin Wilson said it’s important to remember the sheer number of riders using the devices every month.
“I think a good many of our residents are voting with their feet and using these devices and I think that’s something that we have to keep in mind,” Wilson said.
The program has also drawn a significant amount of criticism from residents, particularly in Old Town where around 60 percent of deployment takes place.
Improper parking, sidewalk riding and inadequate enforcement and responsiveness by companies have been consistent points of concern for residents. Some residents have little faith that staff can get any closer to addressing these concerns.
“If they can’t collect enough data in eight months – and people would be wise to question the city’s data and its claims to being data-driven – then something’s wrong,” Hal Hardaway, an Old Town resident and vocal critic of the program, said.
Staff made changes to the program over the summer in an attempt to address certain concerns. T&ES worked with companies to geofence areas of the city, using GPS-based technology to prevent scooters from starting or ending rides on the waterfront, in Market Square and at Metro stops during the summer Metro shutdown. Staff also installed parking corrals in Old Town.
“Over the time of the pilot, we have worked to address some of the most extreme challenges,” Wilson said. “The number of complaints that we have gotten has gone dramatically down. I think some of the accommodations that we’ve put in place have dealt with that for sure.”
(Read more: City staff recommends phase two scooter pilot)
Since riders first started hopping on these electric scooters, residents have been complaining about sidewalk riders jeopardizing the safety of pedestrians. During the initial pilot, the city did not institute a defined policy for sidewalk riding, based on state legislation that made doing so complicated.
Under the phase II pilot, sidewalk riding would be banned in Old Town from the waterfront to West Street and from Montgomery to Wilkes streets. In Del Ray, sidewalk riding would be banned along Mount Vernon Avenue.
The proposed change does not sit well with Wilson, who said he wants to see a citywide sidewalk riding ban.
“My feeling is the scooters shouldn’t be ridden on the sidewalks at all, but I think there’s probably ways to adjust what they’ve recommended to prevent that,” Wilson said.
According to North, the decision to ban sidewalk riding only in specific areas had to do with the safety of both pedestrians and riders.
“It’s largely based on the prevalence of narrower sidewalks, brick sidewalks … higher density of pedestrians or people on those sidewalks and then shorter blocks, which keep the speed lower in general,” North said.
As of Dec. 10, staff included a condition that would allow other areas to be added in the future. Council could expand the area of prohibition through ordinances, according to North.
Staff’s recommendation also involves approval of an ordinance that would define e-scooter regulations in city code, giving the Alexandria Police Department more power to enforce a new, ever evolving mode of transportation, North said.
APD Captain Jamie Bridgeman clarified that sidewalk riding enforcement would be most improved by the change.
“We’ll know that if you’re in that area on the sidewalk, that’s prohibited by city code, if it passes,” Bridgeman said. “There’s really gonna be no guessing. ‘Well, is it this block? Is it that block?’ It defines it and makes it more clear.”
However, enforcing traffic violations will likely remain a challenge for APD officers. Although some officers have written scooter riders the occasional citation, there has been very little concrete enforcement of traffic violations, Bridgeman said.
“There’s been very little enforcement of scooters,” Bridgeman said. “A lot of it has been having conversations, like, ‘Hey, that was dangerous.’ ‘You should probably wear a helmet.’ ‘You ran that stop sign’ or ‘You didn’t look going that way.’”
Police will continue to treat scooter riders the same as bicyclists, observing a traffic violation and then making stops or issuing citations if appropriate.
Aside from the question of enforcement, staff is still trying to address inequitable distribution of scooters and the potential environmental impacts of the devices.
The phase II pilot would require each scooter company to deploy 15 percent of its fleet west of Quaker Lane and east of I-395, another 10 percent west of I-395 and another 5 percent in Arlandria, according to a staff document provided at a Tuesday legislative meeting.
Councilors John Chapman and Mo Seifeldein pushed back on the proposed change on Nov. 26, claiming staff needed to think about equity in light of what’s best for residents, not a company’s business model.
Seifeldein also implored staff to explore potential environmental impacts by adding an impact analysis to its recommendation. The environmental impact would be a focus of the phase II pilot, North said.
Seifeldein cited several studies, including one from North Carolina State University, that have looked into scooter lifecycles and emissions.
Council’s vote on Saturday is further complicated by the state code: Starting Jan. 1, scooter companies can operate unregulated in localities if there is no pilot or permanent program in place.
“If we don’t have a pilot program, the scooter companies would be allowed to operate and if we don’t have anything saying they’re banned, they would be allowed to operate,” North said.
Residents like Hardaway believe the city should do what several other municipalities across the country and world have already done: cancel the program.
“Cities around the world are clamping down on scooters and even banning them. And Alexandria is heading in the other direction?” Hardaway said in an email.
For Wilson, banning scooters altogether could result in problems down the road, he said. For the mayor, the best path forward is one defined by regulation.
“I think my head is probably of the mind that you want to try to provide a regulatory structure that can be enforced and address the complaints we hear from residents,” Wilson said. “… There’s an argument to be made that you have some ability to control them a little bit more inside a regulatory framework than you do if you do not [have one]. That’s one of the balances the city is going to have to strike.”
For more scooter coverage, read our ongoing Scooters in Alexandria series.