By Cody Mello-Klein | [email protected]
Department of Transportation and Environmental Services staff presented a recommendation to city council for a phase two e-scooter pilot program during a legislative meeting on Nov. 26.
With council’s final vote on the pilot program fast approaching on Dec. 14, staff outlined several key changes to sidewalk riding regulations, permitting fees and equity that would be implemented in a potential phase two pilot program.
“While we do see the value of this new mode of transportation and the improved mobility it offers residents, we fully recognize that as a city there are still many challenges we need to resolve before we’d be ready for a permanent program,” Katye North, Mobility Services division chief, said. “At this time, we are recommending a phase two pilot program that would allow us to make changes to the existing program and evaluate the impacts of those changes.”
Staff’s recommendation to council is to approve a phase two pilot program, an ordinance adopting scooter regulations and a resolution creating an ad hoc scooter task force.
When the original pilot program launched in January, it was designed both to give riders access to fleets of dockless electric scooters and to create a regulatory framework for the new form of micromobility. Since January, seven scooter companies have signed the city’s memorandum of understanding and are now operating fleets in the city.
The program has drawn high levels of ridership within the city. There are about 15,000 average users per month who have taken 230,000 total trips, according to the staff presentation. This averages out to almost 26,000 trips per month.
The pilot also has many vocal critics. Residents have expressed concern about sidewalk riding, improper parking, enforcement, while members of council have called attention to underage riding, inequity in the program and the potential environmental impact of the devices.
During the summer, T&ES made changes to the pilot to address some of these concerns. In July, staff implemented no parking geofenced zones on the waterfront, in Market Square and at some Metro stops and, in August, installed parking corrals in Old Town.
Over the course of the last three months, staff collected community feedback on its proposed draft recommendations and sought input from boards, commissions and council. The changes made in the phase two pilot reflect that feedback, urban planner Vicki Caudullo said.
Through an online community feedback form released in October, staff found that, among 829 respondents, 51 percent supported continuing with a phase two pilot and 49 percent did not. Forty percent of those who responded had ridden a scooter, while 60 percent had never ridden one.
According to staff, scooters have increased commuting options and mobility in the city. About 50 percent of riders reported that they rode scooters instead of driving, and between 20 and 25 percent of trips started or ended near a Metro stop, before the shutdown.
Although he said he was encouraged by some of the data, councilor Canek Aguirre questioned the data that the companies provided to the city and expressed the desire for demographic data on riders moving forward.
“What other data are they willing to share with us?” Aguirre asked. “Because since they’re collecting so much information, I think it would be useful for us as a city, to at least have some type of access to it.”
Staff did propose changes to ensure the companies provide more relevant data should council move forward with the pilot.
“When you’re looking at some of the changes we’re proposing, one of the changes we are saying is that we’re requiring operators to provide data on active customers by zip code,” Yon Lambert, director of T&ES, said.
Staff also proposed changes meant to address safety concerns, particularly those around sidewalk riding. Under the phase two pilot, the city would ban sidewalk riding in Old Town from the waterfront to West Street and from Montgomery to Wilkes streets as well as on Mount Vernon Avenue in Del Ray.
As part of phase two, staff would also look at other areas of the city where it makes sense to prohibit sidewalk riding, North said.
Staff also proposed reducing the speed limit for scooters from 20 to 15 miles per hour and adding regulations for their use, such as limiting one rider per device and prohibiting scooters within specific parks, Caudullo said.
Councilor John Chapman asked why staff chose not to extend the scope of sidewalk regulations to all of Old Town.
“Really we’re focusing in on the areas that have the highest pedestrian volumes as well as narrow sidewalks,” Caudullo said.
City Manager Mark Jinks clarified that, “For enforcement purposes, [regulations] needed to be something clear and crisp.”
“I was just in San Antonio and, if I remember correctly, the city-wide rule is no sidewalks. That’s as clean cut as you can make it,” Chapman said.
Councilors Amy Jackson and Mo Seifeldein pushed staff to explain how the Alexandria Police Department plans to enforce these regulations in the phase two pilot.
“We would observe them violating the city code and then we could stop them or pull them over, if you will,” APD Captain Jamie Bridgeman said.
Some staff-led efforts have already had a positive impact on safety concerns, Caudullo said. Between corrals, painted squares on the street where scooter companies can deploy their devices, and geofenced no parking zones, scooter parking on the waterfront decreased by 80 percent, Caudullo said. Between 15 and 25 percent of scooters are now deployed in corrals, as well.
The phase two pilot would extend these efforts with the installation of more corrals and geofenced areas, a requirement for companies to stage scooters in corrals where possible and a more “streamlined” reporting process that would route complaints directly to the companies.
Equity of deployment and access, especially in the West End, remains a point of contention in the scooter program, to the point that, in June, Seifeldein called for the program to be suspended until such concerns were addressed.
The phase two pilot would require 10 percent of each operator’s fleet to be deployed west of Quaker Lane and east of I-395 and another 10 percent deployed west of I-395. Staff would also encourage all companies to take part in low-income programs for their users, Caudullo said.
Chapman and Seifeldein remained skeptical about staff’s decision to view equity within the framework of the companies’ user-driven business model.
“I don’t think we need to focus on these companies’ business practice,” Chapman said. “Their business practice is to put scooters in the best places for them to be rode. I think our focus needs to be if they’re going to be on our streets, they need to be available to as many people as possible.”
The phase two pilot would also increase permit and impound fees for companies and increase focus on the environmental impact of e-scooters, Lambert said.
North pointed out to council that, as of January 1, 2020 Virginia state code will allow scooter companies to operate freely in localities that do not have a pilot or permanent program in place.
“By continuing the pilot program, the city will have more control over these devices and can continue to refine these regulations related to their use,” North said.
With council’s feedback, staff will present the recommendation again at the Dec. 10 legislative meeting before a final vote at the Dec. 14 public hearing.
For more coverage of e-scooters, read our Scooters in Alexandria series.