City council approves phase two e-scooter pilot

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(Photo/Missy Schrott)
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By Cody Mello-Klein | cmelloklein@alextimes.com

Council voted unanimously to approve a phase II dockless e-scooter pilot program at its public hearing on Saturday.

The phase II pilot, which will last from Jan. 1 to Dec. 31, 2020, will feature a city-wide sidewalk ban for e-scooters in addition to changes in how scooter companies deploy and distribute devices.

Council also voted to approve an ordinance that defines micromobility devices and the regulations around them in city code and a resolution that establishes an ad hoc scooter task force.

The vote on Saturday was the culmination of the city’s initial year-long pilot program, one that received criticism from many residents and support from riders. However, the public hearing brought few fireworks, as only eight public speakers showed up to offer their thoughts on the program.

Residents expressed concerns around pedestrian safety, a lack of enforcement by police and unsafe scooter rider behavior, including sidewalk riding and improper parking.

“Old Town Civic members are very concerned about the proliferation of electric scooters operating throughout Old Town, the lack of enforcement and find them menacing to the walkability we love and all get to enjoy here in Old Town,” Steve Milone, president of Old Town Civic Association, said at the hearing.

Many residents are concerned about riders improperly parking scooters, creating a safety hazard and marring Old Town’s historic charm. (Photo/Missy Schrott)

At the same time, riders who use the scooters for both commuting and entertainment spoke in support of the program.

“Scooters are affordable and liberating and have been a great tool for people like me to go places,” Elena Sorokina, a Del Ray resident who uses a scooter daily, said. “Imposing further restrictions on scooters will solve none of the is- sues and will make the neighborhood more car-centric and less community-oriented.”

The city has seven permitted scooter companies. To operate in the city, each of the companies had to pay permit fees and surety bonds and sign a memorandum of understanding that outlined specific rules and regulations.

Of the seven companies, Bird was the only one to have a representative present on Saturday; however, the representative did not provide any comments during the public hearing.

Now that it’s approved, the phase II pilot program will provide staff with additional time to evaluate the impact of scooters as well as additional enforcement efforts, potential environmental effects and options for permanent licensing and regulation processes.

“That’s part of the reason why we want to implement a phase II pilot program, so we have time to see what’s happening with evolving technology and work with the companies and develop processes,” Hillary Orr, deputy director of the Department of Transportation and Environmental Services, said.

During a staff presentation, Katye North, mobility division chief, warned council that as of Jan. 1 state code allows scooter companies to operate without regulations in any locality that doesn’t have a pilot, permanent program or outright ban on scooters in place.

North also said that e-scooters are a regional challenge, one Alexandria would find difficult to avoid.

“All of our neighboring jurisdictions have some form of a scooter program, whether it’s an actual permanent program or a pilot program,” North said. “These are things that will be in the region and are likely to come to Alexandria one way or another.”

Photo credit/Missy Schrott

City staff first brought forth its proposal for a phase II pilot at council’s Nov. 26 legislative meeting. After receiving feedback from council, staff made some adjustments to its recommendation.

In response to council’s desire to see more equitable deployment throughout the city, the phase II pilot now requires scooter companies to deploy 15 percent of their fleets west of Quaker Lane and east of I-395, 10 percent west of I-395 and 5 percent in Arlandria.

Councilor Mo Seifeldein suggested the deployment numbers in these areas should be even higher.

Staff originally recommended a sidewalk ban on specific streets in Old Town and Del Ray; however, council voted to have a city-wide sidewalk riding ban during the phase II pilot.

The issues of sidewalk riding and the enforcement of scooter traffic violations remained pressing for community and council members on Saturday.

“We are aware and recognize that city sidewalks are being used for unintended purposes, such as electric scooters, which in our view presents a public safety hazard for the elderly,” Alan Dinsmore, a member of the Commission on Aging, said.

Councilor Canek Aguirre emphasized that rider and resident education should be expanded as staff and APD work to better police rider behavior.

“We really need to try and put together some type of education campaign because a lot of the issues we’re looking at can be avoided if people are properly aware of what the rules of the road are and how they should conduct themselves,” Aguirre said.

Staff has already organized a number of education and outreach initiatives, but there’s more work to be done with social media and in-app messaging, Orr said.

Several members of council directed staff to increase current efforts, like parking corrals and geofenced zones that prohibit scooters from starting or ending a ride in specific areas using GPS technology.

Councilor John Chapman encouraged staff to implement additional corrals in areas outside of Old Town. Staff is already exploring potential corral locations in Del Ray, Carlyle and Potomac Yard, North said.

Chapman also pushed staff to request more data, particularly demographic data on the age and zip codes of riders, from companies during the phase II pilot. While staff cannot request data the companies don’t already collect, under the MOU, staff can request access to any data the companies do have, North said.

Photo/Missy Schrott

Seifeldein read a comprehensive statement during Saturday’s hearing, acknowledging that the lack of diversity in Silicon Valley companies can result in inequitable implementation of innovative technology.

“The fewer people in these companies who look like their customers, the less likely they are to seek out change on the concerns that their customers have,” Seifeldein said.

Seifeldein also talked about the environmental impacts of scooters. While some claim scooters help cut back on carbon emissions by get- ting cars off the roads, Seifeldein cited research from North Carolina State University that suggests e-scooters may not be altering the transportation ecosystem in environmentally significant ways.

“The research that does exist shows that e-scooters may be solving urban congestion and the last mile problem, however they do not significantly reduce the negative impact of current transportation methods,” Seifeldein said.

Council ultimately considered and approved all three staff recommendations in separate votes.

Councilor Del Pepper made a motion, seconded by Chapman, to authorize the 12-month long phase II pilot program. Council unanimously authorized the phase II pilot with minor changes from Vice Mayor Elizabeth Bennett-Parker, who added language directing the city to require companies to reduce the speed of scooters in geofenced zones.

Pepper also made a motion, seconded by Bennett-Parker, to approve the staff-recommended ordinance with the key change of banning sidewalk riding citywide. Council unanimously adopted the ordinance.

Pepper finally made a motion, seconded by Chapman, to approve the resolution to create an ad hoc scooter task force, composed of community members, business owners and representatives of community groups.

For more coverage, read the Times’ Scooters in Alexandria series.

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