E-scooter task force recommends extending phase II pilot

E-scooter task force recommends extending phase II pilot
(Photo Credit: Missy Schrott)

By Cody Mello-Klein | cmelloklein@alextimes.com

At its first virtual meeting on Monday night, the city’s ad hoc scooter task force recommended that the phase II e-scooter pilot program be extended.

The recommendation, which would extend the program through Dec. 31, 2021, will go to City Council for consideration in the fall, ahead of the pilot’s expiration at the end of 2020.

The task force came to its conclusion largely as a result of time restrictions imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic, which forced staff to delay the group’s first meeting in March and cancel an entire spring and summer’s worth of community outreach events and meetings.

The city’s e-scooter pilot faced challenges before those posed by the pandemic. City Council approved the initial pilot in November 2018, after e-scooter companies began dispatching scooters in the city. By then, residents were already concerned about riders parking scooters on sidewalks, riding them in the right of way and disobeying other scooter regulations.

Despite concerns from residents, riders flocked to the devices, taking 250,000 trips in 2019, according to staff’s presentation. To address community concerns, staff implemented geofenced “no park” zones, corrals and safety messaging.

Council approved a phase II pilot and voted to create the task force on Dec. 14, 2019, due in part to Virginia state code, which would allow scooter companies to operate freely within communities without a pilot or permanent program in place. The task force is composed of members of City Council, the community, local businesses and advocacy groups.

The phase II pilot came with some changes: a city-wide sidewalk riding ban, a mandate that scooter companies deploy 30% of their fleets in specific areas of the city and a requirement that permitted companies deploy their scooters in a corral if one is nearby.

As of Sept. 17, riders have taken 54,000 trips as part of the current pilot, according to the staff presentation.

The pandemic is largely to blame for such a sharp decrease in ridership, according to staff. Residents were in lockdown for the majority of the year, and the scooter companies decreased the number of devices they were deploying in response.

The pandemic also significantly disrupted staff’s plans to evaluate the program and its future, which involved community outreach and consistent task force meetings.

“It was quite clear that we were not getting representative data and we would not be able [to] when we have huge portions of the city and the country under stay-at-home orders,” Alex Block, principal planner for the city, said.

With council voting on the recommendation in the fall and the pilot expiring at the end of the year, the task force faced two deadlines during its meeting on Monday. There would be very little time to evaluate new options or conduct community outreach before presenting a recommendation to council, staff said.

“We really hoped to do more this year with [the task force] and the community really to determine how to move forward and what that should look like,” Victoria Caudullo, city planner in mobility services, said. “The fact that we’re only able to meet now, unfortunately, the timing on this program is running out.”

Staff presented four options to the task force: extending the current phase II pilot, establishing a phase III pilot, establishing a permanent program or allowing the pilot to expire.

Due to the time constraints involved in the process, the first three options would involve extending the current pilot, Block said. Changing the current program to create a phase III pilot would require an extension as potential changes are considered and input is gathered from the community; adopting a permanent program would require the same kind of extension.

Staff also noted that a proposed phase III pilot would be essentially the same as the current pilot, since no major changes could be evaluated or recommended in time for council approval. Not only would staff need to engage with the community but it would need to go before commissions that meet only onceamonthbeforegoingto council in the fall.

“The constraints that we have with the expiration of the existing pilot and the timeline required to be able to bring this recommendation in front of council really left us with any practical solution to the pilot [requiring] some degree of extension,” Block said.

The members of the task force acknowledged residents’ ongoing concerns around parking, enforcement and the reporting process and stressed that there needs to be more community input and data before any significant change is made to the current program.

“Extending the pilot program … would give the city and the participants on this task force the opportunity to engage with their key stakeholders and provide reasonable and rational alternatives that could be advanced to the City Council,” Steve Klejst, the task force chair, said.

Sharon Dantzig, an Alexandria Commission on Aging representative on the task force, called the more significant options – making the program permanent or letting it expire – “premature” without sufficient data.

While most task force members expressed interest in extending the current pilot, Christian Lyle Scott, a representative for Councilor Canek Aguirre, questioned the need to extend the program for another year.

In order to make changes to the current pilot, staff would need six to nine months to develop, draft and seek input on changes to the program before presenting a recommendation to council in fall 2021, Caudullo said.

Yvonne Callahan, vice president of the Old Town Civic Association, made a motion, seconded by Del Ray business owner Amy Slack, to recommend extending the current pilot program through Dec. 31, 2021. The task force approved the motion 11-3.

The recommendation will now go before City Council for consideration this fall.