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HomeSpotlight Story | Bird’s Eye View | Budget & Taxes | Politics & Leadership | Governors | Hot Issues | Once Around the Statehouse Lightly
Many lawmakers left their state capitol buildings around the country after adjourning last year having never seen an e-scooter. A good number may never even have heard of such a thing.
But that’s changed for many lawmakers returning for sessions this year. Many in several states are now probably seeing them zipping along a street or bike lane, parked against a building or just lying on the ground in a park. And they may have wondered, as many of their constituents and city council counterparts have, are these things legal? Are there rules for where or how they can be ridden, or parked?
Billed as a clean short-trip alternative to more carbon-spewing car rides, the rented scooters have become commonplace in dozens of cities since first showing up in late 2017.
The three best-known e-scooter rental companies, Bird, Lime and Skip, have seen incredible growth. Santa Monica, Calif.-based Bird said in September it had rented its 10 millionth ride following a speedy expansion to 100 cities in just a year. City officials have sometimes been caught off guard by how quickly they’ve proliferated, or caught unaware they would be showing up at all.
Local officials from Milwaukee to Oakland have scrambled to decide whether rented e-scooters are allowed on the local streets or sidewalks and if any safety regulations, such as speed limits, are needed.
Most regulatory discussions so far have been at the municipal level. But state policy makers are starting to hear about e-scooters, and they’re hearing it from cities.
“We often do not have a clear definition of what a scooter is and how it should be regulated,” Todd O’Boyle, director of strategic development for Lime, told State Net Capitol Journal. “In many cases cities are asking for state clarification here. Cities want to know, ‘How do we write a scooter policy?’”
Many states don’t yet have answers.
“In North Carolina, for example, there is no clear definition of scooters in the state vehicle code,” O’Boyle said. “Cities have said, ‘Please create a definition so we have a way to write scooter regulations.
“There are states where there’s no problem with state law, no ambiguity whatsoever, there are states where the cities’ authority is ambiguous, and there are states where they appear not to be legal,” O’Boyle said.
Milwaukee is one place that looked to the state for help. After scooters started showing up there before any regulations could be considered, the city first moved to impound them. But then the city council passed a resolution asking Wisconsin to legalize them.
“If they are legal, we want them to be here,” Mayor Tom Barrett told the city’s Journal Sentinel newspaper last summer.
The dynamic is similar in what may be the biggest prize for e-scooter companies, New York. They’re currently not allowed there. City Council Speaker Corey Johnson recently told StreetsBlog NYC that there’s support in the city for legalizing them, but some believe they may not yet be allowed under state law.
“We believe the state legislature would need to take some action for us to be able to move these bills,” Johnson told Streetsblog, though some activists believe they fall within an existing state exemption to the law that some believe bans them.
Little Rock is one place where returning state lawmakers may soon get their first glimpse of scooters zooming through the streets. When lawmakers were last in session there, there were no scooters. When the General Assembly starts Jan. 19, Lime e-scooters should be widely available all over town.
Unlike some places, Little Rock officials weren’t surprised the city was getting up to 500 e-scooters. Recently retired Mayor Mark Stodola worked with Lime to get Little Rock in on the new “micromobility” movement, meeting with company officials before the first scooter showed up.
“My understanding is that scooters are really the direction everybody’s going in,” Stodola told KUAR radio last month.
Little Rock wasn’t the first Arkansas city to get e-scooters. Bird last year launched scooter rentals in Russellville, a city of under 30,000 that’s home to Arkansas Tech University. Mayor Randy Horton knew Bird was coming but told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette he didn’t know there would be more than 150 scooters around the small town.
“I didn't realize how widespread they'd be, so it was a little bit of a surprise,” he told the paper. But he likes having them. “There are a lot of places that I don't want to take my three-quarter-ton truck out to. I'll just take a Bird instead.”
Right now, e-scooters aren’t specifically regulated in Russellville, though Horton told the newspaper that if too many show up or block sidewalks, the city may look into regulations.
Their arrival has been more contentious elsewhere, including San Francisco, which sent a cease-and-desist letter to Bird, Lime and Spin, and impounded some scooters in June before putting a permitting program in place that set rules for the vendors. Other cities that have banned the scooters, at least for a time, include St. Louis and St. Paul, Minnesota.
Cities and states aren’t the only ones concerned about e-scooter proliferation. Arizona State University in Tempe and the University of Arizona in Tucson both banned them in the fall after complaints about safety and scooters taking up bike locking spaces. ASU officials said they were a nuisance and a potential danger.
In most places where moves have been made to regulate scooters, the issue has often centered on complaints of masses of them cluttering public spaces like parks or sidewalks.
In most places, the e-scooters are rented through a “dockless” system. Customers use an app to find a scooter to rent, and then when they reach their destination they leave the scooter there (locked by the app) for the next rider using the app to find it and rent it. That means scooters could be left lying around just about anywhere.
There’s a well-documented phenomenon of people getting so frustrated with the ubiquity of the scooters they’re throwing them in lakes and rivers. Several cities have capped the number of scooters companies can offer and others, like Oakland, California, have set out rules for where the scooters can be placed.
In addition to trying to prevent them from blocking public rights of way, some rules are trying to make the programs more equitable by, for example, requiring that a certain number of scooters be placed in low-income areas.
While the nuisance issue has garnered more attention, there are also safety concerns.
Fatalities involving scooters have even been reported in Dallas, Cleveland and Washington, D.C.
In some cities, there have also been questions about how insurance companies will handle claims when scooters are involved in accidents. It is an issue likely to be considered at the state level soon, as well as one ripe for litigation.
While some regulation is aimed at restricting what scooter companies can do to reduce the nuisance factor and make sure their scooters are used safely, one of the few states where the scooters have already attracted state lawmakers’ attention passed an industry-friendly bill last year aimed at promoting scooter use.
Perhaps not surprisingly, that bill was in California, among the states with the highest e-scooter adoption rate. The new law, signed in September by former Gov. Jerry Brown (D), expands where the scooters can be ridden by allowing them on roads with higher speed limits than before – though the speed limit for the e-scooters themselves remains at 15 mph. The bill, backed by Bird, also allows adults to ride motorized scooters without a helmet, though they’re required for those under 18.
Since earlier last year, when e-scooters seemed to be showing up in unsuspecting cities, the companies now say they’re typically working with officials before launching. Such was the case with cities like Portland and Sacramento, which worked to address those issues before the scooters actually showed up there. That kind of pre-rollout work now seems to be more the norm than the guerilla-style start-up culture of the beginnings of the scooter craze.
Lime’s O’Boyle said that’s true for his company, which worked on Little Rock’s rollout plan. He said it’s in the company’s interest to work with regulatory agencies and city and state lawmakers to smooth the introduction of the vehicles.
“Everybody agrees this is a benefit,” O’Boyle said of reducing traffic and pollution. “Let’s work together to get a healthy framework.”
-- By SNCJ Correspondent David Royse