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E-scooters and Bikes Evolve From Fad to Serious Urban Transport Option

Accompanying images can be viewed starting on page 1 of the December 2019 issue pdf

By William G. Schulz

From a fad for cool kids that popped up on DC streets some two years ago, dock-less, electrified bikes and scooters have made their way from Millennial-generation swagger to serious consideration as modes of urban transport—and now, with tightening regulation by City Hall.

The most dramatic step to date was the December 3rd, District Department of Transportation’s (DDOT) rollout of a newly winnowed list of approved dockless e-scooter/e-bike providers for the District of Columbia. The chosen companies have signed on to a complex regulatory regime — a mix of creative application of existing DC bike laws, self-regulation (with oversight) by operators, including for collection of safety data; vehicle safety evaluation, and testing by DDOT; and an evolving set of best practices monitored by the agency for application whenever deemed appropriate.

As well, there is a high probability of further change as DC City Council prepares to consider new legislation — introduced earlier this year by Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh — meant to address safety and the changing state of urban transportation infrastructure, including pedestrian safety, and esthetic challenges delivered by the slick, new app-powered wheels.

The city’s decision this month granted permits to dockless operators Lyft, Jump, Skip and Spin to provide up to 10,000 e-scooters and permits to operators Jump and Helbiz to provide up to 5,000 e-bikes on city streets starting in 2020.

“Dockless vehicles are part of our effort to meet Mayor Bowser’s goal to create reliable, accessible transportation options for Washingtonians across all eight wards,” DDOT Director Jeff Marootian said in announcing the approved permit holders. “The District’s 2020 dockless vehicle sharing program is rooted in thoughtful expansion, program evaluation, and feedback from stakeholders.”

But formalizing the presence of motorized bikes and scooters in DC is not wholly welcome news for many residents, especially the elderly, pet owners, and people who simply enjoy walking undisturbed by motor vehicle traffic.  They have been vocal in their complaints about bike and scooter riders, especially those who ride on sidewalks -— perfectly legal outside of the central business district — and who are often careless about where they leave those bikes and scooters.

A group of Dupont Circle residents met with The InTowner recently to discuss their concerns over e-bikes and scooters. Participants recounted common complaints — e-scooters abandoned in places where they present a trip and fall hazard; riders without helmets; riders who zip past and frighten, especially elderly pedestrians; distracted riders; riders without helmets; and a general sense of disrespect by generally much younger scooter aficionados.

“I think it’s really important to get them off the sidewalks,” said Dupont Circle resident Robin Diener. She said she questions whether the companies are really doing enough to enforce rider safety, especially the requirement to be 18 years of age and provide a valid driver’s license to rent one of the e-bikes or e-scooters.

Diener noted that Cheh’s legislation would effectively prohibit riding on the sidewalk by requiring that operators set the e-scooters to go no faster than about six mph on the sidewalk.

Rob Halligan, another Dupont resident and founder of the online Dupont Forum listserv, characterizes the growing tension between e-bike and e-scooter riders as “smart growth vs. older people. He says he fears that the animosity is close to starting a “war” and is becoming too divisive in general.

Former ANC 2B03 Commissioner Nick DelleDonne, founder of the Dupont East Civic Action Association, voiced distrust of DDOT’s Marootian, who he says “just wants to see the scooters and e-bikes pushed through.”

Marootian tells The InTowner that he hears citizens’ concerns about the new (as they are known in the trade) “mobility devices” –including from people who will probably never hop on and take a ride — and that the new list of approved operators is all about bringing order and accountability to the e-mobility revolution.

For example, Marootian says that the city is in the process of creating 100 dockless vehicle parking corrals by reclaiming street space near street corners. Also, he says the city is monitoring technology that would allow operators to set different vehicle speeds for sidewalks and for streets and bike lanes.

DDOT now has three employees for its dockless vehicles program. Those staffers, Marootian says, are responsible for testing equipment and “all the safety functionality” operators are expected to undertake, including advising riders on the use of helmets, and providing free helmets to riders on demand.

Members of the public can report misplaced vehicles and other safety violations by contacting the device providers. A list from DDOT, with phone numbers, is provided on the agency’s website. Photos documenting violations can be sent by text companies whose equipment is the subject of the complaint, and those companies are expected to take corrective action — for example, moving the bike or scooter within two hours.

But even that basic information can be very difficult to find on the DDOT website and it is not up-to-date. In that regard, the agency is failing the public on the e-vehicle revolution — and Marootian admits that this is the case. “We’re working on that. It’s not a very user-friendly website,” he says.

Indeed, the website has little specific information about e-scooters and bikes about the regulations for operating them. The InTowner did find a reference to something called “micromobility devices,” but it’s otherwise slim pickings. Marootian promises that the agency is working to improve, but the poor quality of the outdated website is not a new criticism for him or DDOT.

Councilmember Cheh says, “We have established bike culture in the District, but, because this technology is relatively new, we don’t have a safe electric scooter culture—resulting in many users neglecting to follow important safety rules.” She says her legislation, the Electric Mobility Device Amendment Act, “is a broad and comprehensive approach to establishing common sense electric scooter and electric bike rules that will help keep our streets and sidewalks safe while also enabling these services to continue to operate in the District.”

Cheh held hearings on the proposed legislation in October. Next steps for the bill, a staff member says, would be markup and a Transportation Committee vote in January 2020 and, if approved, the bill would move before the whole Council, probably in February 2020.

Copyright © 2019 InTowner Publishing Corp. & William G. Schulz. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part without permission is prohibited, except as provided by 17 U.S.C. §§ 107 & 108 (“fair use”).