By Erica C. Barnett
On Wednesday, almost two and a half years after the city of Seattle banned “micro-mobility” companies like Lime and Spin from operating electric scooter-sharing programs in the city, a city council committee took a tentative step toward allowing a small “pilot” program to test out the concept, authorizing scooters to operate everywhere bikes are allowed (streets, bike lanes, and sidewalks that make up parts of bike lanes) and to adopt a fee schedule for scooter companies interested in participating in the new “pilot” program.
The pilot will allow three companies—Lime, a “seated scooter” company such as Tesla-backed Wheels, and a third company providing some combination of seated and standing scooters—to each put 500 scooters each on Seattle streets. (The two-wheeled “seated scooters” look extremely similar to a better-known two-wheeled micromobility technology, minus the pedals). A fourth company, and 500 more scooters, could be added if another new technology emerges and the city wants to try it out.
If the initial pilot is successful, that number could be increased to as many as 6,000. For comparison, Seattle’s original free-floating bike share program started with 1,500 bikes, but within four months had expanded to a maximum of 12,000.
Shared electric scooters could, according to Seattle Department of Transportation analysis, replace up to 175,000 car trips a month; provide a non-motorized alternative for people trying to get out of West Seattle while the West Seattle Bridge is closed; make it easier for people to access transit; and cut monthly CO2 emissions by up to 85 metric tons. They’re also popular with a more diverse group of users than bikes, according to SDOT mobility solutions manager Alex Pazuchanics.
“It took bikeshare a decade to get to the point that scooter share got to in 12 months [in other cities], and I think that’s because it’s accessible to more people who wouldn’t necessarily ride a bike,” Pazuchanics said in an interview after Tuesday’s meeting.
Scooters have been ubiquitous across the US for years, with programs in more than 100 cities at every latitude and with every type of topography, from Miami to Boston to Tacoma. With Seattle finally, belatedly, on the brink of giving them a try, here are some of the factors that could still sink our nascent scooter program.
• Poor planning for parking.
The biggest concern about bikesharing in Seattle, which is now provided by just one company, Lime, is that users sometimes parked them carelessly, blocking sidewalks or leaving bicycles “strewn around” in ways that some people found unsightly. Leaving aside the latter complaint (has anyone told them what people do with cars?) the issue of sidewalk and curb ramp blockages is significant for people with disabilities, who need the ability to navigate sidewalks without obstacles in their way.
SDOT’s response to these concerns has been to focus mostly on user behavior—for example, by requiring companies to fine users $20 if they park their scooters outside designated areas, such as the “furniture zone” of sidewalks and in planting strips, or having users take “quizzes” at the beginning of each ride to confirm that they understand the parking restrictions. “I think it’s important that we fine users that are not using the devices properly,” council member Dan Strauss, who sponsored the two bills adopted in committee Wednesday, said.
Council president Lorena González wondered Wednesday why the city wasn’t instead providing more places for scooters to park legally, much as the city does for cars. “When we talk about the parking and enforcement issues and obstruction— all of those things will continue to be problems continue to be problems so long as we are not being thoughtful and deliberate in providing dedicated space and making sure that users of these devices have somewhere appropriate to put them,” González said.
• “But things are different in Seattle…”
Seattle likes to subject every “new” transportation alternative—from biking as an alternative to driving alone to bikeshare to scooters—to endless scrutiny on the grounds that Seattle is somehow different than all other cities. Usually, this is attributed to some combination of our culture (“people will never give up their cars!”) or weather (“no one rides bikes in January!”) or topography (have you heard? We have hills).
All these issues have come up repeatedly in recent discussions about scooters, including on Wednesday, when several speakers noted the existence in Seattle of both hills and rain. For example, Strauss noted that “if, at the end of the pilot program or during the pilot program, we see that the city of Seattle is not suitable for this sort of program because of hills or rain or other factors, then we can end the pilot.”
• The unfinished Bike Master Plan
The success of any scooter program relies heavily on a connected network of bike lanes, which will be the only legal alternative to riding in the street. (Unlike bicycles, scooters will not be allowed on sidewalks). Thanks to COVID and, before that, a general lack of enthusiasm for biking infrastructure from Mayor Jenny Durkan, key elements of the bike master plan have been canceled or delayed indefinitely, including a long-planned bike lane on Fourth Avenue between Pioneer Square and Belltown, a protected bike lane on Martin Luther King Jr. Way South, and a bike connection between Georgetown and downtown.
“Micromobility is going to change the way we get around our city, and unless we connect the bike network, we’re not going to have a safe place for people to use these micromobility tools,” Strauss told me. For now, though, the city seems to be hoping that scooter riders, much like bicyclists, will figure out a way to get where they’re going using a combination of bike lanes and routes that parallel arterial roads, such as greenways, to minimize the danger of collisions.
“One of the challenges [with the scooter pilot] is that it brings a whole new user,” says Joel Miller, SDOT’s micromobility program lead. “There is a responsibility to just educate people [that] you might not want to take the same route in a scooter than you would in a car.”
SDOT also believes that as the speed limit on more city streets is lowered to 25 miles an hour, the roads themselves will become safer for scooters. Council member Tammy Morales, who represents southeast Seattle (an area that still lacks any direct protected bike routes into downtown) pointed out that whatever the actual speed limit, “I can assure you that very few people drive 25 miles an hour on Rainier, MLK, or Beacon Avenue South.” Without safe, convenient ways for scooter users to get where they want to go, the whole project could be doomed to failure—or, worse, fatalities.
• Too few scooters…
As mentioned above, the “pilot” program will distribute just 1,500 scooters across 84 square miles of Seattle, which could prevent critical masses from forming that make them a truly reliable and convenient short-distance transportation mode. If you look for a scooter for a few times and there are none around, you could be inclined to delete the app from your phone.
And because the scooters will include various types of devices (seated, standing, and perhaps a third option), people won’t necessarily get the type of vehicle that they want—someone who prefers to stand on a four-wheeled scooter, for example, may not want to sit on what is essentially a two-wheeled, pedal-less bike.
SDOT’s Pazuchanics says with fewer people going anywhere because of the pandemic, “there’s not as much demand and it doesn’t warrant the kind of scale that we thought was necessarily in a full-scale pilot program.” He says SDOT will continue to “monitor what is the right amount so that you as an individual will have enough confidence that there is a device available to you, but you’re not at a saturation point” where the scooters are just everywhere.
• … in the wrong places
The “equity” requirement for the scooter pilot says that at least 10 percent of the initial fleet, or 150 scooters total, must be located in “environmental justice community areas”—generally lower-income areas with high concentrations of people of color. But because those areas are spread so broadly across the city (and encompass such huge swaths of land), there is a good likelihood that some of these areas will end up with no scooters at all. For people living and working in such areas, it will be like the scooter program doesn’t exist.
Miller, who answered similar questions at the committee meeting, says “equity” doesn’t necessarily mean just equitable distribution, and that the city still needs to “talk to community, and with COVID, that’s something we haven’t been able to do yet.” He said SDOT hopes to set up community conversations, with compensation for people who wouldn’t otherwise be able to attend, in the spring.
• Overzealous enforcement
In addition to fines for parking in the wrong place, council members expressed concern that people would flout the rules by not wearing helmets, which are required under a county law that is rarely enforced. Although no one from SDOT suggested changing city policy to empower police to crack down on helmet avoiders, Miller did tell the council that some scooter companies provide helmets along with the devices (a disposable, biodegradable sleeve inside the helmet keeps the grossness factor down), and noted that some provide discounts for riders who provide a selfie showing them wearing a helmet at the beginning of a ride.
Seattle will be the first city to mandate that each scooter provider limit a user’s first ride to 8 miles an hour, a speed that can feel frustratingly slow, in order to give riders time to learn to to maneuver and accelerate. “It might not be as convenient, it might not be as fun, but it’s going to be a lot safer,” Miller told council members Wednesday.
But will an artificially slow ride (or two or three) make people scroll over to their Uber app, or hop in their cars? Strauss doesn’t think so. After the meeting, he told me he considered slowing down people’s trips a reasonable tradeoff if it leads to fewer crashes. “I think that if people know that that slower option is only going to last for one to three trips, I don’t think that that would drive them away from riding the scooter,” he says.