1. Greg Spotts, the newly confirmed director of Seattle’s transportation department, spoke with reporters Wednesday on a wide range of topics, including scooters, the proposed downtown streetcar connector, and his plan to do a “top to bottom review” of the city’s Vision Zero effort to end traffic deaths and serious injuries by 2030, which is currently far off track.
Spotts, who previously headed up StreetsLA, a division of Los Angeles’ Bureau of Street Services, said he was currently agnostic on both the appropriate number of scooters the city should permit and the debate over whether to revive work on the downtown streetcar, which former mayor Jenny Durkan paused during her term. As Spotts noted, scooter sharing proliferated in LA after the city decided to allow any qualified company to operate in the city, but didn’t really serve low-income areas or communities of color.
“What it produced was an overabundance of scooters in the obvious places where there’s a lot of density and a lot of money, and … very few scooters in communities of color,” Spotts said. Even with incentives for placing scooters in underserved areas, they continued to cluster in wealthy, tourist-heavy neighborhoods like Santa Monica, Hollywood, and downtown LA. “So it’s not obvious how to make this public private partnership to produce all the public goods that you want, but maybe we’re in the very, very early stages of figuring that out.”
Similarly, Spotts said he might support expanding the streetcar if there’s evidence it will improve the economic climate in the areas it serves. The new downtown section of streetcar would create a loop connecting two separate streetcar lines, connecting South Lake Union to Pioneer Square to Capitol Hill. All three areas are already connected by frequent transit, which—along with low ridership on the existing streetcar—raises questions about whether a new streetcar segment would justify its cost, currently estimated at almost $300 million.
“There’s operational benefits, right? Instead of running two segments, running one big one,” Spotts said. “But what would push it over the top, I think, is it analysis that it could be an important catalyst for our small businesses in downtown, for our tourist economy, for our cultural institutions.”
One issue Spotts declined to address is SDOT’s role in removing homeless encampments from sidewalks; SDOT staffers (including some currently vacant positions) make up more than half the members of Mayor Bruce Harrell’s Unified Care Team, a group of about 70 staffers who removes encampment. (The UCT also includes six members of the city’s HOPE team, which does outreach and makes shelter offers prior to sweeps).
“At this early stage, I’m really deferring to the mayor’s office to utilize the departments as they want to for the larger policies that they’re pursuing,” Spotts said. “And I’m not looking to introduce some personal opinions into that. I’m just here to here to assist in whatever way they want us to assist.”
2. After we reported on the fact that the city awarded nearly $800,000 to a private men’s social club that Mayor Bruce Harrell chaired until late last year, we took another look at the record to see if there was any precedent for the city awarding Equitable Development Initiative dollars to any similar institution.
Over the five years the city has been making EDI awards, about three dozen organizations have received significant grants from the fund. Many of the groups that have received multiple grants are engaged in low-income housing development, create community spaces that are open to the public, or provide social or health services to particular communities.
For example, the Friends of Little Saigon, Africatown, the Rainier Valley Midwives, Chief Seattle Club, and the Ethiopian Community in Seattle have all received multiple EDI awards over the past five years. Other grant recipients in past years include Cham Refugees Community, the Somali Health Board, United Indians of All Tribes, and the Filipino Community of Seattle.
A few of the grant recipients provide cultural space and put on events that are open to the ticket-buying public, including Black and Tan Hall and the Wing Luke Museum. None is a private social club—except the Royal Esquire Club.
It’s unclear whether the Royal Esquire Club has sought public funding from the city in the past; we’ve requested a list of all previous EDI grant applicants through a public records request. The club, which was at the center of another controversy involving Harrell while he was City Council president, has never received an EDI award in the program’s history; the $782,000 the club will receive is more than twice its annual revenues for 2019, according to the group’s most recent tax filing.
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.
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• “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.
Last week, Mayor Jenny Durkan wrote a piece for Geekwire announcing that she would support a future pilot of electric scooters in Seattle. “Let’s try scooters, but let’s do it right,” the mayor wrote.
Local media immediately reported that the mayor had changed her mind about the new mobility option, which has been adopted in more than 100 cities across the nation (including Tacoma), but not in Seattle. “Electric scooters are coming to Seattle,” the Seattle Times declared. “Mayor Durkan announces pilot program for e-scooters in Seattle,” KIRO reported. “Get ready: The e-scooters are coming!” KOMO gushed. “Durkan finally allows e-scooters in Seattle,” the Stranger echoed.
But hold on a minute. Did the mayor really announce anything new? Read between the lines of her Geekwire “announcement”—which she made without the knowledge or participation with any of the major scooter companies or pro-scooter council members—and it’s clear her position on scooters hasn’t changed substantially since last year. In December, Durkan said that if scooter companies wanted to operate in Seattle, they would have to totally indemnify the city for any scooter accidents on city streets, including spills that result from the city’s poorly maintained bike lanes and roadways. In a letter to scooter companies in mid-December, then-interim Seattle Department of Transportation director Linea Laird wrote that scooter companies who wanted to participate in a future pilot would need to “agree to indemnify the City in any claim, lawsuit or other dispute relating to their deployment or use.”
In her Geekwire article, Durkan reiterated her support for this broad requirement, writing that “[s]ome cities who did not negotiate full indemnification now face lawsuits. Take San Diego: There are currently four separate lawsuits claiming San Diego is liable for the scooter-related injuries because the city did not adopt adequate safety regulations and indemnification. I don’t think that is fair.
“Cities like Tempe, Albuquerque and Oakland have asked for reasonable indemnification provisions because these costly lawsuits could cost taxpayers,” Durkan wrote. “Seattle will require full indemnification provisions to protect our taxpayers from lawsuits.” This requirement, Durkan continued, is “non-negotiable.”
If Seattle did require scooter companies to completely indemnify the city from liability for scooter injuries, it would be the first city in the nation to do so—none of the 100-plus US cities where scooters are legal has adopted such a sweeping requirement.
As an example, Durkan wrote that “scooters are not currently built for the potholes and other conditions of many urban streets and roads,” which can result in accidents. (Bikes, it’s worth noting, are also no match for street craters, storm drains, or many other road conditions they’re forced to navigate in the absence of infrastructure designed to keep cyclists safe.) Given that scooters would most likely be required to travel in bike lanes and in the road with car traffic in areas where bike lanes don’t exist, the city’s disinvestment in safe, separated biking infrastructure could be a factor that leads to scooter accidents and injuries—injuries for which the city wants to be released from liability.
If Seattle did require scooter companies to completely indemnify the city from liability for scooter injuries, it would be the first city in the nation to do so—none of the 100-plus US cities where scooters are legal has adopted such a sweeping requirement. Nor is this level of indemnity included in the city’s current indemnification policy for bike-sharing programs run by companies like Uber and Lime, which exempts the companies from “any liabilities, claims, causes of action, judgments, or expenses resulting from bodily injury or property damage to the extent caused by the negligence of the City, its officers, employees, elected officials, agents, or subcontractors.”
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Jonathan Hopkins, the Northwest strategic development director for Lime, says cities and private companies like his should bear “shared responsibility” for making the transportation system work. “We believe everyone should be accountable for their actions. We don’t believe any entity should be voided from all their responsibilities with regard to keeping the public safe, and it’s only through that shared collaboration that we achieve a safer, more mobile, more equitable public.”
Officially, scooter companies and proponents are optimistic that Durkan’s announcement represents a change of heart. “We’re really excited about the fact that the mayor’s taking a more active involvement in this conversation,” says Maurice Henderson, director of public partnerships at Bird. “We’re looking forward to the opportunity to work with the administration, SDOT, and community members to see if there is some space for a productive conversation on indemnification, safety, and other issues that were brought up in her op/ed.”
Unofficially, proponents are less hopeful. In addition to the unprecedented “full indemnification” requirement, there are questions about the timing both of the mayor’s op/ed—although the piece landed the morning before a long-planned city council work session on scooter sharing, the mayor did not tell council members it was coming until the evening before it hit, and did not collaborate with the council on their event—and the potential pilot itself.
Portland put together its own four-month scooter pilot program in two months and rolled it out last July—peak scooter-riding season. (Two months after the pilot program ended, the city released a report on the results of the pilot, which found that “e-scooters have risks similar to other parts of the transportation system,” and extended the pilot for a year.) In contrast to that speedy timeline, he mayor’s office has said if the scooter companies agree to the city’s conditions, a pilot could start as soon as next January—the rainiest part of the year and the least hospitable to scooter riding.
“We believe everyone should be accountable for their actions. We don’t believe any entity should be voided form all their responsibilities with regard to keeping the public safe.” —Lime’s Jonathan Hopkins
Chelsea Kellogg, a spokeswoman for Durkan, says the city wanted to wait for the passage of a state regulatory framework for scooters before beginning work on a Seattle pilot program. (That legislation, which allows cities to regulate scooters and sets a 15-mile-per-hour speed limit on the devices, among other restrictions, passed in April.) Durkan wanted to wait until the state law was adopted, Kellogg says, “primarily because we did not want the State to pre-empt [the] city’s ability on indemnification.”
Besides indemnification, Durkan’s op/ed brings up another potential hurdle for scooter companies: “helmet requirements,” which she mentions as part of a potential “framework” for any future pilot program. King County law requires bicyclists to wear helmets, but the law (which the new state law extends to e-scooters) is rarely enforced; the city’s agreement with bikesharing companies only says that the companies should produce a plan for “encouraging compliance with King County’s helmet law” but does not make the companies liable for enforcement the putative requirement.
Will e-scooters ever come to Seattle? At this point, the answer is a firm “maybe”—the same “maybe” that applied in December, when the mayor’s office laid out identical conditions for any future scooter pilot. What’s different now is that while Seattle has continued to wring its hands over the dubious notion that scooters are a uniquely dangerous form of transportation, more and more cities are deciding to give them a try. Today, electric scooters will return to Spokane, which gave them a 74-day pilot spin last year.
The second new development is that a citywide council member Teresa Mosqueda has become a vocal scooter advocate, arguing that they represent a green way to get around that’s orders of magnitude safer than the alternative they typically replace—driving a car. “If we’re going to compare injury rates across modes, we should absolutely include cars, because the number of cars that I see parked on sidewalks, the number of cars I see parked in bike lanes, and the number of cars that are hitting, killing, and injuring people quite exceeds the injuries … from scooters, let alone bike shares,” Mosqueda said. As scooters become ubiquitous in cities across the country, the council is unlikely to abandon the idea, and Durkan won’t want to concede the issue to an energized council.