Micromobility Moves Forward in Washington, Despite the Pandemic
Beginning in 2017, micromobility bike and scooter sharing companies in the U.S began to attract lots of attention as cities and towns looked for ‘greener’ transportation alternatives to personal vehicles. With 35% of all U.S. car trips covering 2 miles or less, it seemed practical to focus on solutions that address the first/last mile of any standard commute. Thus, the micromobility movement swooped in, providing shared, electric-assist vehicles available on demand, making traveling times more efficient between short distances.
Then the spring brought the pandemic to the U.S., stay-at-home orders were issued, people hunkered down, and our urban cities, so critical to the micromobility market, seemed to empty out overnight. It was unclear if and when the micromobility industry would bounce back. Of course, we all know the story: summer arrived, people got antsy, and Americans discovered a newfound love of bikes.
This August, the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) released a new report detailing the growth of the micromobility market over the past decade. The report notes Americans’ use of shared bikes and scooters was growing by 60% annually until the pandemic hit, and even then, ridership bounced back once people began to get out more. As suspected, most rides are short; for example, averaging 11-12 minutes and covering a distance of 1-1.5 miles, based on 2019 data.
Here in Washington State, Tacoma, Redmond, and Spokane host combined bike and scooter share programs, scooter shares are available in Everett and Bothell, and Bellevue hosts a bike share program. Despite having the oldest bike share program in the state, Seattle had been reluctant to expand to electric scooters; that is, until now.
Scooter pilots come to Seattle and King County
Last August, the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) kicked off the city's scooter-share program by starting a public engagement period. The plan was to gather enough research to craft a program that could address concerns regarding equity and accessibility, fairness to riders, safety and indemnification, and then launch a pilot in early 2020.
Instead, the pilot was launched this fall, when the company Lime was issued a permit to bring 500 scooters to the city. SDOT also invited two additional companies, Link and Wheels to apply. SDOT plans to scale up the program over time, with a fleet of 1,500 scooters at first, building up to 6,000 maximum. SDOT might issue a fourth permit to a vendor for up to 1,000 new, prototype scooters, but as of now, Lime and Link offer standing scooters while Wheel offers a seated version.
SDOT offered three reasons for wanting to launch a scooter-share program at this time:
- To provide more commuting alternatives to mass transit.
- To help the city reach its goal of reducing single-occupancy vehicle trips.
- To offer more non-vehicle travel options for the West Seattle community while the West Seattle Bridge is out of commission (until 2022 at the earliest).
Addressing safety, equity, parking, and more
Safety is one issue that was cited both by the mayor and many residents concerned about scooter use. The program attempts to address this in many ways. Helmets are already required by city law but will be “incentivized” by the program — SDOT will prioritize issuing permits to vendors that have active plans to get their customers to wear helmets, such as requiring them to take a selfie wearing a helmet before the scooter unlocks. Vendors will also be required to educate users on safety precautions, and the city will fund a study on scooter safety to be conducted by the University of Washington and Harborview Hospital.
Scooters will be limited to a top speed of 15 miles per hour, with a user’s first ride limited to 8 miles per hour. The scooters will be allowed in bike lanes and on streets with speed limits of 25 MPH or lower, but not on sidewalks, except for the few places where bike and pedestrian lanes meet up. Vendors are also required to indemnify the city for injuries for a broad set of claims related to their scooters, and in a nod to current events, must sanitize all the common touch-points on a scooter every time it is serviced (including nightly charging). In addition, the vans used by vendors to service and relocate scooters must be sanitized daily.
Equity is another charge leveled at micromobility programs, as scooters and bikes tend to be unevenly distributed in affluent areas already well-served by transit. To address the potential discrepancy, Seattle requires vendors to stage at least 10% of their scooters in a designated environmental justice community area, which encompasses low-income areas of the city. And if a user qualifies for SNAP benefits, ORCA Lift, (subsidized transit program) or another social program, they must be offered a discounted rate at or below the ORCA Lift rate of $1.50 per ride. Vendors must also offer low-barrier scooter access plans to residents without a smartphone, credit card, or bank account.
Parking may take place in designated corrals, bike racks, and the “landscape/furniture zone” of city sidewalks. The city will be able to geofence “no parking” zones where scooters may not be dropped off/ridden and vendors will be required to educate customers on the parking rules. As with the bike share program, Seattle residents can report mis-parked scooters through a city phone number, online, and via the Find-it-Fix-it app. Vendors must provide a substantial amount of data to the city to allow SDOT to audit and verify compliance with program rules, including those on parking, as specified in the permit requirements.
One-year pilot for King County limited in geographic scope
A one-year pilot program for shared electric scooters also launched this fall in King County. Helmets are required (but not provided) and scooters can be used on roads with speeds of 25 mph or less. Ordinance 18989, which was passed in October of last year, lays out minimal program requirements. Unlike Seattle’s pilot, which is management by the city’s transportation department, the ordinance specified that the pilot be managed by the Department of Executive Services, and authorizes the department to establish several parameters of the pilot program, such as size of scooter fleet, maximum scooter speed, and geographic area to be covered by the pilot.
Additionally, the ordinance requires that participating vendor mobile apps be made available in English and Spanish, (as well as other languages) that vendors conduct user education on scooter use, safety, and parking requirements, and that a discount option be established for anyone without a smartphone and/or is unbanked and/or whose household income is less than 200% of the federal poverty level.
The county is required to solicit user and non-user feedback during the pilot and report twice to the county council on the pilot’s progress, including lessons learned. The county may also apply geofencing, if necessary, to restrict scooter usage outside of the North Highline urban unincorporated area. King County Municipal Code 14A.40 already prohibits scooter use on sidewalks, county roads, alleys, county recreational trails, and park property, and requires any scooters have braked wheels that can “skid on dry, level, clean pavement,” as well as a front lamp and rear red reflector for improved visibility in the dark.
The pilot’s limited geographic focus — the North Highline urban unincorporated area, an area that is minority-majority with a median household income of half that for the county as a whole — is also a test case in how shared scooters programs can serve non-white, non-wealthy neighborhoods.
Participating companies Lime and Spin are each paying a $500 application fee as well as $0.22 per scooter rental session. The program contract details all the requirements scooter companies must meet in order to operate, including parking restrictions, scooter rebalancing expectations, permit and related fees, data standards, compliance measures, and more. As with Seattle’s pilot, vendors are also required to indemnify the county (also seen in Everett's contract with Lime).
The following pertain to Seattle’s scooter share pilot.
- SDOT’s presentation on the scooter share pilot program.
- Ordinance 126162 — Sets the permit fees for the scooter-share program.
- Ordinance 126160 — Amends the city’s street code to allow scooters on bike paths, public paths, and road where the posted speed limit is 25 MPH or less.
- Municipal Code Ch. 11.46 — Updates rules for motorized foot scooters and electric personal assistive mobility devices; sets speed zones in which to operate these devices; requires them to be equipped with a brake that “will enable the operator to make the braked wheels skid on dry, level, clean pavement,” and with a muffler to help prevent excessive noise.
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