When it comes to regulating electronic scooters and bikes, the rules literally are all over the map.
From Iowa to Oregon to Utah, and in about 65 cities in between, communities are struggling to figure out the best ways to balance these burgeoning modes of transportation as they become more popular. Should they be allowed on sidewalks? Should helmets be required? Should they be banned outright?
“To me, the overarching idea is all of this is a pretty new industry, and a pretty fast-changing industry,” said Jordan Hess, a Missoula city councilor who chairs the Public Works Committee, which is considering ordinances to govern electronically assisted bikes and scooters. “If you look out a few years, there may be new devices we don’t know about. I just want us to be careful and deliberate about this.”
Hess said the council and city staff have been wrestling with setting frameworks for electrically assisted bikes and scooters, also known as e-bikes and e-scooters, since the public leasing companies Bird and Lime showed interest a year ago in providing them in Missoula. He’s quick to note that nothing is imminent, and Missoula may be too small of a market for the e-scooters and e-bikes.
“We don’t even know if scooters are right for us,” Hess said. “We got interested in the e-bikes when they started asking around; the main thing we wanted is a framework so they don’t have an uncontrolled launch. So we wanted to come up with a way to evaluate and permit the system.”
They also wanted sideboards around the use of privately owned e-bikes and e-scooters, which are gaining popularity. Last week, the council adopted definitions for various classes of electronic bikes and scooters, based in part on how fast they go and whether they have a pedal-power component.
The Public Works Committee, made up of City Council members, still is debating how Missoula should regulate the electronically assisted bikes and scooters, based in large part on public comments offered during the past two weeks. The committee expects to discuss the regulations again at their July 17 Public Works Committee meeting in the council chambers at 140 W. Pine St. The time has yet to be determined.
While the city staff has studied what other communities did, the Missoulian reached out to officials in Portland, Salt Lake City and Cedar Rapids, Iowa, which are using a variety of ways to manage the electronically propelled devices.
Salt Lake City
Jon Larsen, the transportation director for Salt Lake City, said Bird Rides Inc. surprised city officials the day the company flew into town and announced its rentable e-scooters were available.
“It was about a year ago, the last week of June, and they told us the day of. We told them to get the scooters off the streets and we would move quickly for a temporary operating agreement,” Larsen said. “They’re still operating under that. Lime quickly followed and Spin as well. Two or three more have expressed interest but are not licensed here.
“Last summer it was nuts. The scooter issue took up an incredible amount of my time and staff’s as well.”
Some people love them. Others hate them. The companies managed to get state legislators to prohibit banning them, Larsen said, so the city passed its own rules. Since then, the experience overall is positive, but there’s been some legitimate frustrations, he added.
For one, riding the e-scooters on sidewalks is banned, but is impossible to enforce. Instead, the city is pushing the vendors to focus on educating riders. Larsen said that’s met with limited success.
“I don’t have a problem with scooters on the sidewalks in the suburbs, where no one is on the sidewalk. Maybe that’s the safest place,” Larsen said. “But downtown, it’s a major source of frustration for people. Scooter riders are younger risk takers and zigzag among people, run into people and ride away so there’s no recourse. We don’t have an answer for that.”
Salt Lake City requires the vendors to stage a minimum number of scooters in low-income neighborhoods, which has been a positive move that allows more affordable mobility options. They highly encourage all riders to wear helmets, but it’s not something the city or vendors enforce.
The city treats leased e-bikes and e-scooters the same, as well as those that are privately owned. But they put a cap on the number that can be deployed by the rental companies, allowing them to decide the right mix of e-bikes and e-scooters within that limit.
“We have tried to work with the vendors. Some cities have been very combative. But we have found trying to foster relationships and share goals of the city and vendors has been productive,” Larsen said.
Cedar Rapids, Iowa
The Iowa college community, with a population of around 126,000, launched its bike-share program with the company VeoRide in May. They anticipate a fleet of about 150 e-bikes, 30 e-scooters and 20 fat tire bikes for rent. They won’t begin their pilot program with e-scooters until August, when the college students arrive, and expect to pull them from the streets around October.
“We signed an exclusive contract with VeoRide; part of our ordinance is that no one else can operate scooter rentals in the city of Cedar Rapids,” said Brandon Whyte, the city’s multimodal transportation planner. “That way, we can better manage and control this … and you don’t have a company show up, do whatever they want then leave scooter litter everywhere.”
They generally treat electronic bikes and scooters the same, and most of the regulations involve their downtown core area. E-scooters and e-bikes generally are prohibited from using the sidewalks there for pedestrian safety. However Whyte expects an exception to be made for children 13 and younger, along with parents, riding e-scooters.
“We don’t want the parents in the street and the children on the sidewalk,” Whyte said.
E-scooters on the street in the core area also must stay in the bike lanes unless it’s unsafe to do so or they’re making a left turn.
The city didn’t put any rules in place outside of the downtown core area because there’s not that much pedestrian use. That means people can ride on the streets or sidewalks, but Whyte hopes they’ll stay on the roadways to avoid drivers making turns without noticing an e-scooter or bike entering an intersection from the sidewalk.
“Anytime a driveway or road penetrates the sidewalk is more dangerous than riding in the road unless you’re under a certain age,” Whyte said. “But our mindset is until we have a problem we will not legislate it out.”
As part of that safety effort, Cedar Rapids affixed bright thermoplastic signs on sidewalks asking riders to stick to the streets. They also are trying to educate riders to “walk your wheels” in the core area and may launch a public sting operation with law enforcement and the media to get people’s attention.
“The last thing you want to do is give out tickets, but at some point we may have to do that because some people will not want to comply,” Whyte said.
Portland is in the second of two pilot programs. The first, which lasted four months last year, prompted the second yearlong pilot program that started this year, focusing on shared e-scooters for hire.
“We did have and do continue to get concerns and complaints, especially on sidewalk riding. That’s why in the second pilot we increased the measures to discourage sidewalk riding,” said city spokesperson John Brady. “But it’s challenging to enforce the laws,” which is why they’re doing some undercover ticketing.
The e-scooters aren’t allowed on sidewalks or in parks throughout the city. However, they can be ridden on multi-use paths as long as those don’t go through a city park, according to Brady. Youth younger than 16 are prohibited from riding the e-scooters under Oregon state law, since they’re supposed to be on the road, and that’s similar to driving a vehicle. All the rental companies restrict e-scooter use to age 18 and older.
State law also requires e-scooter riders to wear helmets, but Brady said they don’t typically enforce that for those that are privately owned.
In this second pilot program, they’ve created scooter parking areas on the city streets to help alleviate blocked sidewalks. They’ve increase their demands that companies address illegally parked scooters, and changed the complaint system so they go directly to the operators.
Bird, Lime, and Skip also must make vehicles accessible for non-English speakers, lower-income customers, and people with disabilities.