Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan: Let’s try scooters, but let’s do it right

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Editor’s note: This is a guest post written by Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan. See this story for more details about her proposed scooter pilot. 

Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan. (GeekWire Photo / Monica Nickelsburg)

Seattle is a city that invents and embraces innovative technology. We are good at imagining the future and then creating it.  We’re the home to small tech startups, the biggest online retailer and everything in between. We work with our growing tech sector to solve some of our region’s most challenging issues. We invest in high-capacity transit – buses and light rail – and ensure we build inclusive, affordable housing near transit.  We have invested in density and better transit. We’ve also taken other steps to reduce our reliance on cars (like free transit passes for high school students), so more people are taking transit, biking, and walking.

Seattle was the first city in the country to pilot free-floating bike share – and it’s taken off. Now, we have a permanent program for companies to operate bike share in Seattle.

Up next: let’s try scooters in Seattle. But let’s do it right by promoting safety, requiring fairness for riders and indemnification for the City, focusing on equity, and by building on – not losing – the best of bike share.

Bike share is popular and working in Seattle — we don’t want to lose it

The numbers tell us exactly how popular bike share is. In 2018 alone, we saw people take over 2.1 million bike share trips in Seattle (and yes – some of those trips were mine). Using both scooters and bikes, we are expanding the options to travel to work, home, or school and enjoy our great city. I believe there is more room to grow this popular program and scooter share should be a complement, rather than a replacement, to bike share in Seattle.

A Lime-S scooter sits on the sidewalk at Seattle’s University Village shopping mall. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

As scooter share launched in other cities, some saw their access to bike share dwindle or leave as the companies shifted their business model. We don’t want that to happen here. Free-floating bike share is an important and needed tool in our mobility toolbox. Last year, we expanded our pilot to a permanent program that has brought over 7,000 free-floating bicycles. With the anticipated launch of another bike share company later this year, we expect the number of available bikes to pass 10,000 bikes.

Seattle is unique in having one of the only successful free-floating bike share systems in our country, and as we saw during the three-week closure of SR 99 downtown, our total January 2019 bike trips increased from 110,000 to approximately 150,000 at four key bike routes across Seattle in both because more people commuted by bikes (yes, in January) and because of our strong bike share program.

Let’s keep supporting our bike share program while adding a new mobility option that also serves as a much-needed climate friendly last mile option.

Scooters present safety issues we cannot ignore

Scooters are fun. But when health officials across the United States have called the spike in injuries a “public health crisis,” we cannot ignore the priority of safety for our residents or visitors.

(Lime Photo)

This past week, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) released a safety study, which highlights the increase of injuries arising from this new technology. This report builds on another study of scooter injuries from the Journal of the American Medical Association from earlier this year and a recent investigation by Consumer Reports found that there were 1,500 e-scooter injuries. And a number of public health officials in cities like Dallas, San Diego, or Salt Lake City have seen a dramatic spike in their hospitals and emergency rooms.

Here’s what we know: as with any product, injuries can happen, but head injuries are some of the most common scooter injuries. In the CDC study, nearly half of those hurt in scooter crashes sustained head injuries, 15 percent of which were traumatic brain injuries. Significantly, studies have shown that only between one and four percent of riders are wearing helmets of those injured, and scooter companies are not providing a helmet for every ride.

Scooters travel at speeds up to 20 mph and are not currently built for the potholes and other conditions of many urban streets and roads. As reported in the CDC study, half of those interviewed said infrastructure problems like potholes and pavement cracks contributed to their injuries.  In addition, they are often a new experience for many riders which contributed to many injuries – think about riding a bike for the first time!

Learning how to properly ride a scooter and wearing a helmet while doing so might be a key step to preventing injuries, so let’s see how to do that right here in Seattle. We need to do everything possible to ensure riders can get around our city safely and that pedestrians and cyclists stay safe too. This is another reason why we need to continue investing in safe, accessible mobility networks for our pedestrians, people with disabilities, and bicyclists.

We are talking to cities around the country. Cities like Portland paused then relaunched with more safety steps by scooter companies, so we can learn what safety measures and rider protections we can incorporate into a pilot.

Scooters companies can’t shift responsibility for injuries to riders or Seattle taxpayers

In addition to making sure we prevent such injuries by focusing on safety, we also must make sure that the companies do not shift their responsibility for injuries to either riders or the City of Seattle taxpayers. The largest scooter companies are billion-dollar companies, and a fair business practice cannot shift their liability risks to riders or cities.

Right now, scooter companies often require riders to waive their rights to sue for any injuries, and to waive their rights to take scooter companies to court. We need better protection for people hurt.

Who is left to sue? The cities that allow the scooter programs.

Some 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. Seattle will require full indemnification provisions to protect our taxpayers from lawsuits.

Promoting Equity and Accessibility

In implementing any citywide program, we also need to be mindful of our Race and Social Justice Initiative and our Transportation Equity Program.  We want to provide safe, affordable, accessible, and environmentally sustainable transportation options for cost-burdened communities. In opening our streets to private mobility companies, we have to work to ensure broad access. As important, we also have to continue to be mindful of impacts on people with disabilities – free-floating bike share and scooter share can create obstacles to people who are visually impaired or use a wheelchair.

As we approach this effort, we must make sure that both the design of the pilot and affordability is done in an equitable way that can expand access to low income communities across Seattle. A recent report found that dockless e-bikes cost $2.50 per ride compared to $3.50 per e-scooter share ride, so let’s make sure there is an equity approach from the start and low-income riders can use both bikes and scooters.

During our bike share pilot, we spent months analyzing data and trends and engaging in thoughtful community and neighborhood outreach. We required that operators ensure that at least 10% of all bikes are available in our equity-focus neighborhoods, and in addition, we were able to make changes in the pilot to create additional compliance for parking and 1,500 new parking spots for bikes across the city. This led us to build upon our pilot in a thoughtful manner, and we have seen the success of our approach.

Here’s what’s next

We can bring scooters to Seattle with a thoughtful, well-planned pilot. In the coming weeks, we will begin drafting the next iteration of the bike share permit that will be approved by Council this fall. In conjunction, we will be working to stand up a scooter share permit pilot. This will allow the City to take a holistic approach to micro-mobility management.

Over the next few months, we will work with stakeholders like our transit, pedestrian and bike oversight boards, disability rights groups, local businesses and transit partners to develop the framework of a scooter pilot for Seattle. We will continue to listen and learn from other cities. We also want to hear from our neighborhoods.

As we craft the pilot, we will be developing a framework into hours of use, where they can be used, parking, helmet requirements, fines and enforcement, speed, data collection, and examining a minimum threshold of bikes to remain part of our bike share program.

We can get this right. We will focus on four non-negotiable principles: safety, fairness to riders, protection of taxpayers through full indemnification, and equity. While some companies may see these requirements as too restrictive, they are too important not to fight for.

Let’s bring scooters to Seattle focused on these principles with a thoughtful, well-planned pilot that allows our bike share program to continue to grow and thrive.

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