Seattle will launch a scooter-share pilot — if providers agree to key safety and liability conditions

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A Lime scooter and Lime bikes in Seattle (GeekWire Photo / Todd Bishop)

Scooters are speeding toward Seattle.

Seattle officials are planning to launch a free-floating scooter-share pilot, building off of the city’s bike-share program, GeekWire has learned. The plan follows initial reluctance by city officials as several other cities across the country have allowed fast-growing companies such as Lime and Bird to operate scooter fleets.

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

Over the next few weeks, Seattle transportation officials will draft a new version of the city’s bike-share permit to incorporate scooters. At the same time, the city will start crafting a free-floating scooter-share pilot to test out the new mobility service.

But there’s a catch.

Scooter-share operators, like Lime and Bird, will have to agree to four conditions before the pilot launches. The city’s non-negotiables center on “equity and accessibility, fairness to riders, safety and indemnification.”

“While some companies may see these requirements as too restrictive, they are too important not to fight for,” Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan wrote in a guest post on GeekWire Wednesday.

If the companies agree, Seattle Department of Transportation will seek approval for the pilot from the City Council this fall. The pilot will set requirements for safety, equity, hours of use, speed, and scooter parking, according to Durkan.

The council will get a preview of what scooter-share might look like tomorrow. Lime and Bird are hosting an event with councilmembers at City Hall Thursday morning. Lime is pitching it to the public as an “opportunity to tell [councilmembers] how scooter sharing will help Seattle rely less on cars, get connected to public transit, and reduce congestion and pollution.”

The rise of scooters

(Lime Photo)

The American scooter invasion has been swift and heavily-funded. Over the past year and a half, free-floating scooters for rent have cropped up in more than 100 U.S. cities, reshaping the urban transportation infrastructure in the blink of an eye.

As scooter companies spread their wings, they valuations have soared. Bird raised $300 million earlier this year at a $2 billion valuation. Its neck-and-neck competitor, Lime, secured $310 million shortly thereafter, bringing its value to $2.4 billion. Those are remarkable pricetags for nascent startups in an untested industry.

But despite its early adoption of a free-floating bike-share program, Seattle has been hesitant to drink the scooter Kool-Aid. One reason for Seattle’s reticence is safety and accessibility, according to SDOT communications lead Ethan Bergerson.

“What we’re looking at is this really rapid, interesting set of changes in terms of both of these mobility tools,” he told GeekWire. “A year and half ago, none of this was out there.”

Cities learned hard lessons from the first wave of new mobility startups, Uber and Lyft, which often launched in new markets without getting permission first. Now the next generation of transportation startups is forced to work more cooperatively with cities.

Safety and liability

SDOT is working to address concerns raised by Seattle accessibility advocates who say free-floating bikes can make life difficult for people with disabilities.

In her post, Durkan stressed the importance of being “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.”

City transportation officials have conducted audits to find out how often bikes are improperly parked in places where they could hinder people with limited vision or mobility. They found that between 2 and 15 percent of bikes are improperly parked, depending on the standards used.

“We basically are looking at what exactly enforcement looks like and how do we get from where we are now to where we want to be, which is a lot less bikes creating obstructions,” Bergerson said.

Another big concern for the city is safety. Researchers are just starting to catch up to this new mode of transportation, but early reports indicate that scooter-related injuries are on the rise, particularly among riders who don’t wear helmets.

SDOT will study scooter-share pilots in other cities, like Portland, to determine the best regulations to protect riders.

Seattle officials are also pressing scooter companies to change their liability rules before they can participate in a pilot. In many cities, scooter-share operators require riders to waive their rights to sue the company in the event of an accident.

“I don’t think that is fair,” Durkan wrote in her guest post. She later added, “Seattle will require full indemnification provisions to protect our taxpayers from lawsuits.”

What happens to bike-share?

A JUMP bike in Seattle’s Belltown neighborhood. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

Seattle was the first city in the nation to pilot free-floating dockless bike-share. Seattle officials spent more than a year studying these services before crafting permanent regulations, which include a hefty $250,000 annual fee. There are currently two bike-share operators in the city: Lime and Uber’s JUMP. Lyft’s Motivate has been awarded a bike-share permit but hasn’t launched yet.

SDOT has some concerns that introducing scooters will make bike-share obsolete in Seattle. In 2018, scooter ridership surpassed bike-share nationally for the first time. Mobility companies are prioritizing scooters over bikes, which could spell trouble for Seattle’s bike-share program.

“We would like to continue to see free-floating bikes as well,” Bergerson said. “It’s something that we think offers a good service that we wouldn’t want to see completely disappear and be replaced with scooters.”

Durkan floated the possibility of regulating the number of bikes companies have on city streets as part of the potential scooter pilot.

“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,” she wrote in the guest post.

Here’s a statement from Lime:

“The mayor’s commitment to bringing a scooter pilot program to Seattle this year is great news for residents and visitors eager for a greener, more equitable, more affordable way to get around the Emerald City. We appreciate her leadership and look forward to continuing working with the city to build a program that embraces innovation, promotes safety, better connects people with transit and serves the entire community.

We welcome working groups on the topics the Mayor discussed to serve the most people over the long run and strike a good balance for the community, while staying consistent with established standards that are already proving successful in other communities Lime serves.”

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