As Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan indicates she may welcome scooter-share to Seattle — an idea some City Council members have been behind for months — questions ranging from rules of the road to legal fine print remain.
In cities across America, private companies have deployed electric scooters that operate similarly to dockless bike share. Just this month, scooters launched in Spokane and Everett. Tacoma welcomed them last year.
Supporters see another alternative to cars that can help reshape the way we get around in an increasingly congested city and in the midst of climate change. But Durkan, who has raised safety and liability concerns, appears in no rush to roll out the scooters. It could be January before scooter companies could get the go-ahead, according to her office.
Here’s a look at some of the questions likely to dominate Seattle’s scooter debate between now and then.
Are they safe?
Limited research on scooters has found small numbers of injuries relative to the total numbers of trips taken, but some of those injuries have been severe. Both sides of the scooter debate spin the numbers in their favor.
Among the stats you’re likely to hear throughout the debate:
- In Austin, nearly half of 190 riders injured over a three-month period had head injuries, including some with traumatic brain injuries. Of all injured riders, 14% were hospitalized. In the same time frame, riders took about 936,000 scooter trips.
- In Portland, researchers found 176 scooter-related emergency department visits and about 700,000 total trips during a four-month period. The Multnomah County Health Department concluded that the number of scooter-related emergency room visits was “small relative to total crash injuries, and many of the injuries were not severe.”
- A review of scooter-related injuries at two Los Angeles-area hospitals over one year found 249 patients, 40 percent of whom had head injuries. The injuries in the study “were mostly minor, but could also be severe and costly,” the study authors wrote.
Compare that to car crashes, which kill about 90 people a day in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control. “Let’s all put this in perspective,” Seattle City Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda said during a recent committee meeting.
Dr. Frederick Rivara, a University of Washington professor of pediatrics and epidemiology who has studied helmets and head injuries, thinks the City Council is ignoring a potential problem.
“It’s true the numbers of injuries are relatively small, but the use of these things is still relatively uncommon,” Rivara said. “I worry as they become more common we’ll be seeing more injuries and more head injuries.”
King County law requires bicycle riders to wear helmets, but enforcement of the law is rare. Rivara said the city should consider a requirement that scooter companies make helmets available for riders, though he acknowledged that’s logistically difficult for a dockless scooter program.
Where will I ride and park?
Today in Seattle, scooters are allowed on city streets but barred from bike lanes and sidewalks. The city could consider loosening the rules for bike lanes.
Riding scooters on sidewalks can present conflicts with pedestrians (and scooter companies generally advise against it). Riding in the street can mean risking getting hit by a car. In a survey of Portland riders, most ranked bike lanes as their preferred place for riding scooters. About 44% said safer places to ride would make them use scooters more often.
That means the push for scooters could become linked to the fight for more protected bike lanes.
In Seattle, bike-share permit dollars have funded new bike parking. Scooter dollars could be directed toward parking or bike lanes, too. While the companies are unlikely to welcome extra fees, Lime spokesman Alex Youn said the company encourages “any type of fees” to go toward building projects like bike lanes.
Parking on the sidewalk presents a conflict, too. Some people with disabilities criticize the city’s current bike-share program over bikes left blocking sidewalks, curb ramps and bus stops. Anna Zivarts, a disability-rights advocate and director of Rooted in Rights, said welcoming free-floating bikes and scooters demands places to park in the street, not the sidewalk.
“That’s perhaps a politically difficult decision … but if we’re serious about this, that’s what needs to happen,” Zivarts said. “We give space to private vehicles to be parked. There’s no reason we can’t designate a relatively small piece of the street to be for parking scooters and bikes.”
Who can you sue if you’re injured?
Durkan worries those agreements will push injured riders in another direction. “Who is left to sue?” she wrote in a guest post on GeekWire. “The cities that allow the scooter programs.”
So, the mayor promised “full indemnification” to “protect our taxpayers.”
That could set up a fight with the scooter companies.
The mayor pointed to three other cities as examples: Oakland, California; Tempe, Arizona; and Albuquerque, New Mexico. Each of those cities’ scooter regulations are worded differently, but each have drawn ire from the scooter companies.
Oakland’s may be the broadest, requiring the companies to indemnify the city from all lawsuits for injuries or death resulting from not just the companies’ negligence but also city negligence related to “the design, construction, maintenance, repair, replacement, oversight, management, or supervision” of public rights of way.
Scooter companies balked, with five of them writing in a letter to the city that the provision would be “unenforceable and unlawful.” (Scooters are currently deployed in Oakland but the city is still finalizing its rules.)
In Tempe, scooter companies told city officials that city’s rules would force them to take on financial risk for the city’s road maintenance. Tempe’s rules also state that scooter companies understand “the activity is inherently hazardous.”
Albuquerque’s required companies to add to their user agreements a statement that riding scooters is “an inherently dangerous activity.” Several companies initially expressed interest in Albuquerque but only one, Zagster, applied and will soon start operating there. Bird operates in Tempe, according to its website.
Seattle asked scooter companies in December whether they would indemnify the city in any lawsuit relating to their deployment and use. While companies generally agreed, according to their emails to the city, some specified they would only do so for issues related to their own negligence and not the city’s.
What exactly Seattle’s requirement will look like is unclear. A spokesman for Durkan said Seattle “will examine the language Oakland is requiring,” but hasn’t written language yet.
Indemnification agreements “can be incredibly powerful because a party can essentially shift their entire liability to another party,” said Stacia Hofmann, a Seattle attorney focused on contracts and business insurance. “It’s all going to depend on how that’s drafted.”
Will everyone get equal access?
To make scooter-share available to people across the city, some cities require distribution of scooters in specific neighborhoods, discounts for people with low incomes and a way to rent the scooters without a smartphone. Seattle has similar requirements for bike-share.
But a review of Portland’s four-month pilot program found that only one company out of three complied with a requirement to deploy a set number of scooters in East Portland each day and just 43 people were enrolled for low-income fares.
“Along with staff observations,” the city’s transportation department wrote, “this suggests low company performance in aligning business practices with City equity goals.”
Similarly, a six-month review in San Francisco said two companies operating there each had fewer than 100 people participating in their low-income plans, less than 1% of their user bases.
At least two of the companies that have expressed interest in Seattle, Lime and Bird, offer discounted rides for people with low incomes.
Lime welcomes equity requirements, Jonathan Hopkins, Lime’s director of strategic development in the Northwest, told City Council members this month, noting some of them are “self imposed” by the companies. “It’s essential,” he said.
Jessica Ramirez, director of community engagement at Puget Sound Sage, said scooters could be useful for people traveling short distances but she’s skeptical of efforts like making them available without a smartphone because those processes can be cumbersome for riders.
“I understand the companies are doing what they believe is their best to make them accessible, but at the end of the day this is not for folks without banks,” she said.