Seattle will soon allow people to ride electric foot scooters in bike lanes and on roads. But the biggest question for many would-be riders — just when can they actually rent a scooter to ride? — remains up in the air.

The Seattle City Council voted Tuesday to approve legislation allowing free-floating rentable scooters and changing the rules for where scooters will be allowed. Like the red rental bikes that have become familiar, the city plans to permit private companies to rent the scooters on city sidewalks. 

The Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) plans to issue permits to three companies for a total of 1,500 scooters to start, possibly growing to 6,000 eventually. Exactly when those scooters hit the streets depends on how quickly the companies submit required paperwork, according to SDOT. The department previously said scooters could be available as soon as this month. 

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Council members said part of the goal of greenlighting a scooter program now is to allow people to learn to ride the devices while the weather is still nice.

Councilmember Alex Pedersen, chair of the council’s transportation committee, voted against the scooter program, saying the plan lacked too many details and left too many decisions in the hands of the executive branch instead of the City Council. Other council members voted yes.

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Though scooters have become common in other cities, skeptics here have worried about the safety of riders. 

Mayor Jenny Durkan initially resisted scooters. Harborview pediatrician Dr. Frederick Rivara wrote to the City Council recently raising concerns about scooter-related injuries and calling the devices an “unnecessary risk.” 

Because widespread scooter riding is relatively new, research is limited. Studies so far have found small numbers of injuries relative to total trips taken, but some injuries have been severe.

City law requires scooter riders to wear helmets. SDOT would require companies to limit scooter speeds to 15 mph and to 8 mph on a rider’s first trip.

Some scooter supporters have their own worries that the city’s plan to not allow riding on sidewalks will send riders into dangerous streets in neighborhoods without safe bike lanes.

Seattle currently bans scooters on sidewalks and in bike lanes. The new rules will allow scooters in bike lanes and on roads, but not on most sidewalks. Bikes, in contrast, are allowed on sidewalks if riders travel “in a careful and prudent manner.”

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“It’s important we are not pushing people into roads and other unsafe places on these scooters,” said Brittney Bush Bollay, chair of the Seattle group of the Sierra Club, which supports the scooter program. “I think scooter riders can make a safety decision for themselves in the same way cyclists do.”

Some of the city’s new rules could prove confusing for average riders. The new rules say scooters would be barred on sidewalks except for when there is “no alternative for a motorized foot scooter to travel over a sidewalk that is part of a bicycle or pedestrian path.” 

That language is meant to address places that may look and feel like a trail but are legally considered sidewalks, like the paths on the Fremont and University bridges, SDOT spokesperson Ethan Bergerson said in an email. 

Enforcement remains an open question for some scooter supporters, particularly in diverse areas of the city that have fewer safe bike routes. Racial disparities exist in police enforcement of other road rules like jaywalking

Under the permit requirements, SDOT will require scooter companies to take on liability for injuries from scooters, including those caused by the city’s failure to maintain roadways. Scooter companies have balked at such restrictions before, but now appear to be accepting those risks in exchange for the potential profit of scooters in Seattle.

For example, representatives for the scooter company Lime, which also rents bikes in Seattle, declined to comment on liability issues but said allowing scooters would make it possible for them to continue renting bikes.

Rental bikes operate at a loss “to the tune of millions of dollars a year in Seattle,” said Jonathan Hopkins, director of strategic development for Lime in the Northwest. Renting scooters “helps financially underwrite expansion of the bike-share fleet.”