Seattle could soon ditch its reputation as one of the few major American cities without a fleet of rentable electric foot scooters dotting its streets and sidewalks.
Pro-scooter momentum appeared to be building at City Hall this week as Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan announced Wednesday that her administration will soon begin crafting a pilot program for scooter share. On Thursday, several City Council members tested scooters on a plaza outside City Hall before hosting a meeting where Portland officials briefed them on that city’s experience with the devices.
Still, you’re unlikely to be able to rent and ride the scooters in Seattle until early next year. The city will begin working on the pilot program in the coming weeks but likely won’t start accepting permit applications until September or October with service starting Jan. 1, the mayor’s office said.
The city’s pilot program is also likely to include strict requirements about scooter parking, safety and other issues.
Until now, Seattle has banned scooter shares, and city law currently bars use of motorized foot scooters on sidewalks and bicycle lanes. Durkan announced plans for a pilot program in a guest post on GeekWire on Wednesday.
In creating the pilot program, the city will “work with stakeholders like our transit, pedestrian and bike oversight boards, disability rights groups, local businesses and transit partners,” Durkan wrote.
The program will govern when and where scooters can be used, how they must be parked, how fast they can travel, whether helmets will be required and other rules. It could also require a certain portion of the scooter fleet to be available in designated neighborhoods, a regulation bike-share companies must follow.
“We can get this right,” Durkan wrote. “We will focus on four nonnegotiable 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.”
At least a few council members are already on board.
Seattle City Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda said she hopes to see scooters rolled out quicker than Durkan proposed and on the streets within four months. Mosqueda said she’s focused on making sure they’re equitably distributed throughout the city.
“It is good to be concerned about how we protect safety, but we have so many other examples in cities where the safety concerns have not materialized,” she said. “The best we can do is create infrastructure [and] create training programs so people know how to use them.”
Councilmember Abel Pacheco, who said he doesn’t own a car, said scooters could help people get to transit stops and “reduce our dependence on cars, especially for the young people in District 4.” Pacheco’s district includes the University of Washington.
“I think it’s time for Seattle to try this out,” said Councilmember Mike O’Brien. “We have to be smart about how we’re going to deploy these, take what we’ve learned from bike share and do a better job at protecting the pedestrian environment, but I also know people are excited for new mobility options.”
Seattle is currently in the process of strengthening enforcement of bike-share parking, which has drawn criticism from people who say the bikes too often are left blocking sidewalks and bus stops. The poorly parked bikes particularly affect people with disabilities.
It’s not yet clear which or how many companies may eventually operate scooter share in Seattle. Mark Prentice, a spokesman for Durkan, said five scooter companies responded to a December letter from the administration seeking information: Bird, Lime, Lyft, Razor and Skip. O’Brien said he has met with representatives from Lime and Bird.
Several of the companies celebrated Durkan’s announcement this week.
Lime called it “great news” and said the company welcomes discussions about the mayor’s concerns. Lyft said it was “looking forward to reviewing“ the program.
Lyft lobbyist Sandeep Kaushik is also an informal political adviser to Durkan and was a paid consultant for her 2017 campaign.
“The community has been clear that they are ready for Seattle to join the e-scooter movement,” Paul Steely White, Bird director of safety policy and advocacy, said in a statement.
As scooters have proliferated in cities across the country, Durkan has raised safety and liability concerns.
The mayor reiterated those concerns in her guest post, pointing to a study by the Austin Public Health Department, with help from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, that found nearly half of the injured riders studied had injuries to the head.
“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,” Durkan wrote. “We need to do everything possible to ensure riders can get around our city safely and that pedestrians and cyclists stay safe, too.”
Durkan has also raised questions about legal liability from scooters. “Seattle will require full indemnification provisions to protect our taxpayers from lawsuits,” she wrote.
Comprehensive scooter-injury data is limited. Scooter proponents often counter that the devices could be made safer with more protected bike and scooter lanes, and that injuries are dwarfed by those related to cars.
In the presentation to council members Thursday, Portland officials said they found 176 scooter-related injuries during a four-month pilot, using a statewide emergency department visit data system. Most injuries were due to falls, rather than collisions, and they made up 5% of total traffic-related injuries during the same period. People took about 700,400 trips during the pilot program.
“Overall we try to emphasize that the entire transportation system has injury risk inherent in it and that’s why we’re partnering with the city on Vision Zero,” said Brendon Haggerty, a research analyst at the Multnomah County Health Department, referring to the effort to eliminate traffic fatalities and serious injuries.
Portland rolled out an initial pilot program last year but faced problems with people riding and parking on sidewalks. Portland recently welcomed scooters back under a new program.
In some other cities, companies have replaced their dockless bike fleets with scooters, a recent report from the National Association of City Transportation Officials found.
But scooters can attract different users, too. Portland’s review of its program found that nearly three-fourths of scooter users had never rented from Portland’s bike-share service.
Durkan wrote that scooters “should be a complement, rather than a replacement to bike share in Seattle.” The process of creating the pilot will include “examining a minimum threshold of bikes to remain part of our bike-share program,” she wrote.
This story has been updated to remove a reference to indemnification requirements for bike-share companies.