Post #330: Scooter alert

Posted on July 30, 2019

I was driving in the City of Fairfax last week and had my first sighting of rental electric scooters there.  First time it was a set of red devices parked on the sidewalk, and I was not quite sure what I was looking at.  But when I saw a couple of lime-green ones in action, that’s when it hit me:  the scooters are here.

Turns out, if I had been paying attention, I’d have been prepared for it.  You can read news coverage here,  or here.

For us, note the key paragraph from that second news article:

"H.B. 2572 also amended the Code of Virginia to state that, if a locality does not adopt a licensing ordinance, regulation, or other action by Jan. 1, 2020, motorized skateboards, scooters, and dockless or electric-powered bicycles can be deployed without formal regulation."

That’s not exactly how I read that law, but it’s close enough.  In so many words, time is running out for having any orderly introduction of electric rental scooters or dockless rental bikes in Vienna.  We have five months to get our act together, or we’re fair game until such time as we do establish some rules.

There appear to be two main objections to rental scooters from the standpoint of the general public.

One, these scooters can typically do about 15 MPH top speed.  That can be a safety issue if allowed to be ridden on the sidewalk. 

Just as a point of reference, 15 MPH on level ground is a pretty good clip for a bicyclist.  I doubt that I have ever managed to achieve that, for any length of time, along any Town of Vienna sidewalk.  And on many parts of those sidewalks, you don’t dare ride at speed.  For example, my least favorite stretch of Maple Avenue sidewalk is below.  The doors of the shops literally open onto the sidewalk, and there’s no place to go.  I traverse this section at a walking pace.

The emergency stopping distance for an electric scooter traveling at 15 MPH appears to be around 30 feet (per this reference).  (About half of that is reaction time, the rest is braking distance.)  This does not strike me as being hugely different from the stopping distance for a bicycle at that speed.

So, in terms of hazard, my guess is, you are relying on the good sense and skill of the sidewalk scooter rider, same as you are relying on the good sense of the sidewalk bicyclist.  Scooters will attract a different type of person, will be ridden (at first) by inexperienced riders, and are capable of speeds without the corresponding physical exertion.  So they may be more dangerous than sidewalk bicycles for those reasons. But not inherently different, in my view, from a sidewalk bicyclist.

Furthermore, if you expect people to get around Maple Avenue on scooters, practically speaking, you have no choice but to allow them on the sidewalk.  I think you’d be borderline crazy to ride a scooter on Maple Avenue at almost any time.  (I feel the same about riding a bicycle on Maple.)   And the presence of scooters in the roadway would substantially disrupt traffic flow.

Two, people leave them anywhere, so they become a nuisance when parked willy-nilly. You can see some discussion of this issue in this post, which is my write up of dockless bike sharing.  Various cities have tried various solutions to this issue, as outlined in that posting.

Other issues with electric scooters are more of a non-public nature.  For example, rentals do not include helmets and (my best estimate) users tend to have a high rate of injury (compared to bicyclists, for example).

Back to Fairfax City: 

Fairfax City expects scooter riders to ride in the road, and not on the sidewalk, among other things explained in this FAQ on the Faifax City website.  But, I also note here that, apparently, Fairfax city does not allow bicycles on the sidewalk, either.  (The exception appears to be routes that are marked bicycle routes, as explained in this Fairfax City ordinance.)

To which I can only say, good luck with that.  The Lime scooter users I saw on Old Lee Highway were cruising down the sidewalk, and I doubt that any no-sidwalk rules will be stringently enforced.  The reason I doubt that is my experience as a bicyclist.  Mainly, a) I never knew that City of Fairfax banned bicycles from sidewalks except along marked bike routes, b) I’m pretty sure I’ve bicycled on the sidewalk there many times and never been hassled. So they may enforce that in the Old Town section of Fairfax City, but certainly not city-wide.

Here’s news reporting on how Vienna is planning to handle this.  That article helpfully gives a link to audio for that meeting.  (Kudos to the Town of Vienna for proving timely audio for Town Council work sessions.)  The discussion of rental scooters starts about 33 minutes into the recording.  Discussion continues for about another 45 minutes, but after listening to most of it, I didn’t detect a lot of clarity there, and not much nuts-and-bolts discussion of how this should play out in Vienna.  It appears to me that Town government is nowhere near prepared to act.  They actually spent some time discussing whether the Virginia legislature is likely to change that January 1 2020 deadline noted above.

Also absent from the discussion — or maybe I missed it — is any notion that, as an ordinance, the Town could bar the use of these devices (say, on any public sidewalk).   The Town already has the right to bar bicycles from the sidewalk if it so chooses.  But near as I can tell, the discussion was all about how Vienna was going to allow electric scooter use in Town, and not really focused on whether Vienna would allow it.  It seemed to be taken as a done deal that they had no choice but to allow scooters here.  That’s not how I read the law, but I’m not a lawyer.  As I read it, if the Town hasn’t acted in some fashion, then rental scooters are legal here.  I didn’t read anything in the law to suggest that (e.g.) barring scooters from the sidewalks was not a legal course of action.

So the clock is ticking on this one, and we seem to be running late.  If you have an opinion on this, it will soon be time to make that known to the Town Council.  Hope the Town can get something reasonable enacted in time.   For a discussion of dockless bike rental — which shares some but not all the problems and benefits of scooter rental —