Post #377: Rental scooters, the Town begins to get ready.

Posted on September 9, 2019

For background on the rental scooter issue, see these posts:  Post #338, Post #330.

In a nutshell, due to a change in Commonwealth law, the Town needs to have some sort of program in place to regulate the use of rental scooters and bikes.  If not, then on 1/1/2020, the rental and use of such devices is deemed legal, including, if not explicitly barred, use on the sidewalk.  We probably don’t want that, based on the problems reported in cities that underwent unregulated use of rental “shared mobility devices” (see examples in Post #289).

The Town will begin discussion of this issue at the 9/9/2019 Town Council work session.  You can find the relevant meeting materials on this web page.

To cut to the chase:  My best guess is that the Town is developing a pro-forma way to satisfy Virginia statute.  We may or may not attract any dockless scooter or ebike rental operators to Vienna.

Dockless mobility devices in Northern Virginia

Three local jurisdictions already have pilot programs in place to regulate the use of dockless rental scooters and bicycles.

To be clear: These are “dockless mobility programs”, where private for-profit entities rent the devices.  These are completely separate from the taxpayer-financed expansion of “docked” Capital Bikeshare program (see this post for the contrast).  Finally, this is about regulation of rentals, and has nothing to do with individually-owned electric scooters or ebikes.

The main issue with these “dockless” systems seems to be parking.  Because these don’t have to be left in any designated rack, they tend to be left almost anywhere.  That can make them a nuisance on the sidewalks, storefronts, parks, and other public places.  Separately, if used on the sidewalk, they can create (at least the perception of) a hazard to pedestrians.

Localities have a lot of ways of controlling the parking issue.  They can positively require that devices be parked in designated areas only, when left in the public right-of-way.  (Oddly, these area are almost always called “corrals”.)  Going in the other direction, they can “geofence” certain areas as off-limits for parking.  (That is, rental companies agree that scooters cannot be locked (and user charges ended) while within certain areas defined by sets of GPS coordinates).  All three local jurisdictions have rules and processes by which  mis-parked or nuisance scooters can be reported by the public, and impounded if the rental company does not remove the device in a timely fashion.

Summary of experience so far

If you would like to read the narrative summaries of the experience, then go to these source documents: A summary of Arlington’s experience so far can be found in this document (.pdf).  A summary of Alexandria’s experience can be found in this document (.pdf).  And I believe it is too soon to have any evaluation of the Fairfax City program.

I have tabulated the information I found for the three local programs, and for the draft Town of Vienna program.  Where data are not available, I have colored the cell gray.  Discussion continues below the table.

To sum this up:  For the two programs with data, there are a lot of similarities.  Both systems get about 50,000 short (1-mile-or-so) trips per month.   Most of those trips are in dense, urban-core areas.  And both have had a handful of (reported) accidents, on order of 1 per 30,000-50,000 trips.  Both seem to have some “slack”, in the sense that the number of scooters in use is far less than the maximum authorized.

Both ban scooters from the sidewalk, and have few known violations of that law.  Both of them have significant numbers of complaints about parking, and both either use or plan to make use of some limited number of “corrals” to address that (in part).

One final item of note is that, while all the major providers participated in both the Arlington and Alexandria programs, only three chose to participate in Fairfax City.  Likely that’s a consequence of the smaller population and generally lower population density of Fairfax City.  This suggests that, at best, Vienna might get three or fewer participating providers.

Where is the Town of Vienna in this process?

As far as I can tell, these pilot programs follow a fairly standard “cookie cutter” format.  So, for tonight’s meeting, Town staff have provided a draft “memorandum of agreement (MOA)”.  This is more-or-less identical to the MOA used by Fairfax City and by Alexandria (and to a degree Arlington), all of which appear to have been modeled on those used in DC and Montgomery County.

So the MOA is more-or-less a standard, cookie cutter document.  The Town of Vienna draft has chosen the same financial arrangement as Fairfax City did, which is a $5000 fee up front, and $0.05 per trip.   I believe the limits (250 devices) match Fairfax City as well (although it is exceeding unlikely that this will be a binding limit).

The point is that all the choices embodied in the MOA document appear “safe”, in the sense that all of that has been tested by other localities.

I believe that Town Staff have pointed the Town Council in the right direction, in terms of the first key questions.  Should these be allowed on the sidewalks?  Everybody else seems to say no.  But note that, as normally interpreted, this also bans them from using crosswalks.  If a crosswalk ban is enforced, that might create some insurmountable barriers to use along Maple.   Should they be restricted to just the core downtown area?  I don’t think that other jurisdictions have done that.  That’s in part because if a scooter gets “stranded” in some remote location for seven days, the scooter provider is obligated to go pick it up and put it back into service.  Where should any designated parking areas (“corrals”) go?  I would have said, should there be corrals, and if so, where?  In many cases, localities have waited to see the scooter use data first, and then located the corrals where scooters are frequently parked.  That approach makes more sense to me, rather than trying to guess where any designated parking areas should be.  Finally, there is a question of whether or not to apply bicycle helmet laws and similar laws to rental scooter riders.  I’m not sure that’s such a big deal, as these scooters can only be rented by adults, and adult bicyclists are not required to wear helmets in Virginia.

Beyond this, if you look at other jurisdictions in the area, there are a lot of functions that the Town would (or should or could or may have to) provide in this area.  Enforcement will largely fall to our police department, and they need to be consulted.  Presumably, Public Works will be tasked with impounding any devices that obstruct the public right-of-way.  There probably needs to be some well-defined process whereby citizens can report scooters that are parked so as to be a nuisance.

But in addition, other local jurisdictions have arranged for significant public outreach, public input, and analysis of the resulting use data.  It’s not clear that Vienna is ready to do any of that, or what burden that places on the Town.  It is also far from clear that this would be worthwhile, until we see some actual rental scooter use in Vienna.

Finally, as I see it, if the Town wants these devices to be used, the biggest practical issue is addressing scooter use on Maple Avenue and Nutley Street.  If rental electric scooters are barred from the sidewalk, that means they could only be ridden in the street.  That’s neither safe nor desirable on either Maple or Nutley.  The Nutley barrier, in particular, more-or-less cuts the Town of Vienna off from the Vienna Metro, for scooter use.  My suggestion is that the Town designate and mark certain street routes, with some limited sidewalk use as necessary, to bypass Maple and Nutley and so allow scooter use in the core of the Vienna.  I laid that out in Post #354.

We also face unique issue with the Metro, in that it’s outside the Town of Vienna limits.  That leaves me scratching my head as to how that would work, if it turns out that these devices are a popular way to get to and from Metro.