Safety and equity issues were top concerns at a regional workshop on dockless scooters

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On May 30, 2019 the TPB hosted its third in a series of regional workshops on Dockless Scooters and Bicycles.  Representatives from the District Department of Transportation, Montgomery County, Arlington, and Baltimore City presented on the results of their pilot programs to an audience of over sixty planners, consultants, public officials, and members of the general public. Here are some takeaways from the workshop.

Electric scooters are booming in the Washington region yet with the boom, concerns about safety and equity have bubbled up from both users and non-users alike.

Electric scooters are likely to be part of the transportation scene for the foreseeable future and deliver significant benefits to the region in the form of congestion mitigation and emissions reductions.  According to a City of Portland survey, roughly half of e-scooter trips are diverted from some form of motor vehicle trip, usually a ride-hailing or taxi trip.   That means fewer car trips, and less pollution and carbon emissions.

The agencies tasked with regulating these new modes of transportation gathered together to share lessons from pilot programs, lessons learned, and their plans going forward.

What are dockless electric scooters?

The term dockless originally referred to bikeshare programs that allowed people to rent and leave a bike anywhere within a certain jurisdiction. In a short time however, dockless bikesharing has given way to dockless electric scooters.

Dockless in Baltimore and Washington

In April 2019 there were over 460,000 dockless trips in the District of Columbia, up from 119,000 trips in the cold-weather month of January. Baltimore had 723,252 trips between August 15, 2018 and January 31, 2019.   The number of rides-per-vehicle deployed in Baltimore City have been among the highest in the nation – peaking at nearly seven riders per scooter per day in late September, 2018.  It is expected that more people will be using them over the summer months.

This graph shows the growth of dockless scooters in the District of Columbia. (DDOT)

The District and Baltimore have the large and well-established dockless programs.  DC and Baltimore’s results show that the e-scooters are popular with users and are commercially successful for the operators. The operators can charge higher fees with e-scooters than was possible with dockless bikes, while maintaining a use rate of roughly three trips per day per vehicle, fueling a nation-wide transition from dockless bikes to dockless e-scooters.

Montgomery County will launch a pilot e-scooter program shortly, which will include much more of the County than the current dockless bike share system.

The above slide shows the current Montgomery county dockless scooter pilot area. (MCDOT)

Dockless scooters and equity

Electric scooters have been more successful than bikeshare at attracting low-income and minority users.  E-scooters are somewhat more attractive to women, and to people whose jobs require formal clothing. Riders don’t get as sweaty or mess up their clothing using an electric scooter.   E-scooter operators charge per trip, which is helpful for people who may not have the cash on hand for an annual membership.

In Baltimore the e-scooters have been popular in the low-income neighborhoods near downtown, which are close to major job centers but lack rail transit, or direct, frequent bus service.   Equity zones in Baltimore showed 21% of vehicles in the zones in the morning, 17.4% of total trips originating there, and 28% of vehicles ending up in the equity zones.

The above map shows the evening distribution of dockless scooters in baltimore. (Baltimore DOT)

When surveyed, Baltimoreans’ top suggestion for their system were “more scooters” and “more safe places to ride”.     Young respondents had a the most favorable responses, with overall perception of the system 95% positive for respondents under age 25, and 90% positive for respondents aged 25 to 40.  There was no difference in “favorable” ratings by race.

The Baltimore DOT surveyed Baltimore residents about what they think about the dockless scooters. (Baltimore DOT)

Scooters and safety concerns

At previous dockless workshops, participants identified some major issues including safety, conflicts with pedestrians and people with disabilities, and improper parking.  Those problems are real, but the agencies believe that they are manageable. Studies and data on e-scooter safety are still rare for this new technology, but some information is available from efforts in Baltimore and from Austin, Texas

Based on the numbers gathered so far, the Baltimore City Department of Transportation does not believe that safety has been enough of a problem to justify shutting down or significantly curtailing the e-scooter programs. The Baltimore City DOT and its partners evaluated the program by tracking related injuries, analyzing data submitted by vendors, and gathering public perception. From these efforts, it found that severe injuries tracked did not suggest a need to halt the program According to the Baltimore City Health Department, from August 15, 2018 to February 6, 2019, there were 63 emergency visits related to scooter, which translates to 0.87 ER visits per 10,000 scooter rides.  There were no fatalities.

The Baltimore and Austin studies seem to indicate that most e-scooter crashes are single-vehicle crashes.  And, about one third of those collisions have been first-time riders, and more than a third of users in the Austin study, mentioned excessive scooter speed as a factor. The only user training offered is a brief tutorial on the app, which not all users bother to read. Agencies are considering offering or requiring additional training and safety messaging relating to helmets, speed, and not drinking and scooting.

Riders are usually encouraged to wear helmets, but it is not required.  The age limits are also often violated, as older users will check out scooters for younger users.  Most agencies require users to have driver’s licenses to ensure knowledge of the rules of the road.   However, in order to maintain access for disadvantaged households which do not have access to a motor vehicle, Baltimore does not require a driver’s license.  Paying for the lessons and use of a vehicle required to get driver’s license can cost over $1,000, which is prohibitive for limited income households.

The main agency safety response so far has been to limit e-scooter operating speeds. Since most scooter collisions are single-vehicle, lower speeds usually mean a less serious injury in the event of a crash.    While federal rules allow a 20 miles per hour speed for e-bikes, and the State of Maryland limits e-scooters to 20 miles per hour, the City of Baltimore has limited e-scooter speeds to 15 miles per hour, while the District of Columbia and Arlington allow only ten mph. Montgomery County will allow a speed of 15 miles per hour. Speeds are limited by the operator; the scooter rider cannot go faster than the speed limit. Lower speed limits are unpopular with scooter operating companies and with users. The operating companies contend that lower speed limits lead to more sidewalk riding.   However, the agencies believe that at least some sidewalk riding is inevitable and prefer to limit e-scooter speeds.

Montgomery County plans to ban use between 10 P.M. and 5 A.M., since late-night users are more likely to be intoxicated and crash their scooters. The late-night restriction is controversial, since it would remove a transportation option for restaurant workers and other, often low-income workers who work night or early-morning shifts.

Sidewalk riding and scooter parking

Conflicts between e-scooter riders and pedestrians on sidewalks remains a major concern and source of public complaints. Policies on sidewalk riding, and trail use, vary by location and jurisdiction. Agency representatives noted that providing bike lanes, especially protected bike lanes, is correlated with large reductions in sidewalk riding by both bicyclists and e-scooter riders

One common complaint about the dockless e-scooters is improper parking.  People often complain that scooters block the pedestrian path or Americans with Disabilities Act access. The agencies believe that these problems can be mitigated. Scooters take up less space than bicycles, and there are ways of incentivizing better parking behavior through the apps. Painted e-scooter “corrals” that encourage e-scooter users to park their scooters out of the pedestrian path have been helpful.   Operators are considering deploying hybrid systems, with some solar-powered docking stations deployed in busy areas, though undocked parking would still be allowed.  Riders would be offered a discount off their ride for parking their e-scooter in a dock.

Operating companies are required to move improperly parked scooters. However, enforcement is difficult, since improperly parked e-scooters may be moved before the agency can process a complaint and get the company to respond. Agencies are working on improving the 311 system so that public complaints about improperly parked scooters can be put through more efficiently to the correct operating company.

What’s next?

Due to the rapidly changing character of the field of shared “micromobility,” and expressed need for information sharing and cross-jurisdictional coordination, we expect to continue dockless mobility workshops regularly, for as long as our members find it useful. Presentations and agendas from all workshops have been posted on the Bicycle and Pedestrian Subcommittee web site. We will also explore other means of information sharing and coordination.

Get the presentations from the May 30 workshop.

Read the WAMU story about the workshop.

Learn more about the TPB’s Bicycle and Pedestrian Subcommittee.

Michael Farrell is a TPB Transportation Planner. He works on bicycle and pedestrian planning and manages the Street Smart pedestrian and bicycle safety campaign. 

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