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D.C. Council approves new e-scooter regulations

Electric scooters lined up at H and 14th streets NW last month.
Electric scooters lined up at H and 14th streets NW last month. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)
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The D.C. Council gave final approval Tuesday to legislation further regulating electric-scooter services in the nation's capital.

The legislation, which passed unanimously, establishes new rules for scooter use in the city, chief among them a requirement that the companies that operate the services provide a way for the devices to be locked to racks or poles.

The legislation allows electric scooter and bicycle operations to grow over the next few years to a maximum of 20,000 devices by Oct. 1, 2023. Today, seven companies are allowed to operate just under 7,000 scooters combined; about 4,000 e-bikes are permitted.

The regulations also set benchmarks to ensure the devices are available in all wards of the city and require more signage warning users about riding scooters on sidewalks.

Supporters said the legislation, led by council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3), balances safety with the need to provide more transportation options.

“Overall, this bill is a great balance of a need for more regulation to make scooters and other shared mobility devices safe and easily available,” council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6) said earlier this month as he voted to advance the bill for a final vote.

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Motorized scooters started appearing in the District in the spring of 2018. They quickly became a popular option for getting around, with tourists using them to see the sights, commuters turning to them out of frustration with the region's troubled transit system and residents finding them perfect for short-distance trips.

They also became controversial. Unprepared for the massive growth of the services, the city faced public criticism as abandoned scooters began littering sidewalks, parks and other public spaces. Pedestrians continue to complain that they fear for their safety as scooters whiz by on narrow and crowded sidewalks. People who use wheelchairs complain about being unable to navigate around scooters left dumped in the middle of sidewalks.

The legislation addresses those complaints by requiring the devices have lock-to capability. The locking requirement would go into effect Oct. 1, 2021, to give companies time to update their fleets and the city time to install additional bike racks.

Some of the operators, including Lime and Bird, opposed the lock-to measure, saying retrofitting scooters to add the capability could cost millions at a time they are struggling to recover from losses suffered during the coronavirus pandemic.

Robert Gardner, Lime’s director of government relations for the Washington region, said last month that the measure would discourage people from using scooters.

“It doesn't make any sense to burden the most popular alternative to driving that D.C. has seen in decades with regulation that discourages its use,” Gardner said.

The industry has fought similar requirements in many cities, though it has complied in Chicago, San Francisco and Denver.

“In a way, the popularity and proliferation of electric scooters across the country has greatly benefited us, because the experiences and legislative initiatives of other jurisdictions have informed our own legislation — a perfect example being a locking-mechanism requirement that is already estimated to improve parking compliance by 75 percent in Chicago,” Cheh said.

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To address concerns that there are insufficient racks to lock the devices, the council added a provision requiring the District Department of Transportation to add 1,000 bike racks a year for the next four years.

According to DDOT, there are 5,000 bike racks across the city and 80 bike and scooter corrals. The agency said it typically installs 200 to 300 racks a year while business improvement districts install 100 to 200.

A fiscal-impact report last month from the District’s chief financial officer, Jeffrey S. DeWitt, said DDOT has funding for the installation of 150 racks this fiscal year but no money for them beyond fiscal 2021. The report said “funds are not sufficient” to implement the new regulations. Installing a single rack costs up to $800.

Critics of the scooter services say the regulations are a good first step but mean nothing without enforcement.

“The big problem with the bill is that no one is charged with enforcing its provisions, and I doubt riders or scooter companies will follow the rules,” said Steven Reichert, a Dupont Circle resident who has been a vocal advocate for restricting scooter riding on sidewalks.

“The legislation does nothing to improve safety for pedestrians by stopping scooters from being driven on sidewalks,” he said.

Scooters and bikes are allowed on sidewalks, except in the Central Business District, and scooter users still ride them in restricted areas. The legislation urges users to travel in protected bike lanes when available.

Howard Marks, founder of the group Take Back Our Sidewalks, said he is skeptical about the effectiveness of the lock-to requirement. Some companies have acknowledged that in cities that already require the feature, few use it.

“The ultimate situation is to require docking stations for e-scooters like Capital Bikeshare,” Marks said.

Spin is already doing that in some parts of the city. Last year, the company introduced docking stations where customers can pick up and return its devices. Spin said the charging stations, on private property, keep the scooters powered up and help eliminate some of the sidewalk clutter.

Dan Winston, Spin’s regional manager for the Washington area, said the company supports “the D.C. Council's plans to promote safe parking,” noting that Spin has the most experience operating lock-to scooters, using them in Chicago and San Francisco.

“We have led the industry in alternative parking solutions like hubs, incentivized drop points and neighborhood ambassadors,” he said.

Maurice Henderson, senior director of government partnerships at Bird, said the company looks forward to working with the District in meeting the requirements “to ensure the e-scooter program continues to be a success.”

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The regulations would go into effect after approval by Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) and a 30-day congressional review. In a letter to D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) on Tuesday, Bowser said increasing the availability of scooters and other mobility options is one of her goals.

Although she voiced concern that parts of the legislation are unfunded and that finding money will be challenging in the current economic environment, the mayor said she supports it.

Perhaps most important in the legislation, supporters said, is that it covers scooters, bicycles and e-bikes and would allow DDOT to establish additional rules.

The legislation makes operating a scooter while drunk illegal and establishes fines for many violations. For example, operating a scooter or e-bike while under the influence of alcohol or drugs carries a fine up to $150; anyone found tampering with the devices would face a $125 penalty.

Users must be at least 16 years old, wear helmets if under 18, legally park the devices, obey restrictions on carrying packages while riding, ride only in designated areas and not ride with passengers, according to the legislation.

Other provisions of the bill:

●DDOT is required to put up signage or pavement markings inside the Central Business District alerting scooter riders about the prohibition against riding on sidewalks.

●Companies are required to deploy at least 3 percent of their fleets to each of the District’s eight wards between 5 and 7 a.m. daily.

●Companies are prohibited from putting dockless scooters within 300 feet of an elementary or middle school or senior wellness center. The rules would also apply to dockless e-bike operations. Areas immediately outside Metro station entrances are exempt.

●Service operators are required to maintain a 24-hour toll-free number for the public to report illegally parked scooters and file other complaints.

●Operators are required to offer optional free classes on how to safely ride.

●The e-bike speed limit is set at 20 mph.

●Operators are required to release fleet, trip and complaint data to DDOT.

Some of the proposed rules mirror DDOT regulations that went into effect last year. The city established fees for operators and maintained a cap on the number of devices each company is allowed to deploy.

Bird, Bolt, Lime, Lyft, Razor, Skip and Spin operate scooters in the city. Helbiz and Jump, which is under the Lime umbrella, operate e-bikes.

“This is a transit industry and, like other forms of transportation, requires rules and regulations to keep us all safe and accountable to one another,” council member Brooke Pinto (D-Ward 2) said at a council session last month.

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