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Scooters: We answer your questions about this latest transportation trend

Scooters have become integral parts of the transportation landscape in Washington.
Scooters have become integral parts of the transportation landscape in Washington. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

Almost overnight, electric scooters have seemingly become ubiquitous on streets and sidewalks in cities across the United States.

From joyriding teens to commuters to tourists, this latest transportation trend has been met with excitement — and dread, from some corners, as confusion abounds over rules for use, whether they are considered motor vehicles and where they can be ridden.

And they don’t seem to be going away anytime soon.

“The more scooters you put out, the more people use them,” said Dave Estrada, head of government relations and policy at Bird, which only a year ago began a social experiment with a few scooters on the streets of Santa Monica, Calif., and has since expanded to more than 75 markets across seven countries.

Love them or hate them, scooters appear to be here to stay, so we will try to answer some of the most common questions we have received about them.

They are everywhere, but how did we get here?

Companies such as Bird, Skip and Lime were among the first to put scooters on U.S. streets. They followed the frenzy of the dockless bike-share movement that took off in the United States in 2017, with colorful bicycles that could be rented through an app and dropped wherever a trip was completed. Several of those services left after struggling with vandalism, theft and city regulations. Some companies that started with bikes added scooters to their fleets. E-scooters first started to appear last spring in cities across California and quickly expanded. Less than a year later, thousands are available for rent in places stretching from Portland to New York.

Where can I find them?

Bird and Lime, the two largest providers, are each in more than 75 markets across multiple countries. They cover major markets in the United States, including San Diego, Denver, Dallas, St. Louis, Detroit, Indianapolis, Atlanta, Minneapolis, New York, Baltimore and Washington. Skip, a much smaller operation, has scooters on the ground in Washington, Portland, San Francisco and Long Beach, Calif. It is also testing the service in San Jose and Oakland, Calif. Lyft recently launched in Denver, Santa Monica and Washington.

How are they regulated?

Most cities were unprepared for the arrival of scooters and had no regulations in place for them. Several places banned the service altogether, in some cases reacting to the unannounced arrival of dockless scooters and bikes with cease-and-desist orders. Cities continue to struggle with creating rules to govern the services, including establishing where scooters are legal to ride, fleet restrictions, fees, parking and speed requirements. Seattle has banned shared scooters until it can study the situation in other cities. Nashville earlier this year sent Bird a cease-and-desist order accusing the company of using public sidewalks without permission but later approved legislation allowing scooters to return. San Francisco forced scooter companies to shut down but recently reopened its thoroughfares to the industry.

In the District, scooters fall under “Personal Mobility Device” rules, which establishes that they are motor vehicles and cannot be ridden by anyone under 16.

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Where can they be ridden?

Most cities allow electric scooters on the road. Like bicycles, they are considered vehicles and can share the road with regular traffic. When on the road, riders must follow traffic laws. But states and cities can have rules that differ, and riders should check the rules of their jurisdictions.

Like bicycles, some cities allow scooters to be used on sidewalks, while others do not.

California law, for example, prohibits electric scooters on sidewalks. In Denver, scooters are allowed only on sidewalks and prohibited from use in the street. In the District, scooters can be used on sidewalks, except in the central business district, which includes downtown. The same rule applies to bicycles.

As a general rule, riders are encouraged to use bike lanes where available or the road. Riding is discouraged on crowded sidewalks, where they can be hazardous to pedestrians.

How can I rent one, and how much does it cost?

You can find, unlock and pay for a scooter using each company’s app. The apps are available through the Apple App Store and Google Play. The apps operate similarly: They provide the location of the scooter closest to you and guide you through the process of renting one. You will need a credit card. Scooters in most cities rent for $1 to start, plus 15 cents a minute. In some cities, it’s 20 cents a minute.

Are there requirements for renting and riding a scooter?

Most companies require riders to be 18 or older. This stipulation is often printed on the scooter and/or included in the user agreement. Bird and Lime require users to scan their driver’s licenses. Skip uses ID-scanning technology to ensure riders meet the age requirement in most cities.

Is there safety protocol and is a helmet required?

Most cities don’t require riders to use a helmet, as is the case in Washington, but companies encourage their use. Bird and Skip will mail helmets to users who request them. For safety reasons, only one person is allowed on a scooter at a time. Riders are urged to follow all traffic laws, including signs and signals. Use both hands while riding, and don’t wear headphones so you can pay attention to your surroundings without distraction.

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How are scooters maintained?

The companies are supposed to deploy staff to check the scooters daily, but reports of malfunctions and broken or vandalized equipment are on the rise. Some of the companies have said they are boosting maintenance and hiring mechanics and specialized staff. Bird, for example, recently hired a team called Bird Watchers, which it says scans every scooter, inspects it against a maintenance checklist and is trained to fix problems on the spot. The companies say that they are also working on the deployment of a sturdier scooter made for daily use — a more durable option than the first generation of scooters.

How fast can they go?

Most companies have set speed limits on their scooters to 15 mph. However, they urge riders to follow local regulations and exercise caution. In the District, new regulations set to go into effect next year will require companies to set a maximum speed limit of 10 mph.

What's the battery life?

Most shared scooters have a range of up to 30 miles and are designed to last throughout the day.

What are the hours of operation?

Most scooter companies pick up the scooters at night to recharge and repair if needed and return them to the streets in the morning. Lime says its scooters are available 24/7. They have teams pulling scooters for rebalancing every eight hours.

Are they available in all kinds of weather?

As winter approaches, scooters may not be widely available in some cities. Companies say they may pull their fleets during severe weather and/or adjust operations. It is expected that scooters will be out of commission during a snowstorm, for example. Company officials say they make decisions on a case-by-case basis. Bird halted operations in cities affected by Hurricanes Florence and Michael. Lime said that in areas with harsh winters where roads are too icy, it sometimes redistributes scooters to warmer regions.

Where are you supposed to park them?

The key is to park responsibly. Some cities (and companies) are starting to crack down on users who simply dump scooters anywhere when they’re finished. They are also working to create designated parking spaces on sidewalks and curbs for bikes and scooters. Some companies are working on geofencing technology that would prohibit riders from ending trips in areas where they aren’t supposed to leave vehicles. As a general rule, riders should never leave a scooter so that it blocks pedestrian walkways, driveways or building entrances, or at crosswalks or bus and subway stops. Scooters should be parked upright.

What else should we expect moving forward?

In the months to come, there may be more social debate about scooter decorum, infrastructure to handle personal mobility options and more education campaigns to encourage safe, orderly riding. This fall, Lime is launching a $3 million education and safety campaign that includes ads, community outreach and helmet distribution. Companies and cities will have to do better to educate all road users about how to coexist.