GET READY to ride, D.C. — but not too fast, and not too many of you. That is the message the city has sent commuters with its updated rules and permitting process for dockless shared e-scooters. The regulations, which apply to dockless bicycles as well, include valuable measures to increase safety and accessibility, but also unnecessary restrictions on fleet size and speed. Those could deny District denizens the full benefits that scooters have to offer.
The District wants to cut greenhouse-gas emissions by 50 percent by 2032; an executive at Bird, one of the nation’s top scooter providers, says the company’s vehicles have kept 516,000 pounds of carbon out of Washington’s atmosphere in the six months they have been here. Scooters also decrease congestion by replacing car rides for short trips. In this context, the District’s extended pilot program is progress: The District will raise the limit on the number of scooters a company can deploy on city streets from 400 to 600, and the District Department of Transportation can grant an increase of up to 25 percent every quarter.
But scooter providers say that demand for their product significantly outstrips supply, and the number 600 has little to do with how many people actually want to use their services. The city’s motivation for the quota may be sound — throwing scooters on the street willy-nilly would amplify the parking and safety problems they have posed in cities around the country — yet the answer is not an arbitrary per-company scooter allotment. Instead, the District should work with companies to determine how many scooters consumers need. Then it should issue permits to companies that present the best plan for meeting demand while keeping D.C. streets and sidewalks safe and uncrowded.
Letting enough scooters into the District would also mean more equality of access. The District was right to require that companies offer riders the opportunity to pay with cash as well as card, and that they provide discounted trips to low-income residents. Yet presence is important, too. As long as fleet size is limited, firms will have the incentive to place their product primarily in high-density areas, leaving underserved parts of the city underserved still.
Then there’s the speed problem. The District will restrict electronic bikes to 20 mph and e-scooters to 10. The speed limit for scooters is tied to how they are classified under current law. But the law did not anticipate this technology, and it is time for an update. The District would do better to impose a 15 mph limit on both technologies, at least for street-riding. A separate limit of 10 mph could apply to sidewalk rides, which at least one company claims it has the technology to enforce. The same system could help the District enforce its ban on sidewalk scootering in the central business district.
Scooters offer the District a shot at a more sustainable future. There’s a smarter route to reach it.