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D.C.'s slow expansion of e-scooter program, higher fees and more rules disappoints companies and supporters

Scooter start-ups such as Bird and Lime will have to pay more to operate in the District

A rider makes his way through town on an e-scooter. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)
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E-scooter companies that want to continue operating in the District will need to offer a cash payment option to customers, restrict scooter speeds to 10 mph and pay substantially higher fees to the city under the latest round of regulations for the industry.

The guidelines, set to go into effect in January, also implement a fee of up to $5 a month per scooter or bike — which could add up to $36,000 a year per company. However, companies also will be able to increase the number of scooters in their fleet to 600 from 400 — though industry officials contend that still isn’t enough to meet demand.

Some critics wonder if the city’s new permit process makes it worthwhile for the companies to stay in the nation’s capital in the long run.

The new regulations also apply to dockless bikes, which were the first to arrive in the District last year and were followed by electric scooters in the spring. Most bikes were gone by the end of the summer as scooters became more popular and were used at greater rates for commuting and sightseeing.

“The proposed vehicle fleet of 600 vehicles is simply not enough to meet the city’s transportation needs,” said Mary Caroline Pruitt, a spokeswoman for Lime, which started operations with dockless bikes but has since transitioned to mostly e-scooters. “While we want to be able to reliably and equitably serve D.C. residents throughout the city in its entirety, we cannot do so unless the cap is significantly increased.”

The city has maintained a hard line in limiting the size of scooter and dockless bike fleets since the dockless program launched in September 2017. With the new expansion there could be as many as 3,000 scooters with five different providers in the city, still well below the 20,000 some supporters have envisioned.

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Jeff Marootian, director of the District Department of Transportation, said the new requirements “reflect the promise” the agency sees in the program while addressing “valid concerns” about safety and equity.

That promise is shortsighted, some critics say, noting the District’s approach has restrained growth in the services and lagged behind other major cities. Portland, Ore., for example, has approved up to 20,000 scooters.

In an interview last month, Dave Estrada, head of government relations and policy at Bird, said the District’s actions aren’t in line with its promises to reduce traffic congestion by promoting alternative modes of transportation. He said the cap on fleets is too restrictive and punitive for companies.

Companies operating both bikes and scooters will be required to apply for separate permits for each mode. That means, they will be allowed up to 600 bikes and 600 scooters if they so choose. The companies can then request their fleets be increased up to 25 percent after an evaluation from DDOT.

In addition to the $60-per-vehicle annual fee, the companies will pay annual fees of nearly $500 and a $10,000 bond that can be kept by DDOT in the event the company fails to meet the requirements, including failing to remove unsafe equipment from service. The per-vehicle fee is much lower than the $200 fee per bike or scooter the city considered earlier this year.

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Scooters will need to be set to have maximum speeds of 10 mph, while electric bikes should not be able to exceed 20 mph. Companies have to offer special pricing plans for low-income people and allow them the option to pay with cash. They will continue to provide trip data to the city and have scooters and bikes in all wards of the city. That requirement is more ceremonial than anything else; they already are required to have at least six vehicles in each ward, which means companies are still unlikely to deploy significantly more vehicles to underserved areas east of the Anacostia River.

To address complaints about abandoned bikes and scooters littering sidewalks, yards, parks and other areas, all the companies will be required to have a toll-free telephone number printed on their vehicles where callers can report bikes and scooters found parked illegally.

And dockless bike companies must provide a way for users to lock their bikes to racks or poles.

Supporters of the services say they are frustrated with the District’s approach to regulating the services. They say it is unfair to restrict the number of dockless bikes and scooters when there is no limit on the number of vehicles Uber and Lyft can operate in the city.

“DC government has never seriously wanted dockless to work and these regulations are in line with that,” bike advocate Brian McEntee tweeted earlier this week. McEntee, a bike commuter who does not use scooters, said "the obvious counterfactual” would be if Uber and Lyft were capped at 15 mph and 600 cars.

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When the dockless program began last fall, five companies offered bikes. But by spring the program had shifted to mostly electric scooters. Operators Mobike and Ofo left the pilot this summer, citing frustration with city’s restrictions on fleet size. Spin pulled its bikes just a few weeks later, saying it would come back with scooters. Jump, the Uber-owned company, continues to rent electric bikes. Lime has transitioned from bikes to mostly scooters. Now most companies operating dockless systems in the city are scooter providers. That includes Bird, Skip, Lime and the newest addition: Lyft.

Riders and anyone else interested can share their thoughts about the program and the new permit process with DDOT here.