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D.C. proposal aims to ‘control’ e-scooters

A bill introduced by Council member Mary M. Cheh would set rules for where scooters can be parked, establish new speed limits and set hours for their use

Scooters near the Capitol building in the District. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

Legislation before the D.C. Council aims to address the myriad complaints about e-scooter operations in the nation’s capital, including that the devices are left everywhere, ridden where they shouldn’t be and are a hazard to pedestrians.

A bill introduced by Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) would set rules for where scooters can be parked, establish new speed limits and ban their use between 10 p.m. and 4 a.m. The legislation would give the city transportation agency the authority to fine operators that fail to address complaints and revoke their operations permit if they consistently fail to abide by the rules.

The District Department of Transportation, which regulates the services, has established rules to keep the scooter companies in check, but Cheh said her legislation sets needed parameters and makes scooter use in the city safer.

“It’s a wonderful thing to have the scooters,” Cheh said. “But it’s a little bit like the Wild West at the moment.”

The proposal comes as scooter usage appears to be on the rise in the District, one of the first U.S. cities to allow the services. Nearly 1 in 6 District residents used e-scooters in the past year, according to a recent Washington Post poll, including 6 percent who used them at least a few times a week.

Nearly 1 in 6 D.C. residents uses e-scooters, poll finds

But despite growing enthusiasm for the personal mobility devices, they have also brought new challenges. Critics say scooters are cluttering sidewalks, and worse, creating dangerous encounters with pedestrians on narrow sidewalks. Although scooters are banned from sidewalks in downtown Washington, riders are regularly spotted doing in restricted areas. Cheh’s bill would require DDOT to put up signs to more clearly label the restriction in the central business district.

The bill also establishes designated parking for the two-wheel devices and penalties for operators who fail to remove a badly parked scooter within three hours after it has been reported. The proposal would increase the scooter speed limit to 15 miles per hour (from 10 mph) on a street or bike lane and reduce the speed limit to 6 mph while operating on a sidewalk.

Five companies are operating scooters in the District: Bird, Jump, Lime, Lyft and Spin. One company, Skip, has temporarily been suspended after a several fires involving its equipment.

Skip scooter service suspended in D.C., Arlington and Alexandria after fires

Cheh’s proposal — co-sponsored by Council members Brianne K. Nadeau (D-Ward 1), Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) and Charles Allen (D-Ward 6) — would ban the use of scooters overnight, a measure aimed at preventing crashes. A recent study of scooter injuries in Austin by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that about 40 percent of scooter injuries occurred between 6 p.m. and 6 a.m., indicating more problems during hours when it was dark.

The study also found that more than a third of those injured said that excessive speed contributed to their injury, and about 30 percent reported drinking alcohol before riding.

Some companies have said they generally don’t have their scooters in service overnight or during bad-weather events. Still, Cheh’s proposal to restrict the hours of operation is likely to draw some of the most passionate criticism — and support.

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Some users said on Twitter that they rely on the scooters to get around at night when public transit is limited. Metro stops running at 11:30 p.m. on weeknights. But others said keeping scooters off the streets at night is a good idea because it is difficult to spot riders in the dark.

Cheh said in an interview that she wasn’t particularly wedded to the overnight restriction.

“For the folks coming out of bars and taverns late at night, is that the best way for them to come home?” Cheh said. “But it may be, when I’m trying to collect all the data, that’s actually the safest time to operate.”

Other aspects of the bill include:

  • Requiring operators to maintain a 24-hour toll-free phone number for members of the public to report illegally parked scooters.
  • Requiring operators to pay a bond to the District that will be used to pay for any damage their devices cause to public property.
  • Requiring each operator to maintain at least 10 percent of its fleet in each ward by 6 a.m.
  • Setting the electric-bicycle speed limit to 20 miles per hour on the street.
  • Requiring operators to release fleet, trip and complaint data to the DDOT.

The rules mirror some of the regulations already set by DDOT that went into effect in January, when the agency launched a more permanent program for scooters and dockless bikes. The city then established fees for operators and maintained a cap on the number of scooters each companies is allowed to deploy.

The operational permit also requires companies to deploy scooters to all eight wards of the city and to offer special pricing plans for low-income people. Under the DDOT rules, all companies are also required to have a toll-free telephone number printed on their vehicles where callers can report bikes and scooters found parked illegally.

DDOT officials have said they continue to work with the operators to urge more education about proper scooter parking. Cheh said the legislation will help put more pressure on the companies to educate users.

Scooters have become such an important mode of transportation in the District that D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) on Tuesday asked the Capitol Police to amend its policies that prohibit electric scooters on the Capitol grounds.

Norton, in a letter to Capitol Police Chief Steven A. Sund, said “increasing numbers of Hill staffers” along with city residents and visitors rely on the scooters to get around.

"As such, electric scooters should be treated like motorized bicycles, mopeds, segways, and the other low-speed vehicles” already permitted around the Capitol, Norton said. “Despite the prohibition, scooters are widely used on Capitol Grounds, apparently without mishap.”

Cheh says her bill is an early draft and a starting point for discussion. She plans to hold a hearing on it — and scooters more broadly — in the fall.

“It takes a while for people to understand the rules and to follow the rules,” Cheh said. “This is the beginning of having the scooter culture settle down into safe operations.”

Fenit Nirappil contributed to this report.