Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Scooter regulations: A tempest in the teapot

In a city beset with big almost intractable problems, the happy-go-lucky electric scooter users have once again fetched the limelight on page one of the paper and become a headliner in the local evening news. The occasion? Bill 19-0324 introduced by Council President Young on behalf of City DOT to give DOT "enabling power" to issue regulations, fees and permits for the operators of scooters and bikeshare. The bill comes in anticipation to the end of the 6 months trial period in which dockless scooters and bikes were allowed under certain conditions in Baltimore.  How would such a dry affair get so  much interest?
Councilman Dorsey tweeting about the scooter tempest

Included in part 4 of under "penalties and enforcement"  the draft bill, which was introduced this Monday at City Council, includes  language which threatens "any person" violating any of the provisions of the bill with a misdemeanor with, on conviction, would result in a fine of maximally $1,000 or 30 days in prison.  The SUN headlined their first online article: "Baltimore officials propose 30-day jail terms for riding electronic scooters too fast". (Later versions and the print edition toned this screamer way down).

DOT immediately clarified, that the language was intended towards the operators and not the riders and that the rider section of the bill enumerates fines of $20 for unlawful operation or parking. The bill will go through three "readers" in the council, plenty of opportunity for the error to be fixed. The City Council President made it clear that he doesn't like the criminal provision, (“I don’t want to criminalize any more citizens in Baltimore,” he told WMAR), he is also no fan of scooters. "Some people like them, I don't" he said on WBAL. "I'll keep why to myself", he continued, but then gave the reason as "There are various criminal activities that's associated with some".
Council President Jack Young on the evening news of  WMAR 

Such a negative attitude isn't necessarily the tenor of the draft bill. Overall it is an extension of the rules spelled out during the trial period with various modifications:

  • the bill would allow not only 2 but up to six providers of dockless vehicles
  • the bill would allow not only 1000 vehicles per vendor but up to 12,000 vehicles total
  • it limits speeds to 15mph (some scooters are currently reaching 17mph)
  • allows sidewalk use where speed limits on adjacent roadways are higher than 30mph but requires that on the sidewalk scooters go no faster than 6mph
  • increases the fees charged on vendors from a flat rate per vehicle per day to a 10 cent "excise tax" per each rental payment)
I had asked Baltimore City shared Mobility Coordinator Meg Young last week about the future of scooters in Baltimore beyond the pilot program which ends at the end of February. She mentioned the upcoming bill and stated that the trial would be extended until the Council had voted on the enabling legislation. Asked whether DOT feels that there has been sufficient public input regarding the pilot program she pointed to the Dockless Vehicle Committee that had been created to advise DOT and had met six times to discuss details. When I asked what effort had been made to include actual users  Ms. Young pointed to the online survey and the around 5,000 responses DOT received. ("More than surveys in DC and Seattle"). When initial responses didn't seem to represent the population properly, DOT reached out to Coppin and Morgan universities as well as AARP to extend the responses to the survey. My inquiry happened well before the bill was made public and the tempest about the fines. Today Councilman Ryan Dorsey tweeted  "In months of meetings of an ad hoc group to come up with this scooter bill  there was not one young black voice in the room, even though black teenagers seem to make up a significant part - maybe a majority - of users."
BC-DOT Dockless Vehicle webpage

The upheaval about the scooters must be seen in the Baltimore context, where the overall transportation system is still very car-centric, where congestion and air pollution are high, where commute times for transit are too long, where transit is still performing below expectations and where on most streets almost empty sidewalks show that walking isn't a popular option of getting around. Additionally, the initial docked bikeshare system failed, even though it was introduced here long after other cities had already learned their lessons. A city where the installation of protected bike-lanes was long torpedoed by the fire department and are hated by merchants who fight for survival and think they need every single parking spot in front of their stores. This is a city where high crime rates instill fear in suburbanites so they frequently don't dare to walk even downtown beyond the minimum necessary to get from the car to the workplace.  Squeegee kids and young black people on scooters easily bring the stew to a boil and unpleasant perceptions and racism to light. In this volatile setting Jack Young's comments about crime on scooters just validate stereotypes without serious data back-up. 

The proposed legislation (once the penalty error has been fixed) seems like a good balance that recognizes issues on both sides of the matter. Of course, it is a question how the 6 mph on sidewalks would be monitored, how fines would be administered (since riders don't have to carry ID) and whether the "excise tax" is too high.  No doubt, those questions will be and should be asked in the upcoming council hearings.

If in doubt, the City should make use of these scooters less onerous and not more. Baltimore needs something that is fun, something that tips the balance towards transportation that is not a car and towards the preferences of younger residents who are the future of this city. 650,000 rides in the time since scooters first showed up in Baltimore in July 2018 certainly indicates that people are using them. 

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA 

No comments:

Post a Comment