Write of Way

Decatur city government crafts e-scooter regulations

April 23, 2019

E-scooters have popped up across the nation—literally.

Dockless electric scooters are rechargeable scooters that can be parked in any location and ridden by anyone. Two prominent e-scooter companies, Lime and Bird, were both founded in California in January and September 2017 respectively. Since then, they’ve expanded to the rest of the country and the globe, landing in Atlanta in May 2018.

In late 2018, the scooters appeared in Decatur almost “overnight,” as Mayor Patti Garrett put it. Bird arrived first without contacting the city beforehand, which Garrett cited as the root of the city’s problems.

Mayor Patti Garrett has been a City Commissioner for 10 years.

Garrett said the scooters spread quickly.

“It seemed like we might have 10 [scooters] on four or five blocks in downtown, and then two days later, we would have 25,” she said.

According to Garrett, people complained to the city about the scooters as soon as they arrived in Decatur. One big complaint Garrett heard was about scooters being parked on sidewalks and hindering walkability. These complaints forced the city to take action.

“People felt like they wanted us to immediately ban them. We just felt like we wanted to make it work if we can,” Garrett said.

So, the city proposed regulations on e-scooters in the form of an interim operating agreement. The scooter companies would have to sign the agreement to continue operating in the city, or else they would have to remove all of their scooters. Once signed, the agreement would stay in place for 90 days.

In order to craft a list of regulations, the city talked to stakeholders including Bird and Lime representatives, Decatur Active Living and other groups promoting walkability, a research fellow working with the city and the Georgia Municipal Association.

Jack Kittle, a member of the Decatur Active Living Advisory Board and the liaison to its Pedestrian Advisory Committee, was one of the voices advising the city during the regulation process. He was concerned with the safety of the rider and surrounding pedestrians.

Kittle saw scooters being ridden on sidewalks instead of streets, riders not wearing helmets and companies needing to maintain mechanical parts of scooters.

Despite the problems e-scooters pose for riders and pedestrians, Kittle also recognizes their benefits.

“As best we can tell, the benefit might be transportation for what’s called the last mile,” Kittle said, “which is, if you were commuting to Decatur on MARTA and you came into the Decatur MARTA station, you might just ride a scooter home.”

Another benefit Kittle sees is the potential to reduce traffic if people use scooters instead of cars to commute around Decatur, though he has rarely seen this use in action. To better understand this potential benefit, Kittle and the Active Living Advisory Board have encouraged the city to ask the scooter companies for usage data.

“I think that a number of folks in Decatur think we have traffic,” Kittle said, “and so if the scooters would help with traffic, that could be a positive.”

Scooters are often abandoned on the sidewalk and not parked upright. This battered scooter was abandoned in front of the Decatur High School Performing Arts Center.

Through her rider experience, junior Dottie Wynne has found even more benefits to e-scooters.

The first time Wynne rode an e-scooter was when she and her friend found Bird scooters on Wynne’s street. Wynne thought the scooters were fun to ride, but since then, she’s found more uses for e-scooters besides joyrides.

Many times when Wynne didn’t have a ride home from school, she rode a scooter home instead. She found that scooters were helpful in those instances because riding a scooter was a lot faster than walking home.

With the feedback from denizens and government officials alike in mind, the city presented a draft of the agreement at the Dec. 17, 2018 City Commission meeting. At the meeting, many people voiced their opinions on e-scooters in Decatur. Some expressed support for the agreement while others expressed apprehension for how strict some regulations were.

One voice heard was that of George Chidi, a politician and journalist in Atlanta who broke his arm in a scooter accident. In an op-ed on GeorgiaPol, Chidi stated that prior to his accident, he supported scooters as a solution to last-mile connectivity and Atlanta traffic. However, his experience opened his eyes to the dangers of scooters because so many riders—including himself—are inept at riding a scooter.

According to Garrett, at the City Commission meeting, Chidi said e-scooters were equivalent to a “skateboard with a stick,” meaning riding e-scooters requires as much skill as riding a skateboard, something most users lack. Chidi also said that regulations like those in the proposed agreement were necessary to make e-scooter ridership safer but added that the city needed data on scooter-related accidents to improve the regulations.

Lime representatives who attended the meeting expressed concerns over “restrictive clauses” in the agreement and indicated Lime’s desire for a “healthy partnership” with the city.

Following the City Commission meeting, the city tweaked the initial draft. The final interim operating agreement included regulations on the riding, parking and company operation of scooters. Garrett said the city tried to merge their interests with the companies’ interests when crafting the agreement.

“We tried to make [the regulations] not too onerous so that the scooters could work here,” Garrett said, “but that they could work in a safe manner.”

Most notable among the regulations were requirements that scooters not be ridden on sidewalks, that each company have no more than 75 scooters in Decatur and that scooters be parked upright.

The deadline to sign the final interim operating agreement was Jan. 25, 2019 at 5 p.m. Lime chose to sign the agreement, but Bird did not.

In the Bird app, Decatur is blocked off in red, signifying that Bird no longer operates in the city and users cannot ride scooters from or park scooters in the city.

“Bird has been proud to serve the community of Decatur and we are grateful for the close relationship we have built with city officials and staff,” a Bird spokesperson stated. “We have chosen to temporarily pause our service in the short term, though we hope to return to the road in the near future.”

Though one scooter company left Decatur for the time being, Garrett still sees Lime’s cooperation as a step in the right direction.

“I’m glad that we have a scooter company that was willing to sign the initial interim agreement,” Garrett said, “and I’m hoping we’ll be able to continue to work to make e-scooters work in the city and that we’ll have responsible ridership.”

Wynne agrees. Through her experience, Wynne has found that scooters aren’t just fun but are also a valuable mode of transportation.

“[E-scooters] are really a clever idea,” she said. “I think they add something to cities.”

Garrett thinks opposition to the regulations may come from people who haven’t practiced responsible ridership or people who think the regulations are too restrictive for e-scooter companies to function. Though some regulations are too essential to change, Garrett believes some can be tweaked if the city receives lots of opposition to them.

Now, the city will wait and see how the regulations work before passing a city ordinance at the end of the interim period. The city is held a public input session on March 27 to hear suggestions about which regulations should be included in the ordinance so they can hopefully reach a compromise.

“The city’s intention is…to craft a regulating and permitting ordinance that will assure that pedestrian rights-of way are protected while offering a last mile transportation mobility option through e-scooters,” City Manager Andrea Arnold said.

The state is also crafting its own regulations. The Georgia Legislature passed House Bill 454 on April 2, 2019. HB 454 would prohibit users from riding e-scooters on sidewalks and allow anyone to move parked scooters that are in the way of pedestrians. The bill would not supersede local regulations. As of April 2, the bill is awaiting governor approval.

Garrett hopes e-scooter regulations will further promote responsible ridership, something she has already seen grow. For example, she saw a man on his way to the MARTA station riding an e-scooter in the road on Commerce Street with a helmet on.

“That’s how I’d like [e-scooters] to be ridden, is that people use them for connectivity and that they use them to get from point A to point B as a mode of transportation,” Garrett said. “Our goal really is to try to figure out a way that we can allow that to happen in the city.”

Kittle’s vision for the future of alternative transportation in Decatur is “a transportation network that would support bicycles and scooters.”

“I would really love it if Decatur had on most…of our busy streets dedicated bike [and] e-scooter lanes where it would be safe for scooters or bikes wouldn’t be fighting with cars and wouldn’t be getting in the way of pedestrians,” Kittle said. “That’s a big, expensive proposition, but 10, 20 years from now, that’s where I hope we’d be.”

Photos by Nayeli Shad.

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