The Scooter Announcement That Wasn’t

Lime scooters line up in Portland; image by Steve Morgan via Wikimedia Commons.

Last week, Mayor Jenny Durkan wrote a piece for Geekwire announcing that she would support a future pilot of electric scooters in Seattle. “Let’s try scooters, but let’s do it right,” the mayor wrote.

Local media immediately reported that the mayor had changed her mind about the new mobility option, which has been adopted in more than 100 cities across the nation (including Tacoma), but not in Seattle. “Electric scooters are coming to Seattle,” the Seattle Times declared. “Mayor Durkan announces pilot program for e-scooters in Seattle,” KIRO reported. “Get ready: The e-scooters are coming!” KOMO gushed. “Durkan finally allows e-scooters in Seattle,” the Stranger echoed.

But hold on a minute. Did the mayor really announce anything new? Read between the lines of her Geekwire “announcement”—which she made without the knowledge or participation with any of the major scooter companies or pro-scooter council members—and it’s clear her position on scooters hasn’t changed substantially since last year. In December, Durkan said that if scooter companies wanted to operate in Seattle, they would have to totally indemnify the city for any scooter accidents on city streets, including spills that result from the city’s poorly maintained bike lanes and roadways. In a letter to scooter companies in mid-December, then-interim Seattle Department of Transportation director Linea Laird wrote that scooter companies who wanted to participate in a future pilot would need to “agree to indemnify the City in any claim, lawsuit or other dispute relating to their deployment or use.”

In her Geekwire article, Durkan reiterated her support for this broad requirement, writing that “[s]ome cities who did not negotiate full indemnification now face lawsuits. Take San Diego: There are currently four separate lawsuits claiming San Diego is liable for the scooter-related injuries because the city did not adopt adequate safety regulations and indemnification. I don’t think that is fair.

“Cities like Tempe, Albuquerque and Oakland have asked for reasonable indemnification provisions because these costly lawsuits could cost taxpayers,” Durkan wrote. “Seattle will require full indemnification provisions to protect our taxpayers from lawsuits.” This requirement, Durkan continued, is “non-negotiable.”

If Seattle did require scooter companies to completely indemnify the city from liability for scooter injuries, it would be the first city in the nation to do so—none of the 100-plus US cities where scooters are legal has adopted such a sweeping requirement.

As an example, Durkan wrote that “scooters are not currently built for the potholes and other conditions of many urban streets and roads,” which can result in accidents. (Bikes, it’s worth noting, are also no match for street craters, storm drains, or many other road conditions they’re forced to navigate in the absence of infrastructure designed to keep cyclists safe.) Given that scooters would most likely be required to travel in bike lanes and in the road with car traffic in areas where bike lanes don’t exist, the city’s disinvestment in safe, separated biking infrastructure could be a factor that leads to scooter accidents and injuries—injuries for which the city wants to be released from liability.

If Seattle did require scooter companies to completely indemnify the city from liability for scooter injuries, it would be the first city in the nation to do so—none of the 100-plus US cities where scooters are legal has adopted such a sweeping requirement. Nor is this level of indemnity included in the city’s current indemnification policy for bike-sharing programs run by companies like Uber and Lime, which exempts the companies from “any liabilities, claims, causes of action, judgments, or expenses resulting from bodily injury or property damage to the extent caused by the negligence of the City, its officers, employees, elected officials, agents, or subcontractors.”

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Jonathan Hopkins, the Northwest strategic development director for Lime, says cities and private companies like his should bear “shared responsibility” for making the transportation system work. “We believe everyone should be accountable for their actions. We don’t believe any entity should be voided from all their responsibilities with regard to keeping the public safe, and it’s only through that shared collaboration that we achieve a safer, more mobile, more equitable public.”

Officially, scooter companies and proponents are optimistic that Durkan’s announcement represents a change of heart. “We’re really excited about the fact that the mayor’s taking a more active involvement in this conversation,” says Maurice Henderson, director of public partnerships at Bird. “We’re looking forward to the opportunity to work with the administration, SDOT, and community members to see if there is some space for a productive conversation on indemnification, safety, and other issues that were brought up in her op/ed.”

Unofficially, proponents are less hopeful. In addition to the unprecedented “full indemnification” requirement, there are questions about the timing both of the mayor’s op/ed—although the piece landed the morning before a long-planned city council work session on scooter sharing, the mayor did not tell council members it was coming until the evening before it hit, and did not collaborate with the council on their event—and the potential pilot itself.

Portland put together its own four-month scooter pilot program in two months and rolled it out last July—peak scooter-riding season. (Two months after the pilot program ended, the city released a report on the results of the pilot, which found that “e-scooters have risks similar to other parts of the transportation system,” and extended the pilot for a year.) In contrast to that speedy timeline, he mayor’s office has said if the scooter companies agree to the city’s conditions, a pilot could start as soon as next January—the rainiest part of the year and the least hospitable to scooter riding.

“We believe everyone should be accountable for their actions. We don’t believe any entity should be voided form all their responsibilities with regard to keeping the public safe.” —Lime’s Jonathan Hopkins

Chelsea Kellogg, a spokeswoman for Durkan, says the city wanted to wait for the passage of a state regulatory framework for scooters before beginning work on a Seattle pilot program. (That legislation, which allows cities to regulate scooters and sets a 15-mile-per-hour speed limit on the devices, among other restrictions, passed in April.) Durkan wanted to wait until the state law was adopted, Kellogg says, “primarily because we did not want the State to pre-empt [the] city’s ability on indemnification.”

Besides indemnification, Durkan’s op/ed brings up another potential hurdle for scooter companies: “helmet requirements,” which she mentions as part of a potential “framework” for any future pilot program. King County law requires bicyclists to wear helmets, but the law (which the new state law extends to e-scooters) is rarely enforced; the city’s agreement with bikesharing companies only says that the companies should produce a plan for “encouraging compliance with King County’s helmet law” but does not make the companies liable for enforcement the putative requirement.

Will e-scooters ever come to Seattle? At this point, the answer is a firm “maybe”—the same “maybe” that applied in December, when the mayor’s office laid out identical conditions for any future scooter pilot. What’s different now is that while Seattle has continued to wring its hands over the dubious notion that scooters are a uniquely dangerous form of transportation, more and more cities are deciding to give them a try. Today, electric scooters will return to Spokane, which gave them a 74-day pilot spin last year.

The second new development is that a citywide council member Teresa Mosqueda has become a vocal scooter advocate, arguing that they represent a green way to get around that’s orders of magnitude safer than the alternative they typically replace—driving a car. “If we’re going to compare injury rates across modes, we should absolutely include cars, because the number of cars that I see parked on sidewalks, the number of cars I see parked in bike lanes, and the number of cars that are hitting, killing, and injuring people quite exceeds the injuries … from scooters, let alone bike shares,” Mosqueda said. As scooters become ubiquitous in cities across the country, the council is unlikely to abandon the idea, and Durkan won’t want to concede the issue to an energized council.

The Case for Scooters

File:Lime Scooter - LimeBike App (31454588488).jpg

Image via Tony Webster on Flickr

Bike shares have found a welcome home in Seattle, but don’t expect to see another form of shared transportation– electric scooters–in Seattle any time soon. Mayor Jenny Durkan is on record saying she considers the zippy, candy-colored contraptions—which travel up to 15 miles an hour and are as ubiquitous in some US cities as bicycles are in Copenhagen—too dangerous for Seattle streets. At a recent CityClub Civic Cocktail event, Durkan enumerated the many reasons she thinks scooters are a bad idea. Too dangerous: “Every mayor who’s got ‘em comes up to me and says, ‘Don’t take ‘em and, the reason is … every city that has scooters has significant traumatic injuries.” Too frivolous: “I know some people think scooters can be fun, but… ” Too likely to lead to lawsuits: “A couple of cities now are paying out millions of dollars in judgments for people who are hurt.”

Let me offer some counterarguments: Scooters get people from point A to point B really quickly, without firing up a carbon-spewing engine or breaking a sweat. Scooters are easy to ride—if you can walk, you can probably ride a scooter—and have the lowest barrier to entry of any shared mode of transit. Mock if you want, but not everyone wants a workout on their way from one meeting to the next. Previously, people who prefer a cardio-free commute would have jumped in their cars. Now, they can make those short trips on their zero-emission scooters instead.

Critics point out that many of the environmental claims from scooter proponents (usually focused on the reduction of carbon emissions) remain unproven. Fair enough—it’s possible that a significant number of the thousands of people using scooters to get around Austin, San Diego, and Washington, D.C. would have otherwise used public transportation, walked or ridden bikes to their destinations. But it’s almost certain that scooters take at least some vehicles off the road—and doesn’t every little reduction in emissions help, particularly in a region where transportation is the single largest contributor to greenhouse-gas emissions?

You know what else we don’t know about scooters? Whether they’re actually as dangerous as opponents claim. Durkan cited unspecified mayors and cities that are turning against scooters, but the truth is, no city has had scooters on its streets long enough to have any real idea whether they’re more dangerous than walking, or biking, or—for that matter—driving a car. Anecdotal evidence suggests a rise in emergency room visits for injuries sustained by people riding e-scooters, but that’s not the same as statistical proof of danger: The rate of injuries on e-scooters used to be zero, because they weren’t legal in any city, and now it has risen. Similarly, a few people have died riding shared e-scooters. That represents an increase in deaths of hundreds of percentage points, because the previous number—when scooter-sharing didn’t exist—was zero. One frequently cited Washington Post story claims that there has been a “161 percent spike in [ER] visits involving electric scooters.” Buried in the story is the fact that the increase, at a single hospital in Salt Lake City, was from eight injuries to 21. Cyclists sustain a lot more injuries, and are more likely to be killed while riding, than scooter riders. That isn’t an argument to ban bikes. It’s an argument to make roads safer. 

And speaking of that: You know what the common denominator is in most of those deaths and injuries? Cars. Cars hit cyclists, and pedestrians, and people on scooters, far more often than those people get into accidents on their own. Pedestrians and cyclists accounted for 22 percent of traffic deaths in Washington State last year; a report from the Washington State Department of Transportation blamed speeding drivers, not inattentive pedestrians and cyclists, for most of those deaths. So far, three people have been killed riding scooters—all by people driving cars. There’s certainly a safety argument for regulating the speed scooters can go, but that’s a problem with an easy fix: Lime and Bird, the two biggest scooter-sharing companies, have regulators that limit their scooters to 15 miles an hour, and some cities have proposed lowering that limit further, to 12 mph, or even eight. Meanwhile, cars continue to be allowed on city streets, driving 30, 40, even 50 miles an hour, despite the fact that they cause more than 40,000 fatalities every year.

Durkan is right about one thing: Scooters are fun. Recently, I was in Portland, where scooters are allowed in bike lanes and on city streets, and I warily agreed to try using the Lime scooter my housemate brought home with him one afternoon. After a shaky start, I got the hang of it, and before long, I was zipping all around the city—from the conference venue, to my Airbnb, and to meetups everywhere in between. When there wasn’t a scooter around, I used one of the many bikesharing services. My rental car—which I’d driven down from Seattle and planned to use when I needed to get across town fast—sat in its spot on the street for four straight days. Why drive when there are so many better alternatives?