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.