The Case for Scooters

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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?

Morning Crank: In a Timely Manner

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1. In yesterday’s Morning Crank, I reported that the city lacks some basic information that would help it evaluate its progress on “Vision Zero”—the Seattle Department of Transportation’s plan to eliminate serious injuries and deaths due to traffic collisions by 2030. The city’s annual traffic report, which includes detailed information on traffic injuries and death, hasn’t been updated since 2015. That means the most recent stats on cyclist and pedestrian injuries and deaths available to the public date back to 2014—before many of the policies in Vision Zero were even implemented.

Yesterday, SDOT responded to my request for some basic facts about the people killed or injured by traffic incidents in the past two years, including specific information about pedestrian and cyclist injuries and deaths. The numbers suggest that while Seattle is still much safer for pedestrians and cyclists than most other big cities, we’ve made only minimal progress toward reducing the number of people killed or injured in traffic, and that bicyclist and pedestrian deaths have stayed stable or inched up since the most recent traffic report.

According to the information provided by SDOT, there were 212 collisions that resulted in serious injuries or death in 2015 and 206 in 2016, compared to 186 in 2014.  Seven people walking and one cyclist were killed in crashes in 2015; in 2016, those numbers were six and three, respectively. Both years represent an increase over 2014, when six pedestrians and one cyclist were killed by vehicles.

These numbers would seem to confirm the concerns council member Mike O’Brien raised last month, when he noted that Seattle should be “a city where, whether you’re walking to work or biking to go to the park or walking across the street to get groceries or go get a cup of coffee, that’s not an act of bravery but an act of daily living.” In a conversation Monday, O’Brien expressed frustration with the slow drip of traffic information from SDOT; two pedestrians who were killed by drivers in January, he noted, won’t even show up in SDOT’s numbers for another two years.

At a briefing on Vision Zero yesterday, SDOT staffer Darby Watson told the council’s transportation committee that the reason it takes so long for SDOT to release its annual traffic report is that the stats come from the Seattle Police Department’s Traffic Collision Investigation Squad, which “write[s] up a very detailed report that tells us everything about [each] collision. … And there’s a limited number of people that they’re willing to share it with, so it’s sometimes difficult to get those reports in a timely manner.” O’Brien responded, “I’m sure the police department has very good reasons for the thoroughness of their data,” but asked Watson to come back with recommendations for getting basic collision statistics to the city in a more timely manner.

2. A bill in the state legislature that would bar Seattle and King County from opening several planned supervised drug-consumption sites (rebranded last year as Community Health Engagement Locations, or CHELs) appears to be dead. The bill, sponsored by Federal Way Republican Mark Miloscia, came in response to a county opiate addiction task force recommendation for two safe-consumption sites, one in Seattle and one elsewhere in King County.

3. One of the democratizing things about the move to electronic records among state and local government agencies is that reporters and citizens no longer have to pay photocopying charges to access public records. (Another benefit is that electronic records don’t kill trees). Electronic copies are generally available for free or at a nominal charge, making information accessible to those of us without company credit cards or expense account.

But two bills in the state legislature, which passed out of the House on Friday and are now in the Senate’s state government committee, would increase the cost of electronic records and put information off-limits for those who can’t afford to pay the new charges. The proposed legislation would allow agencies such as the Seattle Police Department to charge up to ten cents per minute for audio and video files, and would allow “customized service charges” for “exceptionally large requests” that require extra staff time or expertise. Electronic scans would cost up to 10 cents a page, which is comparable to what many agencies currently charge for paper records.

The bills also gives agencies the power to deny requests from bots designed to file multiple requests per day, and would allow agencies to force requesters into potentially costly mediation to settle disputes over requests.

4. Mayor Ed Murray plans to reveal the details of his $55 million ballot measure for homelessness services and housing today at 1pm. Supporters plan to qualify the measure for the ballot by gathering signatures, rather than submitting the proposal to the city council, which would almost certainly tinker with the proposal.

If you enjoy the work I do here at The C Is for Crank, please consider becoming a sustaining supporter of the site! For just $5, $10, or $20 a month (or whatever you can give), you can help keep this site going, and help me continue to dedicate the many hours it takes to bring you stories like this one every week. This site is funded entirely by contributions from readers, which pay for the substantial time I put into reporting and writing for this blog and on social media, as well as costs like transportation, equipment, travel costs, website maintenance, and other expenses associated with my reporting. Thank you for reading, and I’m truly grateful for your support.

Morning Crank: It’s Not Clear What Lessons We’ve Learned

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1. Four city council members—Rob Johnson, Mike O’Brien, Debora Juarez, and Kshama Sawant—signed a letter Monday urging Mayor Ed Murray to delay for one week the city’s plans to clear the homeless encampment on state Department of Transportation -owned Airport Way South and S. Royal Brougham, known to residents as “the Field” or “the Field of Dreams.” Camp residents have proposed a three-part plan to clean up the encampment and make it safe for human habitation, but it’s unclear how many of their proposals are feasible, given current conditions at the camp.

The city initially sanctioned the encampment as a temporary holding place for people relocated from the Jungle, the three-mile-long encampment under and surrounding I-5 near Beacon Hill. The city cited unsafe and unsanitary conditions as its reasons for clearing the Jungle, and is now making the same claims about the Field. Last month, a camp resident was arrested for rape and sex trafficking, and drug dealers have reportedly also moved in; meanwhile, the field itself is muddy and rat-infested, and garbage is heaped up in piles.

“The conditions down there are really quite appalling,” council human services committee chair Sally Bagshaw said Monday morning. “People who are living there say it looks like the ground is moving, there are so many rats, and that rats are running over people’s feet. … I think as a city we have got to be able to stand up and say that when something is so rat infested and there is mud literally up to our ankles … this is not something we’re willing to say is okay.” Besides, Bagshaw added, “There are options now. It’s not like people are being swept and told ‘Go find another place to be.'”

jesus-h-christResidents of the Field said they have asked for fire extinguishers, wood chips, trash pickup, and additional generators to keep the encampment clean, safe, and free from rats and garbage, but the city hasn’t delivered. Instead, encampment residents and supporters said, they’ve been offered the same shelter beds and long-term treatment slots that they were rejecting by moving to encampments in the first place. “When I see the Field, I am reminded of the two years Nickelsville spent at the Glass Yard” in Delridge, a resident of the Ballard Nickelsville encampment named Matt told the council. “When I see the Field, I am reminded of the times when Union Gospel Mission was sent in by the city to offer false choices of housing that wouldn’t work,” including shelters that don’t allow partners, pets or possessions, mats on the floor in facilities many encampment residents view as inadequate and unsafe, or beds that were only available to those who committed themselves to sobriety or agreed to submit to religious instruction.

The city has consistently said that it now offers real housing options to encampment residents. But in an interview before the council meeting yesterday afternoon, O’Brien told me that claim relies on sleight of hand. “We don’t have 50 good housing options for folks,” O’Brien said. “If you have one housing option, you can offer that one housing option to 50 people, but as soon as one person takes that housing option they’re going to stop offering it.” The rest, he said, will be forced to accept inadequate shelter or move on to the next encampment site.

This morning, the city plans to move in to the Field and remove any remaining tents, belongings, and people starting at 9am. Several groups opposed to encampment sweeps, who sat outside Murray’s office yesterday afternoon and eventually spoke briefly to his homelessness director, George Scarola, have vowed to show up to physically resist city staffers when they try to evict the remaining residents. O’Brien says that even if the protesters manage to stop this morning’s sweep, “My expectation is that the police will be persistent.”

“When they swept the Jungle, from the beginning, it was like, ‘This is chaos, this is unacceptable,'” O’Brien says. “The problem is it’s not clear what lessons we’ve learned as a city if we just keep doing this over and over again.”

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2. The council’s discussion of the Field encampment was interrupted briefly yesterday morning when members of the organization Friends of Little Saigon burst into council chambers, waving signs with slogans like “Stop Ignoring Us” and chanting, “Talk with us! Not at us!”

The impromptu protest was a response to the way the city announced the location of the first Navigation Center, a low-barrier, 24-hour shelter for people, like the Field residents, who can’t or won’t sleep at regular overnight shelters. The Friends of Little Saigon and other organizations and businesses in the neighborhood sent a letter to the council and mayor in February asking the city to delay opening the center at the Pearl Warren Building at 12th Avenue and Weller St., arguing that they weren’t consulted on the location until a few days before the announcement, and that by then it was a fait accompli.

Quynh Pham, a representative of Friends of Little Saigon, told me the Navigation Center announcement was the final straw after the city failed to consult the neighborhood on a series of major events, including First Hill streetcar construction and the Womxn’s March, that negatively impacted neighborhood residents and businesses. “We were speechless” when the city’s Human Services Department told them about the decision,” Pham says. “We felt like, why even tell us without a plan to really address the impacts or understand where we’re coming from? They just came to us with the proposal at the last minute.”

Yesterday morning, council member Lisa Herbold blamed the lack of communication on the mayor’s office, which she said “needs to figure out a way to approach public process and engage with communities very differently.” Noting that the Navigation Center has not only been in the works since last year, but will now open months behind schedule, Herbold said “there has been no lack of opportunity to engage with that community.”

3. The mayor’s office plans to bypass the city council to get its $55 million homelessness levy on the August ballot by collecting signatures instead of sending it to the council for approval. Historically, the council tinkers with ballot measures that originate in the mayor’s office or in city departments, adding and subtracting funding for specific programs. In this case, the levy measure is likely to lean heavily on rapid rehousing—short-term vouchers to house homeless people in apartments that will revert to market rate after a few months—and eliminate some funding for agencies that have received city funding for decades, such as those that provide transitional housing. Groups that will likely lose out from a shift toward rapid rehousing include the Low-Income Housing Institute, which runs a number of transitional housing programs—and has heavily lobbied the council against proposed cuts to its programs. Expect an announcement on the levy from the mayor’s office on Wednesday morning.

4. In this afternoon’s transportation committee meeting, council members will get a briefing on the city’s progress on Vision Zero, the city’s plan to end traffic deaths and serious injuries by 2030. One thing that briefing won’t include is a report on traffic deaths and injuries in Seattle over the past two years; the Seattle Department of Transportation’s most recent report covers 2014, before most Vision Zero changes were implemented. I’ve requested a copy of the latest available information, but the lag, O’Brien notes, makes it difficult to draw conclusions about whether the city’s efforts are working; “it’ll be two years,” O’Brien notes, before recent pedestrian fatalities on NE 65th Street and in Wallingford show up in official city records.

If you enjoy the work I do here at The C Is for Crank, please consider becoming a sustaining supporter of the site! For just $5, $10, or $20 a month (or whatever you can give), you can help keep this site going, and help me continue to dedicate the many hours it takes to bring you stories like this one every week. This site is funded entirely by contributions from readers, which pay for the substantial time I put into reporting and writing for this blog and on social media, as well as costs like transportation, equipment, travel costs, website maintenance, and other expenses associated with my reporting. Thank you for reading, and I’m truly grateful for your support.

 

Morning Crank: Not an Act of Bravery

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1. City council member Rob Johnson caught flak last week from anti-density activists like John Fox, of the Seattle Displacement Coalition, after questioning self-identified liberals who say they welcome immigrants and refugees and oppose zoning changes that would create more housing. Speaking at a forum sponsored by the Transportation Choices Coalition, which Johnson directed prior to his election in 2015, Johnson said, “[I]t’s really disturbing for me when I hear … somebody talking about how glad they were to see the neighborhood district councils stand up for single-family zoning and then, in the next breath, disparage the president for wanting to build a wall between the US and Mexico. I see those two things as actually linked.”

Fox, along with fellow activist Carolee Coulter, wrote that Johnson’s comments were “intensely insulting and polarizing, not to mention wrong. He should be ashamed of himself.” Fox and Coulter compared Johnson to Trump; others who emailed me or made comments on my original post have complained that Johnson is comparing them to Trump supporters, the kind of people who chant “Build the wall!” at his Nuremberg-style election rallies. One Johnson constituent who wrote me called his comments “outrageously inflammatory and insulting”; another called it “a divisive and totally clumsy comparison coming from a white man of considerable privilege.”

I called Johnson Friday to see if he wanted to elaborate or clarify what he said last week. Speaking from a crowded bus on his way home to Northeast Seattle, Johnson doubled down. “We are a city that wants to welcome people of all races, all different economic statuses, and all different immigration statuses,” Johnson said. “If we’re truly going to be welcoming to all those different folks, we need to create more housing.”

Does he regret using the metaphor of Trump’s border wall? Not at all: “When we talk about zoning, we need to recognize that zoning is a metaphorical wall around communities. We need to talk about that. We also need to make sure that we understand the ramifications of the decisions that we make—when we choose to either rezone areas or not rezone areas, both of those decisions have real impacts.”

2. The Seattle Department of Transportation came to week’s transportation committee meeting armed with charts and stats showing that the city has made huge strides toward increasing the number of people who bike, walk, and take the bus to jobs downtown; a report from Commute Seattle last week showed that while the city added 45,000 jobs downtown, the number of car trips only increased by about 2,400 per day.

But SDOT staffers were confronted, first, by a disturbing litany of pedestrian injuries and deaths from Johnson and committee chair Mike O’Brien, who noted that even as the city has reduced the number of people who drive to work alone, it has not made similar strides toward eliminating pedestrian fatalities and serious injuries. In the past five weeks, O’Brien noted, six pedestrians have been seriously injured or killed by drivers. If that many people had been killed in the same period by gunshots, O’Brien said, “we would be convening task forces and committees to figure out what we need to do. And yet somehow, when it’s folks walking across the street or biking between jobs, it gets kind of buried in the news and we just go on about life.”

Noting that the city has committed to “Vision Zero”—that is, zero pedestrian deaths or serious injuries—O’Brien said he was asking SDOT to come back to the council in early March with a list of specific short- and long-term recommendations to address the city’s lack of progress. “We should have a city where, whether you’re walking to work or biking to go to the park or walking across the street to get groceries or go get a cup of coffee, that’s not an act of bravery but an act of daily living.”

3. Another number that jumped out at Friday’s briefing: 11 percent. That’s the percentage of Seattle residents who are eligible for a low-income transit pass, known as ORCA Lift, who have actually taken advantage of the program. In our conversation Friday, Johnson said the city should consider enrolling people in the ORCA Lift program when they sign up for other income-limited programs, the way the Seattle Housing Authority now enrolls tenants in the city utility discount program when they rent SHA apartments—or the way King County signed people up for the program when they signed up for the Affordable Care Act last year. “It just goes to show that we have a lot of work to do, not just in our marketing program—as I’m staring the side of the bus, there’s a huge ad for ORCA Lift—but in making sure that that marketing is getting through to the folks that need it most.”