Transportation

Alameda, Calif., Considers Rules for E-Scooter Pilot

Officials are weighing the benefits and side effects of on-demand scooters, especially when it comes to their use on public sidewalks.

by Peter Hegarty, East Bay Times / December 6, 2018
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(TNS) — Even though electric scooters are darting through traffic and skirting past folks on sidewalks, the ride-sharing companies that provide them not having permission to operate in town.

Now city officials want to put brakes on the machines that some consider a menace and others a boon to the environment until rules are in place on how they are used.

City Councilman Frank Matarrese even suggested banning the e-scooters, which riders can find on the street, rent and use, then park for someone else to pick up.

“I am concerned about them driving lickety-split on the sidewalk when we are supposed to be a walkable city,” Matarrese said Tuesday, when the council told city staff to work over the next six months to develop a pilot program.

The shared scooters are allowed in Oakland, and that means they have been popping up on Webster Street and other places where kids and others are riding them.

The council wanted it underscored, however, during talks with companies that provide scooters that riding them on sidewalks is against state law and that rules must be put in place regarding where scooters can be parked.

The council also wanted the companies to face fines or other consequences for violations beyond police issuing traffic citations to riders.

“I am concerned about them driving lickety-split on the sidewalk when we are supposed to be a walkable city,” said Matarrese, who asked the council to review how scooters are used, including a possible outright ban on allowing the companies to operate in Alameda.

He called for the stiffer penalties because he said scooter companies rely on public resources as part of their business model.

“They’re a profit-making business,” Matarrese said, “using our sidewalks to sell their products.”

But Councilman Jim Oddie said scooters help the city meet its transportation goals, which include getting drivers off the road and having them use a more environmentally friendly way to get around.

“They’ve essentially been deployed,” Vice Mayor Malia Vella said about why a ban would not work. “They’re out here. People are using them.”

Many riders are young people who use scooters recklessly, such as zipping past pedestrians, and must be reminded of the need for safety, Mayor Trish Spencer said.

“If we are going to have these companies here, we must have the education component, as well as the punishing component,” Spencer said.

Dockless electric scooter sharing began last year, and since then Oakland, Berkeley, Emeryville and San Francisco have launched pilot programs, or are developing a permit process for their operation.

State law requires riders have a driver’s license or an instructor’s permit, and that riders wear a helmet. The helmet requirement will change after Jan. 1, when just those under age 18 must have one.

Under state law, Alameda also cannot restrict scooters on streets, according to Rochelle Wheeler, a senior transportation planner with the city. But the city can still set rules on where the scooters can be parked, Wheeler said.

While the council took action to eventually allow e-scooters in town on Tuesday, it banned the use of robotic delivery vehicles — at least for now.

Last year delivery robots got the green-light in Concord and Walnut Creek. The devices use on-board cameras and are programmed to stop at driveways and crosswalks.

City Engineer Scott Wikstrom recommended a “wait-and-see” approach regarding robots, saying technology companies are now launching them and it takes time to adopt one for a neighborhood because the robot must get programmed for its landscape.

It’s also an emerging industry that other cities are wrestling with, Wikstrom said.

Public safety was a key reason for Alameda’s ban on robots, which look like a driver-less trailer on wheels and can range in size from a small to a large refrigerator.

The robots move at “walking speed” and are used to deliver food, groceries and online purchases, Wikstrom said. They use a Global Positioning System to pinpoint destinations and will sometimes travel on sidewalks.

Customers can order deliveries via an application on their smart phone.

“We need to keep up with emerging technology,” said Councilwoman Marilyn Ezzy Ashcraft, who cast the lone vote against prohibiting the robots. “But at the same time we need to find ways to manage it so we are ensuring the safety of our people.”

The ban on the delivery vehicles will remain in effect until a company comes up with “a proposal worthy of lifting the ban,” Matarrese said.

The council also asked city staff to work with the Federal Aviation Administration on ways to limit as much as possible the use of drones for delivering merchandise.

©2018 the Contra Costa Times (Walnut Creek, Calif.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.