Transportation

State Policy Dashes the Dreams of E-Scooter Companies in Philadelphia

The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation says electric scooters are not street legal, putting a crimp in rollout plans.

by Samantha Melamed, The Philidelphia Inquirer / October 26, 2018
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(TNS) —  Executives of Bird, the Santa Monica, Calif.-based company that has unleashed its shared-electronic-scooter fleets into more than 100 cities, sometimes without permission — were in Philadelphia this week, schmoozing at the SmartTransit conference and sizing up the topography.

But Bird and its competitors, which have been anxiously waiting for the city to begin permitting two-wheeled dockless vehicle-share programs, recently learned they may have to hit the brakes.

Philadelphia passed an ordinance in June regulating fleets of shared, dockless two-wheeled vehicles, and as recently as August believed it would cover scooters as well as bikes. Officials were feeling pleased they'd managed to get ahead of the issue and avoid the battles that have played out in other cities where the companies scooted in ahead of regulation. "I think we've been pretty on the ball," said Aaron Ritz, who was drafting the permitting rules for the Office of Transportation, Infrastructure and Sustainability.

In an interview Thursday, Ritz said his office changed course in September after it discovered a June 2017 fact sheet released by the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation that says electric scooters are not street-legal. The language is pretty direct: "These vehicles cannot be operated on Pennsylvania roadways or sidewalks."

A PennDot spokesperson said she could not immediately answer questions Thursday. But Ritz said the commonwealth's vehicle code sets strict requirements for what can be legally driven on roadways — and is written in such a way that any vehicle that doesn't meet its requirements is prohibited.

Estrada is still hoping Bird can sway Philadelphia officials.

"We want to work with the city to understand what the rationale would be for waiting and how we can help allay those concerns," he said.

But Ritz said that to get right with the law, Bird would have to lobby Harrisburg, much as Segway did more than a decade ago to legalize what Pennsylvania lawmakers would elegantly enshrine as "self-balancing, two-nontandem-wheeled, electric personal assistive mobility devices."

Councilman Mark Squilla, who in August called e-scooters an inevitability, said he had not heard of changes to the permitting process. He, along with Councilmen Derek Green and State Sen. Larry Farnese, is set to appear Friday at a promotional event at Schmidt's Commons, according to a Bird spokesperson, who said the officials "believe Pennsylvania cities do have the authority to pursue a pilot program to test scooters for a limited period of time." Green and Farnese did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The push to introduce dockless bike share will continue, Ritz said, with the goal of bringing those bikes online next spring.

Although Bird's early tactics did not earn it a reputation as a great corporate citizen, Estrada said cities that have resisted or dragged their feet — a club that includes Boston, New York and Chicago — are missing out on a public good that could help relieve gridlock, reduce carbon emissions, and provide a "last mile" solution for travelers who might otherwise resort to Uber or Lyft.

While the permitting process would still allow for dockless bike share, Estrada argues there's less consumer and industry interest (dockless bikes average 1.5 rides per day, he claims, compared to three to 10 rides for a Bird scooter).

His plan would be to launch with about a thousand scooters concentrated in Center City, then adjust the numbers to meet demand without creating unnecessary clutter. The scooters, which cost $1 per ride plus 15 cents per minute, can travel up to 15 miles per hour. So, a 15-minute ride would cost $3.25.

He said Bird has an array of technology solutions it can offer cities to ensure orderly parking and to curb behaviors like sidewalk-riding, ranging from community-reporting programs to haptic detectors built into the scooters that can register the bumpy terrain of a sidewalk and respond by activating the brakes.

Still, officials see other hurdles in a city that has struggled to execute its Vision Zero plan to eliminate traffic fatalities.

"My personal observation of scooters in other cities is, they're popular, they're fun, and also, they're dangerous," Ritz said.

A woman in Cleveland died in August after being hit by a car while riding an electric scooter.

"These are products that really weren't designed for public use, that were designed for a consumer market, that have been repurposed," Ritz said.

He pointed to the city's Indego bikes, which are far more rugged than the average personal-use bicycle. He said scooters ought to be built to that same standard.

"It's reasonable to expect to need to beef things up for a public-use product," he said.

Bird, however, says it's on the case: This month it began rolling out a new model, the Bird Zero — a rugged e-scooter designed for ride-sharing with better lighting, longer battery life, and a more durable, stable frame — to cities including Atlanta, Baltimore and Washington.

The city could include safety standards in a permitting process if it decides to develop one.

For now, one thing the city's regulations on dockless vehicles has already accomplished, Ritz said, was giving the city the right to fine companies that operate without permits or impound their vehicles.

He doesn't think it will come to that — even though the city was taken by surprise by reports in September of scooters available for rent by another company, Lime, at a warehouse in Philadelphia. The company said it's only using the warehouse to prepare for dockless bike share. For now, he said, "I'll have to take them at their word."

©2018 The Philadelphia Inquirer. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.