City planners are making rules to control vendors who operate the dockless motorized scooters, taking advantage of new state legislation that gives local governments the authority to come up with their own regulations.
(TNS) — They’ve seen scooters putter around bigger cities like Nashville and Norfolk, and now, with some consternation, Portsmouth, Va., officials are bracing for the devices should they ever reach sleepy Olde Towne.
City planners are coming up with rules to control vendors who operate the dockless motorized scooters, taking advantage of new state legislation that gives local governments the authority to come up with their own regulations rather than having the General Assembly do it. The change kicks in Jan. 1.
“There may be some who feel that we’re inviting scooters,” Mayor John Rowe said during a Sept. 23 City Council work session, seemingly trying to assuage concerns as a TV news crew filmed the meeting from behind him. “But no. We’re trying to regulate their use and make sure that if they do come to Portsmouth, that everybody is safe.”
So far, they’re considering several restrictions: No more than 250 devices, no more than two companies operating them and no scooters past the downtown area. By comparison, Norfolk allows 1,100 scooters and Virginia Beach is considering a cap of 1,000.
Rowe worries about “scooter litter” — that is, he doesn’t want people leaving the devices in places where they obstruct traffic or are otherwise a nuisance. Councilwoman Elizabeth Psimas wants to know what vendors will do about scooters that are brought back and forth from Portsmouth and Norfolk on the Elizabeth River ferries. And Councilman Nathan Clark, worried about reckless riders, has warned city leaders that on a recent trip to Nashville he saw people “scooting under the influence.”
“There were scooters everywhere. I will share with y’all later, I got a video,” Clark said at the September work session. “I believe it was no less than 10 of them riding in a pack going down the middle of the road. I saw several near-crashes.”
Deputy City Manager Bob Baldwin didn’t respond to requests for comment for this story, but at the council’s most recent work session last month he told elected leaders that two scooter operators have approached the city. Council members will get a proposal from the city on Nov. 12 for a pilot program to test the new technology.
“I know there’s been a lot of concerns and apprehension kind of mentioned about things people have read and heard about some of these scooters,” Baldwin said at the September work session. “So we’re trying to manage this through a pilot so we can assess how well that would work in Portsmouth.”
The technology is still somewhat foreign to some city leaders, who in recent months have puzzled aloud over how the devices work and how their operators manage to turn a profit.
“Some citizens have said to me, ‘We want Lime,’” City Manager Lydia Pettis Patton said at an Aug. 27 meeting, referring to a vendor that is operating in Norfolk. “But you know, I don’t know what Lime is.”
The pilot proposal, Baldwin told council members, “will have a full assessment process that will be in place looking at everything from how the companies operate, injuries, accidents — all of those types of things so that we can have a full and robust consideration after we go through the pilot about how the program worked.”
Lime allows about 1,100 scooters in Norfolk, said Amy Inman, the city’s director of transit. Since the city awarded an exclusive contract to the company in June, it has gradually increased the number of scooters from 500, eventually more than doubling it to meet demand.
“We’ve been very happy with our relationship with Lime,” Inman said. “”They’ve been very responsive.”
That’s a stark contrast to its history with Bird, another operator that dumped a bunch of motorized scooters on Norfolk’s sidewalks last year without asking permission. City Council members criticized the company for ignoring rules, and city staff temporarily impounded more than 500 of the company’s scooters.
Lime has tallied close to 500,000 miles ridden on the devices and nearly half a million trips. Most people, Inman said, ride them just under a mile.
In Virginia Beach, the City Council has been grappling with how to regulate scooters for months. After allowing them on Atlantic Avenue’s trolley lanes over the summer, council members backtracked on their decision and banned them there.
Now, instead of leaving them largely unregulated, the city is trying to draft new rules for companies seeking to rent them out and people who are looking for a new way to get around.
Brian Solis, the city’s assistant to the city manager, said Virginia Beach City Council members will consider on Nov. 12 amending the city code to require franchise agreements for renting e-scooters and similar devices. Virginia Beach officials, like those in Portsmouth, are revising local rules in response to this year’s General Assembly legislation.
Cities across the country were initially caught off guard by surprise scooter deployments, but they’re answering now. At the beginning of 2019, at least 44 e-scooter bills were introduced in 26 states, according to data from the National Association of City Transportation Officials.
Laws are still in flux, and riders are caught between cities looking to experiment with a cheap last-mile solution and companies trying to protect themselves from liability. That means scooter users are vulnerable both legally and physically.
Between just May and July, 10 patients were admitted to Virginia Beach General Hospital for overnight stays after scooter-related injuries, Dr. Richard Myers, an orthopedic surgeon at Sentara’s hospitals in Norfolk and Virginia Beach, told The Virginian-Pilot. Six of them had neurological injuries, and of those, three also had orthopedic injuries.
Between state laws, local vehicle codes and contracts with scooter providers, it’s still often unclear whether scooters are legal and how riders should safely use them.
Whether or not Portsmouth ever has to contend with these problems, the city aims to be ready.
©2019 The Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, Va.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.