Mayor Durkan recently announced that Seattle will be looking into how to safely welcome scooter share.
Scooters arrived in Portland, Oregon, for a pilot program last summer, and hoo-boy did they get talked about around that city. And ridden. And dumped in the Willamette River (there was a website tracking how many: 6 at one count) — oh, in portable toilets, too. But mostly ridden. They are super fun, fast enough to contribute as a transportation option, and they’re convenient to grab-and-go.
Swap out “the Willamette River” with one of our own local bodies of water, and pretty much everything written above could have been said (probably was said) during the roll-out of our Seattle bike share program a couple years ago. But when it comes to safety, scooters are different, and Seattle will need the right regulations for a scooter share program to work well. The scooters in Portland are surprisingly fast: a person standing three inches above the pavement scooting through a busy city at 15-mph is more eyebrow-raising to witness in person than to read about in print, I assure you. Additionally, there seem to be a lot of crashes — a couple per week involving cars in the first two weeks of the program. Just applying what we’ve learned here in Seattle from bike share — and copy-pasting those newly-crafted bike share regulations over to a scooter share program — won’t be adequate.
Working down in Portland for a couple months during their initial pilot, I was able to witness and experience the roll-out of their scooter-share program (the scooters then disappeared from Portland, and just recently returned for a second pilot), and I believe scooters can work well in Seattle. But a few changes to how they’re regulated in Portland would vastly improve safety (for scooter riders and pedestrians), as well as improve the likelihood that the public embraces scooters instead of rejects them. And the importance of the latter can’t be overstated: a Google News search of “e scooters” will provide you with headline after headline describing citizen outrage or cities struggling to effectively regulate, and in the case of Paris, deciding last week to ban them [ed note: Paris banned scooters on sidewalks, not entirely]. Most importantly, Seattle must start with regulations that are consistent with human behavior. In Portland, the rules around helmets and sidewalks don’t match people’s actual behavior, making almost every scooter rider a law-breaker. Since the 15 mph governed scooter speed is based on the assumption that no one will ride on the sidewalk and everyone will wear a helmet, there is a mis-match between intended and actual behavior that leads to serious safety problems. Here are some lessons and proposals for us in Seattle:
1) Helmets. Portland requires helmets for scooters. Almost no one uses a helmet (because who carries a spare helmet just in case they might decide to hop on a scooter one day?). Seattle should not require the use of a helmet in the future scooter share program*. (In case we need a rationale: A scooter rider’s center of gravity is basically the same height as a pedestrian’s, so at jogging speeds, simple falls on a scooter are equivalent to a jogger tripping. And we don’t have jogging helmets.) While there are good arguments to be made for wearing a helmet while riding a scooter — such as Mayor Durkan’s citations of traumatic brain injury rates from riding scooters with speeds governed at 15- and 20-mph, the fact remains that people just aren’t going to wear them due to the spontaneous nature of hiring a scooter. Should the city and scooter-share companies promote helmet use? Absolutely. But I submit that it is better to block scooter share from coming to Seattle at all than to include consistently-flouted regulations that beg for unequal, potentially discriminatory enforcement.
2) Riding on sidewalks. Portland doesn’t allow riding on the sidewalk at all. This means scooter riders are forced to decide between really unsafe scooter riding amidst traffic in busy streets, or breaking the law and riding on the sidewalk — I witness both regularly, and I have to say the right choice is sometimes to ride on the sidewalk. Seattle should apply the same rules that we have for bicycles (which were recently extended to e-bikes!): the law states that if you’re riding on the sidewalk, you must yield the right-of-way to pedestrians and make an audible sound before overtaking other sidewalk users**.
3) Speed demons. Portland scooters are governed to a max 15 mph. If we are to acknowledge the actual behavior of scooter riders and implement “1” and “2” above, a 15-mph governor is too high. 15 mph scooters are fast. If they were governed to, say 11- or 12-mph (the speed of a fast run, versus a commuter cyclist at about 15 mph), a scooter traveling on the typical neighborhood sidewalk starts to seem reasonable in many instances. And not wearing a helmet (again, almost no one is going to wear one) becomes less of a critical safety issue. A crash at 11 mph has about half the force of a crash at 15 mph — this fact is equally relevant for the scooter rider’s head and for the pedestrian sharing the sidewalk.
Compromise solutions could accomplish the safety goals, as well; for example, there is no reason that there can’t be multiple speed settings and different rules for each. One can imagine a situation where the scooters have two settings (manually chosen through the phone app at time of hire):
Setting 1 for speedy road travel: to use this setting requires a helmet, and the speed is governed at 15 mph
Setting 2 for travel that includes sidewalks: a rider must use this setting when on sidewalks or when not wearing a helmet. There will be some visible indication that this setting is selected (such as blinking lights), and the speed is governed to a pedestrian-compatible 10-12 mph
When scooters are sprinkled alongside our shared bikes throughout Seattle, we must first acknowledge how people use them, and then make guidelines that are consistent. That way our regulations will actually serve their purpose of limiting injuries to scooter riders and the pedestrians they will inevitably interact with.
If we instead create guidelines to try to change human behavior (require helmets and disallow any sidewalk riding), we will have more injuries to all parties, and a more acrimonious relationship between scooter riders, pedestrians and car drivers; and between scooter riders and law enforcement.
Let’s safely and smartly welcome scooter-share to Seattle, so that once it’s here, we’ll want it to stick around.
*State law says it is illegal to ride a “motorcycle, motor-driven cycle, or moped” without a helmet, even on city streets; while it doesn’t specify electric “foot scooter” (as it does in other parts of the RCW, like in ** below), it is possible it would take a court opinion to clarify whether helmets are required on foot scooters by state law. [RCW 46.37.530]
**State law gives wide discretion to cities and municipalities regarding foot scooters on shared and pedestrian pathways [RCW 46.61.710 (7)], though if there is both a shared path and a sidewalk available, they are restricted from the sidewalk [RCW 46.61.710 (3)].