As Lime Moves In, Scooter Regulation Debated

Thursday, October 11, 2018, 7:47 am
By: 
Alice Dreger

The Limes have now arrived, and the local scooter debate is heating up.

Right about a month after Bird electric rental scooters descended on East Lansing, competitor Lime scooters have officially become available all over the city. What to do about these vehicles and their riders – if anything – has become a hot topic of debate around town, including in City Hall.

Yesterday’s meeting of the Downtown Development Authority’s (DDA’s) Public Policy & Marketing Committee included a long debate about electric scooters. Just after that meeting wrapped up, the City issued a press release on the scooters.

According to the City, “City officials are still studying whether or not new ordinances need to be created to regulate these vehicles.” After a review of local laws, City staff has found that “Current ordinances do not prevent them from being driven on sidewalks,” but police can ticket or arrest riders if they are reckless or drunk.

At yesterday’s meeting, Mayor Pro Tem Erik Altmann said, as he has elsewhere, that what is needed is a “regional solution.”

“We’re behind because they dropped this crap on us,” said Altmann, referring to how Bird scooters came in with no warning.

Altmann said that, in contrast to Bird, representatives from Lime had reached out to the City before setting up scooters around town.

“They were willing to help plan,” he said, “but Bird literally dropped them.”

At yesterday’s meeting, East Lansing Community and Economic Development Administrator Tom Fehrenbach said the City is working with Bird and Lime to try to figure out a good approach for all involved. Fehrenbach said the companies are providing ride data to the City to help inform public policy.

The scooters have been popular in East Lansing, with many riders opting to use them as handy means of transportation. The scooters are set to max-out at about 15 mph, making them about as fast as a quick bicycle ride, but without causing a rider to get sweaty in the process.

A new Michigan law that went into effect last month defines scooters as “electric skateboards.” According to East Lansing staff, this means:

  • Only one person can ride a scooter at a time.
  • All people 18 years old and younger have to wear a helmet while riding one.
  • On roadways, they should be ridden near the right-side curb.
  • They should not be ridden on roads with speed limits greater than 25 mph.
  • On sidewalks, scooter riders have to yield to pedestrians and let pedestrians know they are coming.

 

The City says it can also impound scooters “if they are creating a significant obstruction to traffic and/or pedestrians, including being parked in a public right-of-way,” meaning a sidewalk or public driveway. 

Parking a scooter on someone else’s private property represents trespassing. According to the user contract between renters and Bird, scooters “cannot be parked on unauthorized private property, in a locked area, or in any other unapproved non-public space.” Lime’s contract uses similar language, although it doesn’t explicitly refer to private property. Around town, property owners have expressed frustration about having scooters parked on their properties by strangers. A number, for example, have ended up on the private property of Peoples Church.

Fehrenbach said that if a parked scooter is blocking a sidewalk, complaints should be called into the non-emergency number of the East Lansing Police Department (517-351-4220). He said that the scooters can be impounded, but staff comments at the meeting suggested the City hasn’t been impounding scooters so far – unlike Michigan State University, which has impounded as many as one hundred Bird scooters.

Altmann said he liked the idea of using licensing agreements with scooter companies to compel the companies to give up information about users who have violated the law. He would like the City to know, for example, who exactly parked a scooter illegally. This, he suggested, could allow the City to “penalize” specific users in an attempt to achieve “behavioral modification.” (Altmann is a professor of psychology at MSU.)

Lynsey Clayton, a member of the DDA, said she liked the idea of the scooters but suggested at yesterday’s meeting that vehicles parked on sidewalks should be impounded if they are causing problems.

Said Clayton, “If H&H just started to park trucks on the road all night long,” they would be ticketed. (Clayton’s family owns H&H Towing, the company typically called by ELPD for automobile impounding.) ELPD's Deputy Chief Steve Gonzalez tells ELi  that the department has "not impounded any scooters at this point, but that if there is a need to do so a private tow company would not be required, our PACE department could handle it."

Clayton said she was “super concerned about this,” because other businesses, like restaurants, are required to follow many rules, including about public sidewalk use.

DDA Committee Chair Jeff Kusler said he was concerned that, if City policy ended up favoring one company over another, there might be a perception of impropriety. Like Clayton, he was concerned about the perception that some individual businesses or types of businesses are treated differently than others.

Kusler saw the current situation as “similar to pilot programs.” But Clayton saw allowing a company to come in and try something new without advance discussion and regulation to be “a very dangerous precedent in this community.”

The coming winter weather is expected to result in the removal of most or all of the scooters from the City by the companies that own them. During that period, City staff, Council, and the DDA are expected to come up with policies to regulate them.

“We will figure out a response, but we’re not going to have it tomorrow,” said Altmann.