Regulation of Scooters Coming

Monday, February 25, 2019, 7:33 am
By: 
Jessy Gregg and Alice Dreger

Electric scooters and the companies that operate them are back on the agenda for East Lansing’s City Council, with a plan to formally introduce a regulatory ordinance at tomorrow’s Council meeting and to vote on it on March 5.

Meanwhile, MSU is planning to issue a Request for Proposals (RFP) with a plan of picking a single scooter company to be given the right to operate on campus. City Attorney Tom Yeadon has said he does not believe it would be legal for the City to take such an approach, and that the City therefore needs an ordinance to regulate all possible comers to the local electronic scooter rental game.

At last week’s Council meeting, Mayor Mark Meadows indicated that he wants to make sure East Lansing has a regulatory ordinance in place before March 15, which is the date when the pay-to-ride electric scooters are anticipated to be “deployed” again. The two companies operating in East Lansing, Bird and Lime, pulled their vehicles in December and will be bringing them back in a few weeks.

The ordinance set to be introduced on tomorrow’s agenda for a public hearing and likely vote on March 5 calls for e-scooter rental companies to pay an annual licensing fee of $5,000 as well as a “per ride, per day” fee of ten cents for rides originating in East Lansing.

City Attorney Tom Yeadon prepared the draft ordinance based on one developed in the City of Lansing. At last week’s meeting, Yeadon told Council it was important to try to have regulation be consistent within the region.

Yeadon said that the inclusion of a $5,000 licensing fee per company in the draft ordinance for East Lansing was copied from Lansing. Mayor Pro Tem Erik Altmann suggested last week that, because East Lansing is smaller than Lansing, that fee could be reduced or “prorated.”

In a letter responding to the proposed ordinance, Scott Mullen, the Director of Northeast Expansion for Lime, called the suggested $5,000 fee prohibitive, and pointed out that Lime had decided not to deploy their “fleet” in Ann Arbor because of a high licensing fee.

Mullen also suggested reducing the per ride fee from 10 cents to 5 cents per ride, and expressed his hope that the money generated by fees “will be put toward testing out pilot infrastructure to support ridership, thus creating a virtuous cycle.”

As an example of what that might mean, at last Tuesday’s meeting, Council Member Shanna Draheim pointed to the City of Santa Monica, which has used fees imposed on e-scooters to stencil signage onto their sidewalks, such as “watch for pedestrians,” to encourage courteous ridership.

Draheim also quoted data supplied by the scooter companies which showed 75,000 rides for the month-and-a-half-long time period when scooters were operating in East Lansing in 2018, and commented that the fees generated by the per-ride fees would be considerably higher than the yearly licensing fee.

Meadows questioned the wisdom of requiring the scooters to be removed at night, since there are people, such as third-shift workers, who might appreciate access to the ride-share scooters. The draft ordinance also calls for removal of the devices from public right-of-ways by 11 p.m. each day, but does not specify when they could be put back out the next day.

The draft ordinance also requires removal of all the scooters from public right-of-ways from December 15 to March 15 and removal of them “when snow/ice or other weather conditions make the use unsafe.”

At last week’s meeting, Altmann suggested that, due to the changeable nature of Michigan weather, it might not make sense to remove them for the entire winter, since there would be times in winter when conditions were safe for scooter riding. But City Manager George Lahanas explained that the winter prohibition had stemmed from concern over clearing sidewalks after a snowfall.

A Lime Representative in attendance, Nico Probst, explained that weather reporting usually provided enough notice of an impending snow event to allow Lime to notify their “juicers” to remove the scooters from the streets. (“Juicers” is the name for local people employed by Lime to collect scooters, charge the batteries, and redeploy the scooters in designated locations. Bird uses a similar system.)

The draft ordinance calls for limiting the scooters to 10 miles per hour in the City’s Downtown Development Authority district “between Abbot Road and Charles Avenue.” Scooters are otherwise capped at 15 m.p.h.

Last Tuesday, Council considered feedback from the Transportation Commission and from Lime regarding the wisdom and relative safety of limiting the speed to 10 m.p.h. in the more congested downtown area of the City. This could be achieved via “geofencing,” whereby the device automatically decreases the device’s top possible speed when it senses it has entered a low-speed area. Because the devices have sensors tracking location, this is possible.

In his letter, Lime representative Mullen explained that it can be disorienting for a rider to hit a “geofenced” area and experience a sudden deceleration. Council Member Aaron Stephens pointed out that leaving the speed-limited zone and the corresponding acceleration could be equally disorienting.

All four Council Members in discussion last Tuesday seemed to generally agree that a 10 m.p.h. zone would not be safer that the 15 m.p.h. limit, which is the top operating speed for the vehicles. (Council Member Ruth Beier was absent from Tuesday’s meeting because of a trip related to her job at the Michigan Education Association.)

The draft ordinance indicates scooters “shall not be operated on sidewalks.” At last week’s Council meeting, the question of prohibiting scooters from sidewalks was debated, with Lahanas pointing out that there are areas of the city, such as along the downtown stretch of Grand River Avenue, where it would not be safe to operate a scooter in the street. He said prohibiting them from sidewalks might not be possible. The Council seemed to agree.

It’s unclear how local usage will work if MSU chooses only one scooter company to allow on campus and East Lansing has several companies operating here. MSU can’t prohibit the use of the vehicles on public streets that traverse campus, but it can impound scooters that are parked without permission on campus. It has been doing so.

The draft ordinance for East Lansing requires companies to prohibit use by more than one rider at a time and to “deploy” the devices “only in areas so designated by the City.”

The draft ordinance also requires companies to share data with the City of East Lansing government, including “starting and stopping points for each trip,” something that may raise privacy concerns. A special New York Times report in December showed the power of app-tracking software in tracking individual users’ behaviors.

At last Thursdays meeting of East Lansing’s Downtown Development Authority’s Project & Infrastructure Committee, Lahanas said that data so far showed use of the scooters to be “explosive” in East Lansing. He said feedback from residents focused largely on concerns about safety and the problem of scooters parked inappropriately.

Concerns about parking include the blocking of public sidewalks or on private properties without permission. DDA member Greg Ballein expressed frustration of having access to his business, SBS, blocked by parked scooters. Ballein said he was “not a fan of ordinances, but I foresee mayhem on Grand River and Albert [Avenues].” He asked for a “forward-thinking” rather than “reactionary” approach to this issue.

Yeadon said enforcement of inappropriate parking is in practice very difficult because of the problem of figuring out who put a scooter where. (They are easily picked up and moved, unlike a car.)

In terms of safety, Lahanas told the DDA committee he was worried about having scooters available late at night. He expressed concern that students would be coming out of bars at 2 a.m., being drunk, engaging “in horseplay” and “getting killed.” But, he noted, the scooter companies this past fall generally elected to have scooters pulled and unavailable after about 9 p.m., perhaps out of that safety concern.

Lahanas also noted that “you can ride a motorcycle on Michigan Avenue without a helmet and that’s a lot more dangerous than a scooter.”

At the DDA committee meeting, Altmann said he thought “Lime is going to be a good partner. They show up and say thoughtful things.” He said he “would be interested in trying to keep regulation as light as possible” in the hopes of seeing many people substitute electric scooters for cars.

Altmann said he “heard input from others that they think a relatively light touch initially is a good thing.” He told the committee he rides his bicycle all year round and he would use a scooter in winter months, too, if he were a user of that technology.

Lahanas told the committee that he and Director of Public Works Scott House want to see scooters parked in designated, marked areas to avoid them being in the way of citizens, businesses, and Public Works’ activities.

Comments on this issue can be made at public comment near the start of tomorrow’s meeting, which begins at 7 p.m. in the courtroom upstairs at City Hall, or at the public hearing on Tuesday, March 5, which will happen during Council’s meeting that night. Comment can also be submitted in writing via email to Council.

 

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