Politics & Government

Charlotte may allow more e-scooters but with tighter rules on riding them

Charlotte is planning to allow more electric scooters on city streets, while also adding rules to cap speeds, ban sidewalk riding from a big chunk of uptown and charge scooter rental companies a new fee.

The rules are part of the city’s attempts to cope with the rapid influx of scooters that have proven wildly popular but also raised safety concerns as they zip around at 20 mph, weaving between pedestrians or darting into traffic. An emerging technology, the GPS-enabled, rent-by-app scooters have outpaced regulations designed mostly for cars, bicycles and pedestrians.

“When we were sitting around the table last year, these didn’t even exist,” said council member Braxton Winston, who said the scooters are a “desperately needed” transportation option.

The proposed rules, which the City Council could vote on as soon as next week, would cap scooter speeds at 15 mph, ban riding in streets where the speed limit is over 35 mph, require scooter companies to put 20 percent of their vehicles in low-income neighborhoods every day and institute a “dynamic” fee charged to the scooter companies. That fee hasn’t been set, but it could vary based on factors such as whether scooters are parked correctly, to encourage the companies to act responsibly.

Scooter companies are currently capped at a maximum of 400 vehicles in Charlotte. The new rules would allow scooter companies to add vehicles, 50 at a time, if they can show their scooter fleet is averaging more than three rides per scooter, per day over a 30-day period. They would have to take vehicles off the roads if their average use fell below two rides per scooter, per day.

One of the most significant changes in a new scooter ordinance would bar riders from the sidewalk — but only in certain parts of the city.

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“We’re proposing to identify an area inside center city that will not allow riding on sidewalks,” said Dan Gallagher, deputy director of the Charlotte Department of Transportation. The area where scooters wouldn’t be allowed on the sidewalk would include the blocks bounded by Stonewall, Seventh, College and Church streets.

Council members said more clarity is needed for the rules around scooters, but questioned specific parts of the proposal. Some wanted more information about the dynamic pricing scheme, while others said they were uncomfortable with parts of the ordinance such as the 15 mph speed cap or the low-income neighborhood distribution requirement.

Questions over uptown restrictions

Council member LaWana Mayfield questioned whether it makes sense to bar scooters from sidewalks uptown, which are often wider and usually well-maintained, and allow them in neighborhoods outside the city’s core where sidewalks are often narrower and interrupted by obstructions like power poles.

“Saying we’re only going to focus on safety in uptown, that’s a challenge,” said Mayfield. She also said more specific rules for riders could be needed. “Saying we hope (riders) are going to make the best decision doesn’t really work.”

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She called the staff presentation “heavily pro-scooter” and questioned why more information about cities that have chosen to ban scooters wasn’t included.

“We don’t have any reason to believe there’s something coming,” said council member Larken Egleston.

Gallagher said it would be easier to charge a per-scooter fee, but that “may not address some of the behavioral issues out there.”

Meanwhile, in Raleigh, Bird is adding a $2 per-ride charge for scooter users, raising the cost of unlocking the scooters to $3 each ride. That’s in response to a $300 annual fee Raleigh City Council decided to impose on the companies for each scooter. Bird called the fee “unreasonable,” and prompted riders to email City Council and Raleigh’s mayor in protest.

Charlotte is unique among large North Carolina cities in charging the companies nothing, however. Greensboro charges the companies $50 per scooter, while Durham charges $100.

Other North Carolina cities, including Winston-Salem and Asheville, have banned the scooters from their streets, at least until regulations are sorted out.

Growing popularity

Bird and Lime both field about 400 scooters on city streets, the current limit, while Spin, the newest entrant, has about 100. The scooter companies are operating under a pilot program the city started in May, after Lime unexpectedly dropped its scooters off on Charlotte streets and then urged riders to email City Council when leaders complained and said they might order the scooters banned.

Charlotte officials expect state lawmakers to pass rules governing exactly what cities can and can’t require scooter operators to do. Draft rules proposed last month would have exempted scooters from motor vehicle registration requirements, which experts say they could be subject to under current laws, but left cities largely free to set local regulations. The legislature didn’t pass those rules, however.

Though they’re newer than dockless bicycles, scooters have quickly become much more popular. Ofo, Mobike and Spin, three of the four dockless bike-share companies in Charlotte last year, have pulled their bikes off the city streets. Monthly ridership numbers show why: In November, dockless bikes accounted for just 3,312 trips covering 2,213 miles in Charlotte, while scooters racked up for 83,415 trips covering 98,004 miles. The highest month of ridership, August, saw about 140,000 rides in Charlotte.

“That’s pretty amazing ridership,” said Gallagher. “We might be able to peel some automobile trips off the road.”

However fast the city moves, the companies could move faster as the marketplace continues to change rapidly. Last week, Lime rolled out for the first time in Charlotte dockless electric bikes, which use motors to help riders pedal more easily, especially uphill.

How e-scooters work

Riders find scooters, which are tracked by GPS, using their smart phones.

They pay $1 to unlock the scooter, and 15 cents per minute they ride. Riders leave the scooter wherever they want once the ride is finished. In the evening, contract workers for each company, called “juicers,” collect the scooters, recharge them, and redistribute them across the city before morning.

Ely Portillo covers local and state government for the Charlotte Observer, where he has previously written about growth, crime, the airport and a five-legged puppy. He grew up in Maryland and attended Harvard University.