Electric scooters may be cool, but Charlotte needs to decide how they should be used

People riding scooters are zipping along Charlotte sidewalks and streets past pedestrians and sometimes in lanes of traffic.
People riding scooters are zipping along Charlotte sidewalks and streets past pedestrians and sometimes in lanes of traffic. jsimmons@charlotteobserver.com

Rush hour, uptown Charlotte. It’s the usual controlled chaos of drivers, cyclists and pedestrians. Most obey the traffic lights and laws. Most respect each other’s space. But now something new has been introduced to the swirl: motorized rental scooters. They slalom through Tryon Street traffic and part pedestrians on uptown sidewalks, and if that seems like a potentially dangerous thing to add to the morning mix, well, yes.

In Milwaukee, a pedestrian suffered facial injuries this month when he was struck by a man riding a Bird scooter. In downtown Nashville, two women were hospitalized when the scooters they were riding were struck by a vehicle. In California, an attorney who already has handled two dozen scooter accident cases says he gets 2-5 calls a day about new incidents.

Now, cities across the country are grappling with how to update ordinances to accommodate the new technology zipping around streets and sidewalks at speeds up to 15 mph. Many cities, including Charlotte, have yet to adopt new safety rules for scooters, leaving riders and police unsure of what’s allowed and what’s not. That needs to change here before someone gets seriously hurt.

To be sure, the haphazardness of it all lands mostly at the feet of the scooter companies, which dumped dozens of scooters on Charlotte’s streets earlier this year without the city’s permission. That same tactic prompted some cities to temporarily ban ride-share scooters, including Milwaukee, where police slapped the rider involved in last month’s pedestrian accident with a $98.80 ticket for operating an unregistered motorized vehicle.

Charlotte has taken a more conciliatory approach, adding scooters to a ride-share pilot program that runs through October. The program, however, is less about safety rules than how the companies work with the city regarding issues like clutter, Charlotte City Council member Tariq Bokhari told the editorial board this week. As for safety, Bokhari says scooter operators are treated like cyclists for now. That means they’re allowed on both sidewalks and streets, and they don’t have to wear a helmet if they’re 16 and older.

Bokhari was critical of how scooter-share company Lime launched in Charlotte, but he says he’s a big fan of the technology. Scooters are convenient, he says, and they’re loved by the young professionals that cities want to attract. Still, Bokhari says the city is figuring out safety issues “on the fly.” He plans to nudge city staffers to craft new rules of the road.

One question that should move to the front of the line: Are ride-share scooters even legal to operate on N.C. roads? The state of North Carolina requires that all low-speed vehicles, such as golf carts, be inspected then registered before operating on public streets and highways. Mopeds must also be registered, and they require a helmet and vehicle insurance to operate.

If ride-share scooters pass muster with the state, we recommend Charlotte consider rules similar to what the city of Dallas passed last month: No riding on sidewalks in the Central Business District, and no riding on streets where the speed limit is more than 35 mph. That could move the scooters off uptown sidewalks and higher-speed streets where they might be a hazard. Let’s keep the chaos under control, and soon.