They seem ubiquitous now, although two years ago they were a novelty in our community. Electric scooters (“e-scooters”) are in the so-called “shared mobility devices” (SMDs) group of gas-less vehicles, which include docked bikes (i.e., Capital BikeShare) and dock-less bikes offered around the local jurisdictions by Lime, JUMP, Lyft, and other companies. E-scooters are dock-less (there’s no specific spot to drop them off, which is why they seem to be all over the place); devices are dropped off at strategic spots around the county by their sponsoring companies for use by prospective customers. Company phone apps provide instructions and the locations where one can find available scooters; users access the e-scooter by entering a code provided by the app.
Bicycles use has long been encouraged by Arlington County through its Master Transportation Plan and the recently updated Bicycle Element of the plan. E-scooters, on the other hand, seem to have recently arrived out of nowhere. Indeed, in some cases, companies literally showed up in some jurisdictions in the middle of the night to launch their devices.
In September 2018, the Arlington County Board decided to address the appearance of SMDs directly, by approving a nine-month demonstration project (from October to June 2019) to evaluate the impact the SMDs on our streets. The County invited companies to apply to participate in the program, and in exchange, the County would receive detailed usage data from the companies, including data on the number of customers, mileage covered on the devices, and the number of crashes, complaints and speeding reports. As of May 2019, seven companies were participating in the pilot program.
In May, the County Board approved the extension of the SMD demonstration project through December 2019, so that the staff could collect more data through the summer months to help them in their evaluation and recommendations for regulation to the County Board. At that point, the county had recorded over 300,000 trips on the SMDs, and received over 1,200 complaints (and 60 compliments) about the devices. Issues raised in comments included improper parking of devices, unsafe driver behavior, and riding on sidewalks (not permitted during the project). As the County Board chairman stated in a recent interview, the project’s data will help the County develop its own regulations for SMDs, as provided for by the Governor, ahead of expected law-making by the Commonwealth’s legislature in early 2020.
The County has provided a website with a Q&A about dockless vehicles and specific written guidelines for e-scooters. County Police also developed guidance for e-scooter users, including some of the basics of use, for example, “signal your intention to stop or turn” and “yield to pedestrians in sidewalks.” Regardless, many motorists and pedestrians have found themselves dodging e-scooters careening down roads or on the sidewalks.
Throughout the demonstration project, the County has engaged with the community, both in person and online, to communicate the goals and guidelines of the project, and to encourage feedback. Updates have been provided to county groups with an interest in the transportation impacts of the project; Arlington Public Schools also provided detailed guidance to parents and students with specific emphasis on the use of e-scooters, and the reminder that users must be over the age of 18.
It is exciting and interesting to watch transportation innovations evolve in real-time. I suspect that e-scooters are just the first in a variety of approaches that will include combinations of private and public options for commuting and daily mobility in the years ahead. Thoughtful regulation by the county this fall will provide needed standards for operation and safety; broad education of these rules of the road will also be necessary. Once these are all in place, SMDs, vehicles and pedestrians will be able to safely co-exist on the roads of Arlington County.
By Margarita Brose
Margarita is a fifteen-year resident of Arlington County, and serves on its Transportation and Neighborhood Complete Streets Commissions. A federal project manager and former managing consultant, she has lived and worked in cities all of her adult life, and is a dedicated supporter and user of public transportation.