Scooteropolis

by Thomas P. Healy

Like many cities across the nation, Indianapolis was the target of a new type of urban litter in 2018 when rentable, dockless, battery-powered scooters appeared on downtown and Midtown streets and sidewalks in June.

A Washington Post reporter described the scooter companies’ strategy as “act first, answer questions later.” That worked like a charm in Indy.

Bankrolled by venture capital, and full of Silicon Valley disruptive moxie, scooter companies began conducting their commercial enterprise in the public right-of-way without any licensing. They specifically targeted cities where existing regulations didn’t yet address this particular kind of personal mobility device. Is a scooter a vehicle? Should it be used on the sidewalk or in streets? Does a user need a license and insurance?

The companies swooped into town and ignored the questionable legality of motorized scooters on public sidewalks. Arguing that their service provides a public benefit, the companies seem immune to any penalty for the safety hazards their users create on public streets and sidewalks. By gaining notoriety and priceless media exposure during their initial foray into a community, these firms garner sufficient leverage to tell municipalities to, in essence, “Deal with it.”

DEALING WITH IT

While cities like Denver, CO; Norfolk, VA; Nashville, TN; and Santa Cruz, CA, responded to the invasion of the “scoots” by impounding them, Indianapolis took a more measured approach. The City’s Department of Business and Neighborhood Services (BNS) sent a letter in June requesting that the companies suspend operations so that BNS could work with the City-County Council to craft regulations.

Proposal No. 120, 2018, a measure to ban dockless scooters was introduced in April [PDF]. Over the course of the next two months, it was modified to instead regulate what it termed “Shared Mobility Operators” including bike share (for both human-powered and battery-assisted bicycles) and scooters. The proposal passed in amended form in July. [PDF] Terms of the ordinance include a $15,000 annual operating permit plus a $1 per scooter per day fee. Users are supposed to be at least 18 and wear helmets.

In October, the Council voted to allocate funds generated by the per-day fee to underwrite bike and pedestrian infrastructure improvements.

According to BNS, “Devices should be parked as follows:

  • In an upright manner
  • Leaving at least 4 feet of unobstructed passage in the public right-of-way
  • In the grassy section of the public right-of-way between the sidewalk and street, but NOT in any landscaped areas
  • At bike racks or docking stations (if available)
  • Not blocking bus stops, shelters or signs, loading zones, accessible parking zones or spaces for people with disabilities, curb ramps or driveways
  • Not blocking any entrance or exit from any building
  • Not in streets or alleys
  • Not on private property without permission of the property owner and compliance with applicable zoning code”

According to the City website, “BNS is responsible for enforcing the licensing of shared mobility system operators and parking of devices in the public right-of-way. BNS is only allowed to issue fines to the companies for illegally parked devices, not the users themselves.” IMPD is charged with enforcing moving violations, including scooting while intoxicated.

BNS adds, “If you find a scooter that is not parked within these rules, please contact the operator directly for the fastest removal or adjustment of the devices.”

PROBLEMS AND OPPORTUNITIES

Presumably, scooter use will dwindle during the winter months, which offers the community a chance to pause and take stock of the situation and consider the following issues:

Public input. Quickly passing an ordinance on such a complex issue rarely generates good legislation. Perhaps the Council was giddy with an expectation that Amazon would select our city for its second headquarters, and wanted to demonstrate that Indy was ready to party with the disrupters.

It’s worth noting that many of the same councillors who rushed through the scooter ordinance also prompted the Council to pass electric car-share legislation in 2015 by threatening to tow demonstration vehicles illegally parked downtown. Unlike scooters, however, the electric car-share company had a contract with the City and had received both a right-of-way permit and an encroachment permit.

As demonstrated by other efforts to expand mobility options – the years-long IndyConnect transit initiative, county-wide outreach to create the Marion County Pedestrian Plan, and the Complete Streets ordinance — public input is essential to craft fair and equitable policies. By comparison, one public meeting of the Council’s Public Works committee in the middle of summer to discuss scooters is insufficient. Recommendation: Hold multiple public hearings in 2019 to analyze accident data, determine whether the public truly benefits from the service, and review scooter policies and violations.

Safety: Dockless mobility service users create a threat to public health and safety. In traffic, scooter users have the same vertical profile as a pedestrian but travel three to five times faster. This can make it difficult for motorists to register scooters in their field of vision and leads to unsafe travel. And although the ordinance stipulates “only one person on a Shared Mobility Device at any time,” users are often seen riding two to a scooter.

On sidewalks, scooters become obstacles to safe navigation and sometimes to any access at all for people using wheelchairs or other assistive devices. Sidewalk vendors and bar or restaurant owners with outdoor seating are required to demonstrate how they will not block access to the public right-of-way. Why aren’t scooter companies made to do that too?

City ordinance specifies that sidewalks in front of a residence or business must be kept clear of snow and ice. The DPW website states: “According to Municipal Code of Indianapolis (Sec. 431-106) property owners and occupants are responsible for keeping sidewalks clear of snow and ice.”

DPW adds: “We are all pedestrians and benefit from having a safe, clear, and continuous path to travel.” However, the duty for ensuring that safety does not burden the scooter companies. Instead, that responsibility has been passed on to the scooter users. During the short time scooters have been in use, it has been common to see them discarded within the public right-of-way, on private property, or even in the Central Canal. Recommendation: Scooter companies should be required to invest in docking stations that scooter users must use, and should be fined for violations.

Walkability: Indy in general and Midtown in particular have taken great strides during the past decade to improve walkability. Nothing has undermined this effort more than the arrival of dockless scooters. Given lax enforcement of the ordinance that bans scooter use on trails and sidewalks, users ride and leave scooters everywhere, creating dangerous situations while in use or after they are abandoned. Recommendation: Either enforce the ordinance, or ban dockless scooters.

A version of this article appeared in the December 2018/January 2019 print edition of the magazine.

1 Comment on Scooteropolis

  1. The scooters are just the latest in transportation innovations. People complained when bicycles were introduced, and when cars were introduced. New things generate complaints. The scooters may just be the current version of rollerblades and we’ll remember them fondly and laugh when we encounter people still riding them in a few years. Nonetheless, another transportation option will come along. What’s missing is less about public input and more about public education. Someone needs to be responsible for teaching the public how to use the next new thing, and how to interact with it using the other transportation options as well.

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