Charlotte City Council on Monday adopted rules to ban e-scooters from sidewalks in part of uptown, as well as cap speeds and charge scooter companies a per-unit fee.
The rules passed 7 to 3, with council members Braxton Winston, LaWana Mayfield and Matt Newton voting no. The rules are Charlotte’s first set of comprehensive regulations for the shared, dockless scooters, which have exploded in popularity since they were introduced in March. Charlotte riders racked up 82,523 trips covering 81,484 miles in December.
The months-long discussion over scooter rules has proved divisive, with council members openly expressing exasperation at the process Monday.
“We have spent so much time on scooters and have gotten very little done as a governing body,” said council member Tariq Bokhari, who said the city wasn’t paying attention to other issues that have come up. “We’re spending so much time not doing anything on (scooters).”
Although they’ve proven wildly popular, the scooters have also raised concerns about safety, both for pedestrians on crowded sidewalks and riders trying to get through traffic. And some people have complained that the scooters, which riders leave wherever they’re done with their ride, can block sidewalks.
The new rules will:
▪ Cap scooter speeds at 15 mph. Previously, some could go 20 mph. A move by Winston to remove the scooter speed caps failed.
“I think this is an example of over-regulation,” said Winston. He said scooters might be more safe if they could accelerate and better keep up with traffic, for example.
Council member Ed Driggs said he believed the lower speed limits would be safer, but he complained that City Council was working without data to support the decision-making.
“The whole thing is arbitrary,” Driggs said.
▪ Ban scooters from sidewalks in the densest part of uptown, in an area bounded by Stonewall, Seventh, College and Church streets. Riders could still be on the sidewalks outside of that area.
▪ Lift Charlotte’s current cap on the number of scooters one company can have, which will increase the total number of scooters in the city. Under the city’s pilot program, companies were allowed only up to 400 scooters each. Lime and Bird have the maximum, while Spin fields about 100. Under the new rules, they’ll be allowed to add scooters, 50 at a time, each time they show their scooters are being ridden an average of at least three times a day for 30 days. But they would have to take scooters off the roads if their average use fell below two rides per scooter, per day.
In a statement after the vote, a Lime spokeswoman said “it is essential that (the city) allow our fleet to grow to meet demand.”
▪ Allow the city to start charging scooter companies a fee, which council members say is justified because the companies are using public infrastructure — roads and sidewalks — as the basis of their business model. It’s not clear exactly how much the per-scooter fee would be, however. The city is exploring “dynamic” pricing, which could lower the fee if a scooter company hits certain benchmarks, such as parking its scooters responsibly or encouraging its riders to follow safety rules, for example.
Up until now, Charlotte has been alone among large North Carolina cities in charging the companies nothing. Greensboro charges the companies $50 per scooter, while Durham charges $100. In Raleigh, Bird has been fighting a $300 annual per-scooter fee by charging its riders $2 per trip and encouraging them to email local leaders and lobby for a fee reduction.
A requirement that the companies put 20 percent of their vehicles in low-income neighborhoods every day was removed. The city will instead try to work with the companies to put more scooters near transit and bus stops. And a provision to bar scooters from being on streets with speed limits over 35 mph was also removed from the final ordinance. Some council members and advocates said they feared such a limit could eventually be used to push bicycles off those streets.
Some council members weren’t happy with that change.
“I think it’s a safety issue,” said Greg Phipps. “That’s what gives me heartburn.”
The new regulations don’t require scooter riders to wear helmets. Alan Sussman, a Charlotte resident who was severely injured when a car hit him while riding a bicycle three years ago, urged council to consider doing so.
“I survived this accident because I was wearing a proper helmet,” he said. Of today’s scooter riders, Sussman noted, “Rarely do I ever see a helmet being worn.”
The state legislature in Raleigh could still adopt uniform rules governing how cities can and can’t regulate scooters, but they have not done so yet. Three years ago, the state quashed Charlotte’s local regulations on Uber and Lyft, instead imposing a less stringent set of rules about background checks, licensing requirements and other aspects of ride-hailing technology.
A draft bill that NC Insider reported will be introduced this session would allow scooters on all roads with speed limits under 35 mph, sidewalks and bicycle trails. The bill would also ensure scooters are not classified as motor vehicles that have to register with the DMV, but would allow cities to pass local regulations and require the companies to obtain licenses to operate.
Winston-Salem and Asheville have banned the scooters from their streets at least until regulations are sorted out.
Monday night, some council members said it was time to move forward with regulations, even if they’re imperfect.
“If we kick the can on this again,” said Larken Egleston, “we’ll be kicking that can at least a month out.”
“I, for one, am tired of continuing to perpetuate this issue with no resolution,” he said.
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.
This piece originally appeared in The Charlotte Observer.