City Council approves pilot program for electric scooter operation in Charlottesville

Scooters could begin operating in the streets before the end of November

scoooters

 Bird, an electric scooter company, is interested in doing business in Charlottesville. 

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons | Cavalier Daily

The Charlottesville City Council unanimously approved a pilot program at its meeting Monday for the operation of electric scooters and bicycles in the City. The program is expected to begin Nov. 13 — allowing city staff to begin processing applications from interested companies — and will last until July 2019. 

Interested companies are required to submit a permit application to participate in the pilot program along with a $500 one time application fee, regardless of fleet size. The maximum number of electric scooters or bicycles will be capped at 200 among all permittees, with an opportunity to increase fleet size by 25 percent, based on performance metrics and other feedback. 

The approved pilot program also stipulates that the maximum speed of the devices must be 15 mph, monthly data reports regarding device usage and performance be compiled by participating companies for city review and outreach to low-income communities be conducted to offer reduced cost payment plans for device usage. 

The scooters typically cost $1 to unlock from a docking station using an app and then charge 20 cents per minute for usage. It is also estimated that the City will receive $1 a day per device in revenue from daily device fees. 

Jason Ness, a business development manager with the City’s office of economic development, outlined the extent of the of the pilot program for the Council Monday and weighed the pros and cons of allowing the scooters to take to the streets of Charlottesville. Ness said city staff has been working with other localities around the country — which already have similar electric scooter programs in operation — for months in preparation for their arrival in the city. 

“It’s a relatively new type of technology that localities around the country and some cities internationally have been struggling to deal with,” Ness said. “We have been working on this for several months … realizing it’s going to come to Charlottesville one way or another.” 

The approval of the pilot program comes after the City received an application for a business license this past August requesting permission for the operation of electric foot scooters in Charlottesville. 

Bird, an electric scooter company, has expressed interest in implementing its electric scooter model in Charlottesville. In an email to The Cavalier Daily last month, a Bird spokesperson said conversations between city staff, as well as University administration, have already been taking place regarding the company’s implementation of the scooters. 

Bird scooters currently operate in three other Virginia cities — Arlington, Virginia Beach and Richmond — and on 100 college campuses across the country.

Particularly during their their first year of business, there was little official regulation surrounding electric scooter share companies. The company operated with self-imposed restrictions such as forbidding the scooters to be driven on sidewalks and requiring riders to have a valid driver’s license. 

In August, Bird’s unannounced presence in Richmond was met with frustration. The same day Bird launched in Richmond, city officials announced that the Department of Public Works would be removing the scooters, effective immediately. In September, Richmond’s mayor, Levar Stoney, announced that legislation would be presented to City Council that would allow for electric, dockless scooters to operate in the city. 

Ness said many localities across the country have struggled with the implementation of such scooters due to ambiguity regarding the legal classification of the devices. Under Virginia state law, the scooters and similar devices are not classified as vehicles but are subject to the same regulations which apply to bicycles. 

“The challenges that localities are facing mainly has to do with they’re new [so] depending on the state or locality, it’s how they are defined,” Ness said. “They could be a vehicle, they could be a toy scooter, they could be similar to a bicycle, and it’s all about the state code and local ordinance.” 

Ness added that the sudden influx of the scooters in some localities across the country has caused great distress for local governments as some companies have bypassed cooperation with municipalities and implemented the scooters anyway. 

“It’s been a drain on staff resources in some localities,” Ness said. “Another reason is because of how the companies come into localites. It started as they just show up overnight literally and sometimes figuratively. Now the companies realized that's not necessarily the best way to do business, they've hired consultants and lobbyists but also government affairs staff to work with localities.”

“In some cases, those conversations come to a standstill [as] the private sector isn't happy with the speed at which the public sector moves, [and] they come into the locality anyway — we've been lucky enough in Charlottesville not to experience that yet,” Ness added. 

In Charlottesville, Ness said City staff plans to cooperate with any companies interested in implementing any electric scooter program. More specifically, Ness said the City would require scooters to be corralled into special docking stations in unspecified locations between the Downtown Mall and the Corner to allow for Americans with Disabilities Act access and maintain uncluttered sidewalks. 

Ness said many companies are also developing software to prevent scooters from entering certain predefined areas in municipalities by slowing them down to an unusable speed and not allowing users to end their trip through the app. According to Ness, the City of Charlottesville would reserve the right to establish these “no-go zones,” citing the Downtown Mall as an example of such an area where bicycles are currently prohibited. 

However, Ness said the introduction of such scooter programs could enhance the City’s transportation network and provide a dedicated source of revenue for funding bicycle and pedestrian improvements in the area through daily device and permit application fees. 

He added that the need to recharge the scooter batteries at night could provide new employment opportunities in the area, paying $5 to $25 per device, depending on the level of charge available. It is estimated that $500,000 of new income could be generated in the area as a result of the pilot program. 

In response to a question from Mayor Nikuyah Walker about the exact locations where scooters may be docked along West Main Street, Ness said no specific locations between the Downtown Mall and the Corner have been identified, but added that the decisions would ultimately rest under the City’s purview. 

Amanda Poncy, bicycle and pedestrian coordinator for the City, said the scooters can typically travel as far as 15 miles if fully charged and operating on a flat surface, but added that Charlottesville’s variability in elevation would likely reduce this standard at least somewhat. 

Poncy added that Virginia state code allows localities to regulate where bicycles can be operated — as the electric scooters are largely subject to the same guidelines — as long as conspicuous signage clearly demarcates where they are prohibited. In Charlottesville, bicycles are only explicitly prohibited on the Downtown Mall, meaning they could potentially be rode on sidewalks with impunity. 

Electric scooters are currently not permitted to operate on sidewalks in Virginia. However, Ness said there still may be some ambiguity about the usage of the scooters on sidewalks and other walking areas.

“The City obviously has control over its streets and sidewalks,” Ness said. “Entering into this agreement kind of turns that paradigm on its head because in effect, they [companies] are asking you through this regulation for your permission to use your bike lane, and so I think implicitly in that, as part of the regulations, on your sidewalks.” 

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