Call it growing pains. A learning curve. The awkward adolescent stage.
More than six months after electric scooters suddenly surfaced on Atlanta’s streets and sidewalks, the City Council is expected to take up legislation Monday to regulate the divisive dockless devices.
The rules represent initial steps, though, with lingering questions around enforcement, all but ensuring the fast-spreading vehicles won’t disappear from the cityscape any time soon as residents continue debating if they’re a blessing or a curse.
The planned regulations would require scooter companies to apply for permits costing $12,000 a year for 500 scooters and $50 for every additional scooter. When parked, scooters must be upright and allow five-foot-wide corridors on sidewalks for pedestrians. When in motion, they must stick to streets with motors designed not to exceed 15 miles an hour.
Scooter companies can be fined up to $1,000 a day for violations. But while the legislation allows the city to curb the number of scooters, it’s not setting any initial limits. If a rider drives on the sidewalk, the legislation doesn’t specify the fine. Helmets? Recommended but not mandatory.
The still-in-the-works oversight reflects the conflicted feelings of many Atlantans who see the fun side of scooters and their potential to ease traffic gridlock, but fear clutter and being overrun.
“There’s an upside and a downside,” said Robb Lejuwaan, who lives in Lake Claire and visited the Beltline in east Atlanta recently to ride scooters with his fiancé. “Today we’re gonna ride them, it’s gonna be an upside. When you’re walking and people brush by you and almost hit you, it’s a downside.”
Other cities have taken a more draconian approach. After electric scooters popped up in some communities near Boston, city leaders in Somerville and Cambridge removed them from streets. Boston’s mayor reportedly warned they’d be dropped off at the tow yard if they came closer. Seattle and Birmingham also banned them from operating in the absence of regulations.
Closer to home, Athens-Clarke County passed a law in late 2018 banning scooters at least temporarily, while the University of Georgia had impounded 1,208 Bird scooters as of Thursday, demanding $800,000 in fees. Decatur adopted legislation in December that would heavily regulate scooters, only allowing 50 per company.
Scooter companies Bird and Lime arrived in Atlanta early last summer and quickly sprouted across intown Atlanta, popping up in neighborhoods including midtown, downtown, Buckhead, and some in DeKalb County. The scooter companies did not share numbers, but they are already in the thousands.
Lime said it has had more than 100,000 users and hundreds of thousands of rides in Atlanta. Bird, the biggest player here, said in November that Atlanta was its No. 2 city for users behind only San Diego. Two well-known companies entered the fray in December: Uber and Lyft, each with their own electric scooters.
There already has been some backlash. Inman Park resident Brandon Cody said he was recently walking on the Beltline – where scooters would be allowed under the new regulations – when he saw a bicyclist stop, pick up a Lime scooter and “chuck it into the brush” with two hands.
“I could not believe that,” said Cody, who prefers bikes but also likes scooters. “This wasn’t a toy that was just placed on the road for our enjoyment. It’s a means of convenient transport and affordable transport for a lot of others.”
Authorities – and riders – are still trying to figure out the safety risk. Five major Atlanta hospitals said they don’t formally track how many scooter-related injuries come into their emergency rooms. But Grady Memorial Hospital downtown probably sees 20 to 30 cases a month, including serious head injuries, estimated Hany Atallah, chief of emergency medicine.
In Buckhead, Piedmont Atlanta Hospital sees about 40 scooter injuries a month, ranging from facial lacerations to broken wrists and shoulder separations, estimated Keith Haviland, an emergency room doctor. That’s more than come into his ER for bicycle accidents but much fewer than for car crashes, which can reach 20 a day, he said.
City council member Marci Collier Overstreet is among several planning to vote in favor of Monday’s proposed regulations, but sees it as just a first step. She thinks the council should follow up with stricter regulations for “caging those Birds up” and sufficiently penalizing companies for errantly parked scooters.
“We have to get the permitting process rolling. I feel that we are behind on the permitting,” Overstreet said. “Doing nothing is not an option.”
The legislation does not directly outline how the Department of Public Works will ensure riders and companies are following the new rules, nor does it spell out the role of the Atlanta Police Department. It’s unclear if the city will hire new staff to oversee scooter parking or patrol the city to check for violations.
“Enforcement will be a challenge based on the resources of the agencies that are tasked with enforcing it,” said city council member Amir Farokhi.
Still, in Atlanta, “we didn’t rush to judgement and round them off the streets. That would’ve been the wrong thing to do,” added Farokhi, who plans to vote yes on Monday.
A spokesman for the city said the legislation could still change before Monday’s final vote.
Bird and Lime require riders to take photos after parking their scooter to encourage best practices. Matthew Perry, Lime’s general manager in Atlanta, said his company has several employees that can respond quickly to problems. Ensuring scooters are properly parked is “something that I think about a lot and something I think all companies can improve on,” he added.
The new legislation aims to make life safer for pedestrians by pushing scooters to the streets, per state law governing motorized vehicles, but riders could be courting trouble on Atlanta’s busy roads.
Monday’s ordinance would require scooter companies be insured against potential claims and maintain liability limits of no less than $1 million per occurrence for bodily injury, personal injury and property damage.
The scooter companies attempt to protect themselves from liability by making users sign agreements before hopping on a scooter. Liability statements for both Bird and Lime state that riders assume responsibility for dangers and injuries.
Bird declined to be interviewed for this story, but in a written statement said that its electric scooters “are helping reduce the number of cars on the road by consistently trading short car trips for our affordable, environmentally friendly option.”
Kari Watkins, a transit expert and Georgia Tech professor, said scooters could become a mainstream transit option, and that more Atlantans might ride MARTA if they have an efficient way to travel from train stations to their final destinations. Scooter companies currently charge $1 a ride, plus 15 cents each minute.
“Just because of the distances we’re often going in Atlanta, it’s a little more of a car-centric city. Things are not as walkable as they are in other cities,” she said. “Scooters have taken off more here than they are in other places because walking is harder here.”
The key, she said, will be building infrastructure such as bike lanes to get the scooters off the sidewalks and into the streets as a safe, accepted form of transportation.
“Until you start having infrastructure that serves them a little bit better, you’re not going to see huge numbers of people doing it,” she added.