North Fulton prepares for e-scooters, but do they need to?

A man rides a Bird Scooter on Georgia Tech's campus in Atlanta.

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

A man rides a Bird Scooter on Georgia Tech's campus in Atlanta.

What used to be considered a toy for children is now a policy concern for grown-ups.

A year and a half after rentable electric scooters flooded Midtown sidewalks and forced Atlanta politicians to create new regulations, elected officials in two northern Fulton County cities are wondering if they're ready to do the same.

Roswell City Council members earlier this week tasked city staff with keeping an eye on how others around the country are handling the devices in case the scooters flock to town. Alpharetta spokesman James Drinkard said they are even further along, with a draft of a 12-month ban currently being reviewed by the city attorney.

READ | How safe is that e-scooter? Atlanta hospitals asked to tally injuries

Many cities are now figuring out what's best for them after a pair of bills set to regulate e-scooters across the state was parked during this legislative session so lawmakers could negotiate more with the scooter companies.

But the cities of Marietta and Woodstock have already banned the battery-powered scooters, citing injuries and deaths in other cities.

Representatives of the scooter rental companies are confused why cities aren’t happy for a private business to help solve transportation and parking issues while also reducing planet-harming emissions from motor vehicles.

“I don’t think it makes sense to drive 4,000-pound, fossil-fuel-burning vehicles less than a mile,” said Nima Daivari, a Georgia spokesman for e-scooter company Lime.

 Pedestrians walk past Lime and Bird scooters that are parked on the sidewalk of Peachtree Street in Midtown on Jan. 4, 2019. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

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And considering there are basically no scooters in any of these cities and most companies said they have no plans to expand into the northern suburbs, why all the preemptive action and worry?

“This is an important topic for local governments because with changing technologies, changes are literally arriving on the streets,” said Eric Zeemering, an associate professor of public administration and policy at the University of Georgia.

He said he plans to have his students next semester study e-scooter policies around the country to determine how well they have worked.

Everything from the business model of the scooter companies to the simple question of who is liable if a pothole causes a crash makes these services difficult for local governments to handle, raising issues of public safety and liability.

READ | AJC Deja News: Scooters invade downtown Atlanta (1916)

Traditionally, if someone wanted to open something like an ice cream shop in a vacant store, that entrepreneur would apply for a permit and then appear before some public committee to make their case of why they should be able to open a physical business in that property.

Now, scooters could show up one day on sidewalks and residents without a license or helmet could be zipping down public roads minutes later.

Drinkard said that Alpharetta’s plan is to slow down the process by banning the scooters for 12 months like Athens-Clarke County did in late 2018 after police in the college town impounded more than 1,200 Bird scooters.

But Drinkard said Alpharetta might rev up its action after hearing that Georgia's largest hospital, Grady Memorial, estimates it receives 80 to 100 scooter-related injuries a month that range from head injuries to broken limbs. People are getting hurt across the country; the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is studying scooter injuries in Austin, Texas.

Lime scooters sit parked on the sidewalk on Peachtree Street in Midtown on Jan. 4, 2019. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

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“Since the draft was provided to the city attorney, an increasing amount of data from around the country seems to indicate significant safety concerns related to the devices,” Drinkard said. “That information combined with the experiences of communities where the devices are in use may lead the city to take a stronger stance.”

Sandy Springs spokeswoman Sharon Kraun said they have seen scooters in the city but haven’t gotten any complaints and so they are just keeping an eye on the matter.

Speaking of Sandy Springs regulations | Police won't respond? Sandy Springs law shows tension with alarm groups

For Johns Creek, the city’s interim community development director Kimberly Greer said they know there are pros and cons to the scooters and are looking to what Roswell and others are doing. Milton spokeswoman Shannon Ferguson said for that city scooters are not a topic of discussion right now.

The perception of these companies is that they invade cities without the blessing of elected officials, getting residents attached to their service before the city has reviewed their business plan. And that was what happened in the city of Atlanta with industry leaders Bird and Lime.

"These scooters appeared one day and took the city by storm," Atlanta Councilman Michael Julian Bond has previously said.

Bird did not respond to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s request for comment. A Lime spokesman said swarming Atlanta without talking to the city first was an anomaly and, in part, a business decision.

Students walk around Bird scooters near the bicycle rack at Georgia Tech's campus in Atlanta.

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

icon to expand image

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

“We were trying to work to bring our e-bikes to Atlanta … when Bird launched, and there’s only so long we can let them operate without repercussions,” said Daivari with Lime. He added: “That is not our preferred method of entering a market.”

BACKGROUND | Atlanta City Council could approve electric scooter regulations Monday

As part of the law Atlanta wrote to regulate e-scooter companies, Lime currently has the maximum 2,000 scooters in Atlanta. Any company wanting to operate more than 500 scooters pays a flat $12,000 per year and then $50 for every scooter after that.

The scooters have been billed as a solution to the last-mile problem, which is that large transit systems get people most of the way home but don’t reach deep into most neighborhoods. For a spread out like rural Milton, scooters make less sense.

Daivari said Lime is not planning to expand into north Fulton.

He said he knows governments have to balance everyone’s needs, but Daivari said it’s frustrating to see cities outright ban the services.

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Woodstock Councilman Colin Ake said at the time the city banned scooters that they are "leading to injuries and deaths, including people from Woodstock."

Chris Conti, the Woodstock parks and recreation advisory board chairman, died in March after an accident involving an e-scooter in San Diego.

Roswell's city staff mentioned Conti's death in the presentation Wednesday to council members. Roswell staff has recommended banning the devices, but Sean Groer and the majority of other Roswell City Council members want staff to find another way.

Groer, the councilman who chairs the transportation committee, said, “I think that this is a chance for us to potentially be creative and innovative.”

During the meeting, Groer checked two e-scooter apps on his phone and said the city has time to do something creative considering there were no Lime scooters in the city and only one Bird scooter at Ga. 92 and Crabapple Road.

How e-scooters work

With the app downloaded to a smartphone and credit card attached to an account, users search a map to find a nearby e-scooter.

Once the rider locates the e-scooter in real life, they scan the bar code on the scooter to link it to their account.

Upon arrival, riders end the trip and the attached credit card will be charged for the amount of time the scooter was rented.

Some apps require a photo be taken at the end to show the scooter has been properly parked — upright and not blocking a sidewalk — which of course doesn’t stop it being knocked down a second later.