Scootershare finally got the go ahead on Monday as the Seattle City Council voted eight-to-one to approve a pilot program. Transportation Chair Alex Pedersen was the only no vote on the legislation, which permits scooters on streets, bike lanes, and recreational trails, but prohibits riding them on most sidewalks. The primary exception is where the sidewalk functions as an extension of a multi-use trail.

The pilot program allows for up to three providers initially with 500 e-scooters each, but then going up to 2,000 each in the second phase of the pilot–provided they pay the $150 per vehicle fee authorized in the legislation. The City has promised one of the permits to Lime since they are the only bikeshare provider still operating in Seattle and are keen on operating scootershare, too. The other two provider slots are up for grabs, but the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) is seeking one seated scooter operator and one standing scooter operator.

Standing scooters have made up the bulk of the national scootershare market thus far, but SDOT believes having some seated scooters could expand the accessibility of the program and may be safer.

Safety concerns have been among the biggest stumbling blocks delaying the pilot. Many peer cities have had scootershare programs for several years now, and Seattle has debated joining the pack since 2018 (or earlier) and has been weighing pilot program legislation since early 2019. However, Mayor Jenny Durkan was adamant that scooters were risky and dangerous, saying “ask the trauma docs.” Beyond public safety, she worried about the City’s liability in injury lawsuits.

In an effort to curb crashes caused by inexperienced riders and excessive speeds, the pilot program caps the speed on a user’s first ride at 8 miles per hour, and 15 miles per hour thereafter. The speed controls seem like a promising safety innovation–if only we had them for cars, too.

Despite Chair Pedersen’s opposition, Transportation Vice Chair Dan Strauss insisted that the more abstract debate would only get them so far and it was time to start the pilot program to get real results to study. With the winter rain and cold on the horizon, the City and providers were hoping to get some pleasant fall months to introduce scootershare.

Lime is pledging its scooters will hit the streets soon. SDOT won’t start approving the permits until at least three have been submitted by providers, but it’s likely providers won’t dally too long to get their paperwork in order given the limited spots. Scootershare has already turned into a multi-billion dollar industry fed for a–for now–steady stream of venture capital.

Lime stressed the industry’s environmental credentials in its statement following the vote.

“Seattle is taking another major step toward a more sustainable future,” said Jonathan Hopkins, Director of Strategic Development for the Northwest. “It’s now more important than ever for residents to have safe, socially-distant transportation options–like bikes and scooters–that can help reduce car congestion. We applaud the council for its vision and look forward to serving Seattle residents with e-bikes and scooters for many years to come.”

Part of the downside of the volatile bikeshare and scootershare industry is that many operations haven’t lasted much longer than a year, and the equipment has been treated as disposable in some cases, even if they are nearly brand new. Uber reportedly scrapped 20,000 of its Jump bikes after selling its operation to Lime earlier this year, in an apparent act of sabotage and effort to protect proprietary technology.

If the industry is just dabbling rather than building a lasting operation, it’s hard to weigh the climate benefits as too significant. As with electric cars, the benefits have to outweigh the embodied carbon of the vehicles and any climate cost of the electricity.

That said, some promising news is that more than a quarter of scootershare trips have replaced car trips according to SDOT research, which suggests the potential to reduce emissions and traffic congestion really is there. So let’s get scooting.

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Doug Trumm is The Urbanist's Executive Director. An Urbanist writer since 2015, he dreams of pedestrianizing streets, blanketing the city in bus lanes, and unleashing a mass timber building spree to end the affordable housing shortage and avert our coming climate catastrophe. He graduated from the Evans School of Public Policy and Governance at the University of Washington. He lives in East Fremont and loves to explore the city on his bike.

3 COMMENTS

  1. “As with electric cars, the benefits have to outweigh the embodied carbon of the vehicles and any climate cost of the electricity.”

    Presuming an electric car replaces an ICE car, the embodied carbon of the vehicles is a wash. Of course a scooter’s is much less.

    • In reality, the discussion on climate impact of rental scooters vs. cars doesn’t really matter much; the scooter rental rates are so high that it’s almost never worth it, so even if an individual trip results in fewer carbon emissions, there will never be enough trips, at current pricing, to have a measurable impact in the city’s carbon emissions.

      You can’t really use past bikeshare statistics to gauge the scooter market, as people’s willingness to travel at $0.36/min. is much less than at $0.15/min., which most of the bikeshare data is based on (back when bikeshare was much cheaper).

      For instance, the per-minute rental rate is almost exactly the same with a scooter as with a Gig carshare car. But, with cars traveling at higher speeds than scooters, they get you from point A to point B with fewer minutes, thereby resulting in the car actually costing fewer dollars (which is insane). When comparing with Uber/and Lyft’s car services, the cost per mile is almost identical with the scooters, assuming a reasonable riding speed and allowance for red lights.

      Of course, there are some special cases where scooters may compare more favorably. For instance, if you’re just traveling a few blocks downtown, the scooter might beat the Uber car on travel time, by avoiding the wait time, and might compare favorably on price too, since the minimum fare is lower. But, when a trip is that short, it’s usually short enough to walk. So, the question becomes why pay $3 for a scooter to go 4 blocks downtown, when you can just walk it for free. Walking might not be faster, but for 4 blocks, it’s fast enough, and it’s certainly safer.

      That said, the high cost of scooter travel isn’t really related to scooter per say, but the overhead of the free-floating rental system. You can buy your own e-scooter for a few hundred dollars, a cost that will easily pay for itself within a few weeks or months of regular use. Using your own scooter is not only much more cost-effectively, it’s probably better for the planet too, since personal scooters don’t get thrown out and replaced every couple of months, nor do they require armies of gig workers driving around in cars to retrieve, charge, and rebalance them.

      • Just as a small sidenote on your Gig car share comparison. Given that Gig is newer, it may be the case that their initial pricing is not actually enough to cover operating costs. This does not affect the short term market, but for discussion of the long-term, I have a suspicion the comparison with Gig will have to be updated.

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