Mayor Jenny Durkan announced Wednesday night that she would support a qualified rollout of e-scooters in Seattle. E-scooters are the high-tech, venture capital–backed cousins of Razor scooters. They’ve got an electric motor that can max out at around 20 mph, and they’ve become ubiquitous in American cities. (Portland’s been awash in the motorized transportation option since 2018.) Yesterday, City Hall got a little taste of Seattle’s scooter future, as council members and staffers tested out Lime and Bird scooters before an information session on Portland’s scooter pilot program. But rest assured we won’t be getting them next week; first comes planning, then our own pilot period.
So here’s what we know about the impending program, its potential pitfalls, and civic benefits.
1. Previously, Durkan had been opposed to the scooters. It’s about injuries, she told an audience at the end of last year. “I think they can be fun for people, but for us to put them in the right of way, knowing that people are going to get hurt, I don’t think that’s responsible.”
What changed? Pressure has been building on the state and city level to expand Seattle’s transit options. A bill passed into law at the end of April loosened restrictions on e-scooters. And public safety studies from Austin, Portland, and other cities are giving Seattle the tools it needs to provide an informed rollout.
2. Supporters think scooters will get more Seattleites out of cars, and build momentum for pedestrian and bike infrastructure. Seattle has a “chicken-and-egg problem,” said Paul White of Bird, a San Francisco–based e-scooter company, at yesterday’s meeting. To get more people riding bikes and scooters, the city needs more safety infrastructure. But to build those, Seattleites need to feel that bike lanes aren’t just for the lycra-painted among us.
An emphasis on investing in this new transportation infrastructure could positively impact others. “We have historically disinvested in communities of color, some of which don’t even have sidewalks,” city council member Teresa Mosqueda told me. “[A scooter program] will underscore the urgency of creating bike infrastructure. It will encourage people who just want to walk with strollers or in wheelchairs.”
3. But are they safe? Portland found that the top two complaints about scooters were related to pedestrian safety: lack of helmet usage and sidewalk riding. During its trial period, the city found that there were 176 scooter-related ER visits, roughly 5 percent of all traffic-related injuries during that time. The vast majority of those injuries were single-rider accidents. Only two pedestrians were taken to the hospital after being hit by scooters.
In all studies, most riders who visited the ER weren’t wearing helmets. (Helmets are technically required both in Portland and Seattle.) Brendan Haggerty of the Multnomah County Health Department said that it seemed like the rate of injury was slightly higher on scooters than bikes, but that there’s some evidence that injuries tail off over time.
Mosqueda pointed at other cities, like Spokane, that have rolled out training programs for new riders. Some have also limited the speed of scooters. And, she says, if the city is studying injury rates, cars need to be on the table as well.
4. There are equity issues at stake too. Mosqueda pointed out that people of color might be more likely to get pulled over for riding without helmets. She also wants to make sure that scooters are distributed equitably across the city, referencing Uber’s Jump Bike rollout that fined riders who took the bikes into most of the South End.
Access-advocacy groups like Rooted in Rights are most concerned about poorly parked scooters and bikes blocking sidewalks and curb ramps, affecting people with visual impairments and in wheelchairs. “The disabled community is being asked to bear the weight” of floating shares, said Roots in Rights program director Anna Zivarts; she would like to see geofencing and ticketing used to keep sidewalks clear, as in Portland.
5. Again, the city is counting on a steady, thoughtful rollout. Much like Portland’s four-month rollout, the city will develop a framework for a pilot program over the next several months before diving in, ensuring that scooter companies are responsible partners with the city.
6. The price, it seems, is right: Similar to Lime’s bike share rates, scooters may cost around $1 to start, and 20 cents per minute. Bird scooters were $1 to start and 15 cents a minute in Portland last year, however, both companies have increased rates slightly in recent months. Bird prices also vary from city to city.
7. E-scooters obviously need to re-up on the e at some point, so how do they get recharged? Lime calls them juicers, Bird calls them birdwatchers—either way, the idea is the same: charging scooters is another gig job, like driving for Uber or clipping bonsai on TaskRabbit. The companies’ apps allow people to charge scooters overnight for a small payment, say $4. Lime representative Jonathan Hopkins says that juicing is supposed to be a way to earn side cash—but that’s also how Uber, whose drivers staged a massive strike this week, billed itself originally.