More than a year after Mayor Jenny Durkan said Seattle would explore an electric scooter-share pilot, the city is finally (maybe) ready to get e-scooters on the streets.
Durkan did not like the idea of e-scooters—a last-mile transportation solution that started over two years ago—until last May, when she agreed to a pilot program. But before the pilot program could roll out, the city would have to explore what it would look like in the first place, despite the fact that e-scooters have successfully existed in places like Portland and Tacoma since 2018. In other words, Seattle decided it needed to reinvent the wheel.
Suffice it to say, getting e-scooters on our streets has been a long, drawn out process. Scooter enthusiasts may finally find some resolution tomorrow, but only if Seattle City Council Transportation and Utilities Chair Alex Pedersen can get over his hesitation around the mobility option.
E-scooters were popular in the pre-pandemic times as an easy, affordable way to travel from point A to point B. They also filled in gaps between mobility options, such as the 10 blocks it can take to get to your local light rail stations.
When COVID-19 swept through the globe, e-scooters actually gained popularity, said Maurice Henderson, the government partnerships director for e-scooter pioneer Bird.
According to Bird’s data, e-scooter trip times have doubled during the pandemic. One of out every three riders has been new to the system, and there has been a 93% retention rate among those new riders, Henderson added. Portland has reported similar gains in ridership during the pandemic.
"The entire conversation around micromobility has changed in recent years," Henderson said. COVID-19 has played a large part in that due to "sharp declines in transit ridership and the need for people to get out and have a mobility option and an activity that is naturally socially distant."
Major cities initially resisted the new technology, but there's been a recent shift among cities that have "been on the fence" about e-scooters, Henderson said. New York City announced at the end of June that it would adopt an e-scooter program. The United Kingdom is getting one as well. "Seattle is following in those footsteps," Henderson said.
It's been a long road. The original projection for getting e-scooters in Seattle was "spring 2020." While it might make sense to blame COVID-19 complications here, SDOT spokespeople said the environmental review process caused the delay. Though SDOT did not recommend an environmental review of the e-scooter program, former Washington State Department of Transportation Secretary Douglas MacDonald appealed that decision. The review started last December and was only resolved at the end of May, which tied up the e-scooter proposal by nearly six months.
According to court documents, MacDonald complained "generally that the proposal’s negative environmental impacts were not adequately analyzed, but failed to cite any facts or evidence in the record demonstrating the probability that the proposal will cause any significant environmental impacts."
MacDonald "simply raised a series of issues and concerns, with the proposal, without introducing any evidence that the proposal would have any probable significant impacts," the court determined. MacDonald did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but I will update this post if I hear back.
The legislation the Seattle City Council will begin to discuss in Wednesday's transportation and utilities committee meeting would establish a year-long pilot program for up to four e-scooter companies. Around July 20th, the Seattle Department of Transportation approached e-scooter companies such as Bird and Lime about pursuing the program.
Committee chair Pedersen and co-chair Councilmember Dan Strauss have chosen their words carefully when discussing the future legislation.
Pedersen said Durkan proposed the legislation, and he was "particularly interested in how the executive proposes to mitigate the safety and liability concerns with electric scooters." He also hinted that cost could dissuade him from moving on the bill. "It's vital we reserve capital dollars," he said. Luckily, the program won't cost the city any money since scooter companies will need to pay to participate.
Strauss seemed hesitant but optimistic.
"I still have many concerns about how scooters work," Strauss said this week, but he pointed out that the "academic conversation" around e-scooters has been going on for "18 months, and we need to try with this pilot before the rain and darkness comes."
If the conversation goes well tomorrow, Seattle could be close to seeing 7,000 e-scooters on the streets this summer. The city would join the ranks of nearby ‘burbs such as Bothell, Everett, and most recently White Center, all of which have launched e-scooter programs. White Center's pilot, proposed by King County Councilmember Joe McDermott, was originally scheduled to start last fall before it was shelved for an indiscriminate amount of time to "consult" with community groups.
However, tomorrow will only be the first time the council hears this legislation. If council members fail to vote the proposal out of committee tomorrow, then they’ll have to pick up the conversation when the council resumes meetings after Labor Day. Postponing the discussion until then would likely delay the e-scooter pilot until at least mid-September, so it’s fate rests in Pedersen's hands.