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Roanoke prepares for influx of dockless electric scooters this spring

Roanoke prepares for influx of dockless electric scooters this spring

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The scooters are coming.

Those dockless electric scooters seen parked on sidewalks and humming along in traffic in big cities are expected to make their debut in Roanoke this spring, according to Roanoke Director of Planning Chris Chittum.

The vehicles have been controversial in some cities, as users have tended to leave them almost anywhere when they’re done with them, sometimes cluttering sidewalks.

Chittum briefed the Roanoke City Council on Monday morning on proposed city regulations intended to keep the chaos to a minimum.

“Probably we should expect mayhem, but if we do have that, it should settle out over a number of months,” Chittum told council members. “I think we’ve got the benefit of some other localities having a less than great experience with them.”

Chittum said a company called Lime, one of the two largest e-scooter providers in the country, approached city officials in January. While scooter companies have developed a renegade reputation for entering new markets in guerilla fashion, according to Chittum, Lime has changed its approach and now only wants to enter markets where the local government has a permitting process.

The General Assembly last month approved a bill allowing localities to regulate e-scooters, and it’s awaiting the governor’s signature to become law.

Chittum said he hopes to have the city’s permit process, associated fee and governing regulations approved and in place in April, which means Lime’s scooters could be on city streets a few weeks later.

Chittum said the city will charge a $5,000 flat permit fee, though some other cities charge many times that, and some include additional charges based on usage.

Roanoke would cap the number of scooters allowed and bar their use on sidewalks, greenways and in parks, he said.

Chittum said the company’s technology aids in requiring compliance with the city’s rules. For example, Lime can deploy “geofencing” around any areas the city doesn’t want to allow the scooters, such as parks. Because the scooters are monitored and controlled via GPS technology, the company can set boundaries within which the scooters motor won’t work or slows down to 4 or 5 mph so, as Chittum put it, “they aren’t fun anymore.”

For regular use their speed is governed to 15 mph, and they feature front and rear brakes and headlights and tail lights.

Unlike the popular Zagster bike rental program in the city, the scooters aren’t stationed in docks, but rather are stationed around the city based on data the company tracks to see where they are most used.

Users must be 18 or older.

The scooter is activated via a smartphone app, and the typical fee is a dollar to start it and 15 cents per minute of use. When a user is done, the scooter is parked for someone else to find via the app and use.

The wheels lock when parked and the scooters are equipped with an alarm and can be located via GPS.

Local contractors retrieve, recharge and redeploy the scooters overnight, Chittum said.

One of the chief complaints about the scooters in other cities has been users leaving them in unwelcome places or blocking sidewalks. Chittum said Lime addresses that issue by requiring users to photograph the scooter parked in an appropriate place and submit the photo when they are done. If they don’t or the scooter isn’t properly parked, the meter on it will continue to run at the expense of the user.

Chittum said Lime has a robust discount for qualified low-income users that makes use almost free, and the city will monitor Lime’s data on where the scooters are being placed to ensure they’re available to citizens across the city.

Councilwoman Michelle Davis was concerned about how users will be educated to use the scooters properly.

Chittum said as part of its permit, Lime will be required to hold rider safety events and build notification of local rules for the scooter use into users interaction with them.

Users are “going to have to work very hard to not know what the rules are,” Chittum said.

Davis and some other council members expressed some reluctance about banning the scooters from greenways because so many people use the paths as transit routes across the city, but no policy has been adopted.

In general, council members seemed enthused about the scooters.

“It does feel like we’re joining some major cities in this movement,” Davis said. They’re already on the streets in Arlington, Alexandria, Norfolk and Washington, D.C.

The Richmond City Council approved a permit process and regulations in January after Lime’s chief competitor, Bird Rides Inc., barged into the market by deploying scooters across the city unannounced. The city confiscated the scooters, only to see Bird deploy more the next day.

Charlottesville also approved a pilot program for the scooters recently, where there are now 200 scooters available for use.

Chittum said in his own experience the scooters are ubiquitous and normalized in San Francisco, where Lime is based. Used for shorter distances than rental bikes and mass transit, they can close gaps between other transit options, he said.

“They’re coming, and they will be visible to say the least,” Chittum said. “They may indeed revolutionize transportation as we know it.”

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