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Love them or hate them, electric scooters have infiltrated the Washington region. Seven scooter companies are active in Arlington County, and five are active in Washington, D.C. Now, Montgomery County is joining the region with its first electric scooter pilot program.
Local governments are faced with a number of challenges when it comes to regulating this new form of transportation, from working with scooter providers to enforcing parking and handling safety issues (like when a Skip electric scooter caught on fire in the District).
We sit down with transportation officials from Arlington and Montgomery County to learn how they’re handling electric scooters.
Produced by Cydney Grannan
KOJO NNAMDIYou're tuned in to The Kojo Nnamdi Show on WAMU 88.5. Welcome. Later in the broadcast we'll talk about the D.C. Council's vote to relocate Banneker High School to the site of the old Shaw Junior High School.
KOJO NNAMDIIf you spend the day in D.C. you're likely to see people zipping around on electric scooters, but how to regulate this new and very popular mode of transportation? Local jurisdictions are discussing what rules might keep riders and others safe. Joining me to talk about these scooters is Sande Brecher. She is the Chief of Commuter Services for the Montgomery County Department of Transportation. Sande Brecher, thank you for joining us.
SANDE BRECHERThank you for having me.
NNAMDIAnd Jim Larsen is the Commuter Services Bureau Chief for Arlington County. Jim Larsen, thank you for joining us.
JIM LARSENThank you very much.
NNAMDISande, Montgomery County launched its electric scooter pilot program this past Saturday. Why did the county decide to launch this program?
BRECHERIn Montgomery County, we're trying to change the transportation culture. We've been a very auto centric county through history. But during the recent years we're trying to change that and make for more alternatives to the private automobile. This is one component of a number of efforts in that regard. This provides more options for people especially for shorter trips and we see it as an important component for first mile last mile connections to transit. And that can be first mile or two connections to transit. So it's part of the effort to address traffic congestion, air quality, climate change, sustainability. Fits with all of those goals.
NNAMDIMontgomery County kicked off the pilot program with two free training sessions. What was covered and did you get a lot of participation?
BRECHERWe were pleased at the turnout actually, because we had just signed the MOUs that we have with the three companies that are participating in our demonstration project. And so we were limited in time as to the ability to get the world about those training sessions. But we had several dozen people come. We had one on the east side of the county in Silver Spring and one on the west side in Rockville. And people were very pleased to have the opportunity to try out these scooters and we had e-bikes. To try out the scooters in a safe controlled environment before they ride them out on the streets.
NNAMDIAnd you're going to be doing this for another six months or so, right?
BRECHERYes. We have a six month pilot possibly extending it for an additional six months. And we are requiring the companies as part of the MOU, the memorandum of understanding I mentioned, we're requiring them to conduct monthly training sessions of that nature. So people can go to our website to see when the next ones are scheduled.
NNAMDIAs electric scooters and dockless bikes have become more and more prevalent jurisdictions are meeting to discuss the challenges they're facing and to talk solutions. Regional cooperation, what are the goals and what does this collaboration look like?
BRECHERFirst I want to say that we've been collaborating regionally as Jim will attest and many of our other partners in the region for quite some time. It actually began with regard to these types of efforts with the bike share program. So we have a long history of collaboration with each other going back about six or seven years just with regard to bikes, not to say we don't collaborate on many other things.
BRECHERWe have regular conference calls, regular meetings to discuss what we're dealing with with the various companies that are providing these kinds of services. What kinds of regulations we think are appropriate. What kind of rider behavior we're seeing and what kinds of parking behavior. That's a big issue. So we're ongoing -- it's an ongoing process. We're all in a learning curve here. And so we're all trying to learn from each other as well as from our direct experiences.
NNAMDIJim Larsen is the Commuter Services Bureau Chief for Arlington County. Jim, how is it going from your perspective? What are some sticking points in developing regulations across jurisdictions?
LARSENWell, one of the sticking points is that each of our jurisdictions has different rules, regulations, and laws. So when you're trying to look at the District of Columbia coming over to Arlington, which is how it got started or the City of Alexandria, you have to try to seek cooperation within your own ordinances. So what's happening to us is we're tracking everything through the pilot that's still underway to see what those issues are and to see if we can work -- I'll give you an example. We set it at 10 miles an hour and we were concerned about the sidewalk. Alexandria city set it at 15. So that's an example of the kinds of things we're working forward to try to correct.
NNAMDIThere are now seven different e-scooter companies operating in Arlington. When did the first company show up and what was the county's response?
LARSENThat's a great question. They showed up -- I was at a Roslyn bid meeting and Bird Scooter was there and informed me they would be dropping their scooters that weekend. So we got essentially no notice. And so I quickly ran back to the office and had a discussion with our county manager and leadership that we need to get a pilot established. Something that we can demonstrate, because we had no ability to stop them from coming. So the County Board in its wisdom last September approved a pilot starting in October.
NNAMDIHow are people using electric scooters in Arlington County? Do you know which other types of transportation these e-scooters might be replacing?
LARSENYes. We had a recent study done by a grad class at tech and it was a small area. One of the questions we asked them was, "If you didn't take the scooter today, what would you have taken?" Thirty-nine percent said they would have taken a Uber or Lyft. I think 19 percent said they would have walked. And then there's a whole study on that whole thing. We're just getting a handle on that right now.
NNAMDIHere now is Anne in Washington D.C. Anne, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ANNEHi, there. I'm a neuro surgical nurse and I have just been outraged at the ubiquitous nature of these scooters without requiring helmets. It's really a setup. It's a setup for the drivers that are going to hit these kids. It's a setup for the kids. And a side issue is they should never ever be allowed on the bike trails. That's just going to create more accidents on the bike trail. So I really have a problem with these scooters and where I see them. I drive into Georgetown at 5:00 in the morning, pouring down rain and there's somebody on the road. There's not even a shoulder. There's no helmet. It's a really really really big problem. And I'm reading. The research is already coming out that there's many more ER visits related to these scooters.
NNAMDIOkay. There are two issues that I'd like to hear responses to. Sande Brecher, I'll start with you. She mentioned these kids and we are used to kids being on scooters, but there is an age requirement here, isn't there?
BRECHERRight. We are requiring and the companies also are requiring that these riders be 18 years old. And in Montgomery County we are requiring the providers, these companies to have a driver's license that is scanned. A couple of the companies had already been doing that, but we're requiring that of all the companies who are participating in our pilot. So they must have a driver's license. One of the reasons for that is that that's some proof that people who are riding know the rules of the road. That they've been through driver's ed. Now you can argue that that doesn't prove anything. But that doesn't prove anything for driver's either. So that's a higher standard than we apply, for example, to cycling.
BRECHERAs far as the accident issue, I would like to address that. I would point out that automobiles cause many more accidents and deaths and injuries in this country than bicycles and scooters. And what we're trying to do here as I mentioned before in Montgomery County and I think with the other jurisdictions as well, we're trying to change the transportation culture. We want to reduce that death rate. We want to reduce the impacts from private automobile. The longest journey begins with the first step. We know we're not going to get there overnight.
BRECHERBut we do think that it is appropriate for these vehicles to be used in the cycling infrastructure. We are working very hard to increase the amount of protected cycling infrastructure. Again, I'm speaking for Montgomery County, but I know that's true in D.C. and in Arlington as well.
LARSENWell, on the subject of helmets, Virginia law does not require helmets except if you're a 14 1/2 and under. You're required to wear a helmet. So we're a Dylan Law state as some people may know in Virginia. So we have to work on that issue. I will say that the operators are encouraging the use of helmets, but we don't see very many. I have to concur with your listener.
NNAMDIA big concern around e-scooters is also where riders are allowed to use them. They're often described as too fast for the sidewalk, too slow for the roads. In Arlington County, should people ride their scooters on the sidewalks or should they be on the road?
LARSENWell, I wish I had the exact answer for that, but one of the reason the pilot is underway is exactly that. And we have a number of residents who don't want them on the sidewalks. We have others who say, "But what about some of the busier roads where the sidewalks would be the only way for that person to go?" And frankly, we have a group looking at that right now to go to the County Board with some suggestions on how we might address that.
NNAMDISande, what are the rules in Montgomery County?
BRECHERIn Montgomery County, bicycles, peddle bikes are permitted to be on sidewalks, but motorized vehicles of any type other than motorized wheelchairs for ADA purposes are not. So currently the law is that the e-scooters and e-bikes may not be ridden on sidewalks. They must be ridden on the streets. And that's another reason why we feel strongly they should be ridden within the bike paths and within the protected areas where we have cycling infrastructure. But then they can be ridden on the shoulders etcetera.
NNAMDIHere is Ed in McLean, Virginia. Ed, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
EDHi, Kojo. I wanted to ask your guest and you this question. When you drive a car in the Commonwealth of Virginia, it has a safety inspection. The car once a year has to be checked out. I believe in Maryland once a year to know that it's roadworthy and safe. I'm avid scooter user and rider in the District, Virginia. Yet I get on these scooters from Bird, Skip, other companies, and they're not up to par, snuff on whether or not they're safe. I look at some of them. The brakes aren't working too well. The handlebars aren't secure. How is safety being looked at for the rider?
NNAMDIAnd we had a battery catch fire here the other day. How do you look at safety issues?
BRECHERIn our MOU in Montgomery County we do have a provision where they must report to us on all types of mechanical inspections and the results. And provide those reports to us on a monthly basis. We, of course, expect these companies to be good about maintaining their vehicles. It's upsetting when we hear reports like what your listener is indicating that they are not doing that. I would think it is to their interest as well as to everyone else's that these be in good operating order.
NNAMDIAnother issue that comes up, Jim, with these scooters is parking. People can't seem to park their scooters in a way that's not blocking a bus stop or a sidewalk. Is the county doing anything to reinforce proper parking or is that left to the companies?
LARSENIt's an educational process and we do talk to the companies, but a couple of things we've done and I think that Sande is looking at that and others. We've put in something called a corral. It's on the right of way, not on the sidewalk. It's not permanent yet. But ultimately it's to help encourage people to go there, leave them, and pick them up. I just identified seven other places in the county. We have seven now to try to encourage them to stay off the sidewalk. The other issue with that is that you have to have good signage. Let people know where it's going. You're talking about changing their behavior.
NNAMDIHere's Dan in southeast Washington. Dan, your turn.
DANHey, Kojo. It's great to get a chance to talk to you after listening for so many years.
DANSo I'm a recent transplant from Northern Virginia into the District. And I've been riding my own personal bike and Capital bike share everywhere I go since they regulated the speed of the scooters in the District down to 10 miles an hour, because my feeling is when I was riding scooters in D.C. a year ago they were fast enough for the street. And I felt safe driving the scooter in traffic, but since they made them slower I've chosen my bike like 99 out of 100 times because I feel like I can get out with the cars and protect myself compared to being on a scooter. That's my perspective.
NNAMDIAllow me to have Sande and Jim respond to that. How are you looking at the speed limit issue?
BRECHEROur speed limit under the MOU is 15 miles per hour. We are requiring that they have a governor on the scooters for 15 miles per hour. E-bikes are allowed to go faster, 20 miles an hour. I recognize the caller's concern about keeping up with traffic. It's just that we feel that in our pilot at least, we want to maintain a maximum speed that is consistent with people's ability to negotiate along the roads as well. A lot of people -- and this goes back, Kojo, to our training issue as well. A lot of people are not all that good at riding these scooters. They don't have experience a lot of times. This caller may very well be very experienced, but I think for a lot of people the ability to go 20 -- 25 miles an hour in a scooter riding along the road would be iffy to put it mildly.
LARSENVirginia just passed legislation effective July 1 that would allow the scooter to go up to 20 miles an hour. That gives the local jurisdiction, which will be taking under consideration before the end of the year, to limit it to another amount. We have it in our MOA at 10 miles an hour. We did that also to be consistent with the District of Columbia. But to be frank it's so new there's not enough real demonstration about what that speed limit really should be.
NNAMDIHere's George in Abor City. George, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
GEORGEI just wanted to comment when I grew up in the 1960s and the 70s and we rode bicycles. It wasn't a problem. Nobody wore a helmet. You didn't wear seatbelts in the cars either. But today you've got to be out of your mind to ride your bicycle or your scooter on those bicycle lanes or on any road. You're crazy. Distracted driving now kills more people than drunk driving. And I see these guys on these bicycles and they think they're like a car. They're in the lane in front of me. And they got their helmet on. That little helmet is not going to save you. And they think they're like a car. They go to stop light and they stop at the red light. I'm saying, you are out of your mind. All I have to do is --
NNAMDISo you seem to be suggesting that bicycles, electric bikes, and electric scooters should be banned completely.
GEORGENo. I'm saying -- I'll tell you want I'm going to do. I'm riding on the sidewalk. I'm not going on the street. In Maryland, they outlawed riding bicycles on the sidewalk. That's the craziest thing I've ever heard. If I go to Maryland, I'm riding right down the sidewalk. I got news for people in Maryland.
NNAMDIGeorge, so far you've got like 99 percent of the residents of this area as he's a crazy or out of their minds. That's a whole lot of people.
BRECHERCan I clarify?
NNAMDIPlease do yes.
BRECHEROkay. You are permitted in Montgomery County to ride a bicycle on the sidewalk, a regular peddle bicycle. It's the e-bikes and e-scooters that are not permitted on sidewalks. Now I want to add we are pilot testing this as Jim was saying. We don't have enough information, enough data yet to make final judgements with regards to what some of these regulations should be. Over time as we get more experience with that we may allow for riding on sidewalks in certain areas where there's less pedestrian traffic. But a pedestrian has been pointed out walks about three miles per hour. And a 15 mile an hour or 20 mile an hour motorized vehicle coming at them if they make a slight movement one way or the other, it could be very dangerous. So that's the reason. Now we do encourage people to ride in our bike infrastructure on these sharos and the protected bike lanes and we're trying to increase the availability of that.
LARSENArlington County same thing. We are very fortunate with a lot of biking lanes. We have a long history. In fact, we were just voted, I think this year number five biking community in the United States for biking and number one in safety. So we have a long history of supporting this which rolls in and I think helps the scooters ultimately.
NNAMDIHere now is David Fraser Hidalgo in Maryland. David Fraser Hidalgo, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
DAVIDThank you, Kojo. How are you today?
DAVIDGood. Good. So I'm a Maryland State Delegate and all of this particular bill that you're talking about and a lot of the bills came through my subcommittee the last session. So I just figured I would call in and just chime in and say, you know, as we make these laws and change these laws things are happening so quickly that it's really hard to get everything right and to make everybody happy. So I know I've heard some people talk about I want to ride my bike, or I want to ride my scooter on the sidewalks and I don't. So we're just trying to do the best we can to make sure that we protect people.
DAVIDAnd I think what was just said a couple of minutes ago is absolutely true. And that's my biggest fear when we're sitting down trying to hash this out and hash out these laws. And that is, you know, to think about the person walking down the sidewalk and somebody on an e-scooter or an electric bicycle or a regular bicycle hits somebody. These e-scooters go 15 miles an hour or more. You could really hurt somebody. You could kill somebody.
DAVIDAnd so these are things that are forefront in our minds is, you know, how do we work with the changing way we're transporting people in the last mile for the scooters and some of these electric bikes while at the same time protecting pedestrians and at the same time trying not to put them in the roadway with a, you know, three, four or 5,000 pound car that could get them killed. And so I think that, you know, there are a lot of issues there. And it's very complicated and it is very very fluid. It's changing so quickly.
NNAMDIThank you very much for calling. And speaking of the possibility of accidents, here is Carol in Alexandria. Carol, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
CAROLHi. I'm a former resident of Alexandria. I've just returned from spending four and a half years in Los Angeles area. I highly recommend the local County Councils City manager's office contact both the City of Beverly Hills and the City of Santa Monica. They've had so many accidents resulting in grievous bodily harm that there's an -- and I'm a lawyer. There's an entire cottage industry of attorneys, who are now setting up their practice solely to represent people who have been injured or people who have been involved in an accident with scooters.
CAROLBird is manufactured in Santa Monica. The City of Beverly Hills banned them the day after there was some type of meet up or raid that hundreds of people were riding together zipping through the streets of Beverly Hills. Well the next day they banned them. I understand what the Maryland delegate said a while ago, but please go to places, who've been having more experience with this and they can tell you the horror stories of what they're trying to deal with. And as you can imagine Santa Monica being a tourist city, they're going to be able to give you a lot of information of the problems they've had.
NNAMDIAnd I'm afraid we don't have a great deal of time, but I'd like to hear both of your comments about that.
BRECHERWell, I'm glad we can keep the attorneys employed, I guess. No. That's a cynical remark. Obviously we're very concerned about the experiences in other areas. And we did in planning for our pilot in Montgomery County we have spoken with quite a few jurisdictions and checked into a lot of the experiences. But there are going to be frictions points, we have no question about that. If you think back to when we were changing from the house and buggy to the automobile, there were probably accidents too. And so we need to figure out ways to accommodate to the concerns, the safety, and we are working on that. But I don't think that's a reason to just try to stop progress, try to stop technology.
LARSENI'd just add that on the national side you're right. Your listener said it. We work with the National Association of City Transportation officials to keep track of the trends so we all know what's going on there in over 100 cities across the country. And your listener, I agree. I have actually spoken to both of those jurisdictions and we're taking heed of what they're sharing with us. Thank you very much.
NNAMDIJim Larsen is the Commuter Services Bureau Chief for Arlington County. Thank you for joining us, Jim.
NNAMDISande Brecher is the Chief of Commuter Services for the Montgomery County Department of Transportation. Sande, thank you for joining us.
BRECHERThank you, Kojo.
NNAMDIShort break. When we come back, we'll talk about the D.C. Council's vote to relocate Banneker High School to the site of the old Junior High School. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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