Wings clipped: City council to decide fate of electric scooters next month

Bird scooters returned to Richmond on Tuesday after a yearlong hiatus. CT file photo

Katherine Boller
Contributing Writer

Richmond City Council unanimously delayed until November a vote on an ordinance that would allow dockless motorized scooters to continue operating in Richmond.

The Oct. 16 meeting included discussions on potential permits and regulations for parking Bird electric scooters on sidewalks.

Bird is a company based in Santa Monica, California that operates scooters across the country. The app-based scooter-sharing system — which placed scooters throughout Richmond in August — allows riders to pick up and drop off scooters virtually anywhere without the need of a docking station.

“Birds are really useful because it’s hard to commute across campus quickly sometimes,” said VCU student Rishi Talati.

Despite the scooters’ success among users, the city initially responded by impounding many of the vehicles. Bird is in violation of city code, which states that parking an unattended motor vehicle on a sidewalk is prohibited.

The company plans to bring scooters to roughly 150 public and private colleges as part of a “University Pop-Up Tour,” announced in August. Colleges are encouraged to contact Bird to bring the vehicles to their campuses. The company scattered dozens of scooters around the VCU campuses and downtown area without approval from the university or City of Richmond.

Currently, any scooter found illegally parked in a city right-of-way will be towed and may not be reclaimed until charges are paid by the company. Bird has run up $32,000 in city fines so far.

Mayor Levar Stoney proposed a one-year pilot permit program. If passed, implementation of the program would begin in January. Any scooter-sharing company wishing to have vehicles in the city would need to obtain a $1,500 permit and pay a fee to operate. The proposed fee schedule encompasses a total of $40,000 to $80,000, depending on the number of scooters deployed in the area.

“No scooter operator will be given a permit to operate if it has an outstanding debt to the city,” said Tameka Jefferson, constituent services manager for the mayor’s office. “The city continues to consider the placement or parking of any vehicles on the sidewalk to be in violation of city code.”

Dockless scooter companies would also have to provide designated areas for scooter pick-up and drop-off — a concept already employed by RVA Bike Share. This bike-share system has charging docks for its electric bikes and users will have to pay until the bike is properly replaced at a dock.

However, some students don’t like this concept due to its limitations.

“The reason why Birds are so nice is that you can drop them anywhere and not worry about it,” Talati said. “Limiting where you can park and pick them up would defeat the purpose of the convenience it’s trying to bring.”

Oklahoma State University recently notified bike sharing companies to remove scooters or face impoundment due to unsafe riding conditions and illegal parking. Other institutions, such as Arizona State University and Loyola Marymount University, have also placed bans on the dockless scooters.

If Richmond removed Bird scooters, “it would make it harder for students to commute from place to place since the only other viable option is Uber or by bus,” Talati said.

Lime — another dockless electric bike and scooter company — is looking to launch scooters in Richmond as well. Lime spoke in favor of working with the proposed ordinance during the city council meeting.

“We are really committed to working alongside the city council and the mayor’s office, we would love the ability to provide some industry perspective on all of the issues,” said Maggie Gendron, director of strategic development for Lime. “We have a lot to offer in the conversation.”

Lime also expressed concerns regarding the limit on the number of scooters each company can have and that the proposed operating fees for Richmond are higher than other cities where the company is present. Lime advocated for a dynamic cap system when determining the number of scooters allowed in the area.

“[The system] provides flexibility for both the ridership to increase but also as demand increases, ridership can increase,” Gendron said. “Simultaneously, if demand decreases, the fleet will decrease as well.”

Although VCU student Nathan Nguyen has never tried out any of the Bird scooters, he said that an increase in popularity and competition between scooter brands would persuade him to take one out for a ride. Nguyen also expressed concern about the overcrowding of scooters.

“I don’t think I would want to walk on the sidewalk as much because it would be annoying with all the scooters,” Nguyen said.

The ultimate fate of Bird scooters will be discussed at the Nov. 13 city council meeting.

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