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Cities Prepare for Dockless Electric Scooters  

November 5, 2018  |  Alison Earles, Associate General Counsel, GMA
This article appeared in the November 2018 issue of the Georgia's Cities newspaper.
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Earles
U ber and Lyft started in big cities and ex­panded to smaller ones, often challeng­ing lawmakers to re­spond with regulation only after their constituents had em­braced the companies. Bird Rides, Inc. and Lime are taking the same approach with dockless, shareable, stand-up electric scooters, betting that the riders and growing crew of paid chargers will encourage elected officials to change city infrastructure and enact regula­tions to ensure the scooters become an essential part of transportation. Bird now operates in Atlanta, Athens and Decatur. Although it violates company rules to ride the scooters outside of city limits, Bird and Lime scooters have been seen in Statesboro and Brookhav­en. Nothing physically prevents a user from riding a scooter on the highway or far outside a metro area. In fact, ear­lier this summer a photo went viral on social media of a user riding a scooter on Atlanta’s downtown connector.
 
In every city on which the scoot­ers have descended, city officials have been barraged with complaints about abandoned scooters on sidewalks, accidents and “near misses” with hel­met-less riders on busy streets. When faced with a demand to “do some­thing!” accompanied by photos of scooters blocking sidewalks and zip­ping through heavy traffic, city offi­cials have a number of options. A help­ful toolkit prepared by the National Association of City Transportation Officials, Guidelines for the Regula­tion and Management of Shared Ac­tive Transportation, describes differ­ent approaches cities have taken. The toolkit provides guidance in policy areas, sample guidelines for permit programs and ordinances and a chart summarizing cities’ programs for shareable vehicles.
 
Cities’ differing responses to the deluge of scooters often reflect their interpretation of ill-fitting state laws. In Denver, electric scooters are “toy vehicles” allowed only on sidewalks. In Athens-Clarke County, they are considered to meet Georgia’s circu­lar definition of “mopeds,” so riders must have a valid driver’s license, wear a motorcycle helmet and stay off sidewalks. In Milwaukee, scoot­ers are considered unregistered mo­tor vehicles and illegal to operate on streets and sidewalks. Armed with a long-standing memorandum from the Wisconsin Department of Trans­portation, on July 13, Milwaukee took the drastic step of filing an in­junction prohibiting Bird from op­eration state-wide. Countering the DOT’s interpretation, Bird offered National Highway Traffic Safety Ad­ministration guidelines, which di­rectly address scooters and state they are not motor vehicles. The case was moved to federal court and is still pending. Bird halted operations and jointly announced with Milwaukee a plan to work together once legisla­tion or additional guidance is issued.
 
Unlike Wisconsin, Georgia’s agen­cies have not offered any guidance about the use of scooters or how state law applies to them and Georgia cit­ies are regulating scooters under their broad powers to control rights of way and promote public safety. On Sept. 14, Savannah approved an ordinance banning the scooters as a “short-term response, allowing city staff and the community to work together to devel­op a long-term solution.” The Atlanta City Council’s Public Safety and Trans­portation Committee is working with stakeholders to fine-tune a draft ordi­nance governing scooters to present to the Council. Athens-Clarke County is weighing its options in light of the University of Georgia’s ban.
 
City officials should prepare by keeping abreast of news, laws and liti­gation surrounding scooters. As with any action taken by a city that might affect a private enterprise, a city’s response might invite litigation, so municipal officials would be wise to consult their city attorney before tak­ing any actions that might compound issues facing the city.
 
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