This article appeared in the November 2018 issue of the Georgia's Cities newspaper.
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.