Amid legal wrangling, scooter shares are coming to cities big and small

TML Communications Specialist

Zipping and zooming across cities throughout the country, electric scooters have become the latest craze in the emerging sharing economy – though this innovative business model is stirring up about as much controversy as it is profit.

Lawsuits over public safety issues, the definition of a motorized vehicle, and company operations have ensued almost immediately after the scooter-sharing system was rolled out in some cities.

While these issues may seem like the domain of the major metropolis, kick scooter sharing services have already been unveiled in mid-sized and smaller cities like Golden Valley, Minn. (pop. 21,376), Winthrop, Mass. (pop. 18,190), Clayton, Mo. (pop. 15,939), Key Biscayne, Fla. (pop. 13,182) and Keyport, N.J. (pop. 7,085).

Dubbed the next Uber or Lyft, the goal of these scooters is to provide an alternative method of transportation to cars at an affordable rate that will encourage lower-income residents to use them. Unlike the toys popular with kids, these “kick scooters” run on electric or gas motors - which has raised some questions as to whether these devices are street legal as they cannot be tagged, titled, or insured but are still considered different from larger motorized scooter models like Vespa or Lambretta products.

Rex Barton, a police management consultant with the Municipal Technical Advisory Service (MTAS), said many cities faced similar issues when Segways were introduced.
“Back when Segways first came out, the company behind them went to every state and they were successful in Tennessee in getting legislation passed preventing local governments from regulating Segways,” Barton said. “If this is the latest, greatest trend in public transportation it’s very hard to regulate. These scooters are starting to crop up in major cities where tourism is big, and people want to use these scooters because it’s quicker.”

These electric scooters are in some ways similar to the bicycle-sharing services already operating in cities across Tennessee, such as B-Cycle, Pace Knoxville, Bike Chattanooga, and Explore Bike Share. Patrons can rent scooters that run on electric motors for a short period of time either paying a small fee for a single ride or for weekly, monthly, and annual memberships. If patrons use the scooters over the amount of time they have paid for, usage fees may also apply.

Theresa Costonis, assistant attorney with Metro Nashville, said city officials didn’t have much time to prepare for the launch of the service.
“There was maybe an email from the company that arrived barely before or precisely when they launched the scooters; they just kind of showed up,” she said.
While kick scooter companies ask users to avoid using sidewalks unless allowed, to wear helmets, and follow rules of the road, this can’t always be guaranteed. Barton said the same legislation introduced for Segways may have an impact on how kick scooters can operate in Tennessee as well.

“Because of the regulations introduced by Segway – which regards motorized vehicles operated on sidewalks – these scooters may be precluded from helmet requirements,” Barton said. “You also run into the issue of crowded downtown areas where pedestrians are getting knocked down by scooters. Gatlinburg has had similar problems with Segway rentals because the people riding them don’t know how to use them and bang into other people. You can tell the company they can’t let people abandon their scooters in certain places, but the company can’t control that. When people leave it there anyway, who do you charge?”

The return policy many kick scooter companies have for their products is what is causing most of the trouble for the industry. Unlike most bicycle-sharing services that require bikes to be “docked” in various locations, these scooters are typically “dockless,” meaning they can be picked up and dropped off from arbitrary locations in the service area. Users find a scooter using smart phone apps and then use the same app to notify the company when they are finished using the scooter.

The scooters are then picked up by “chargers” who are paid by the company to recharge the scooters and return them. This has led to many cities citing scooter-share companies for health and safety violations as scooters are often left on sidewalks, rights-of-way, and other unsafe places by users.
Costonis said Nashville found itself in a similar situation.

“We negotiated with them for a month, had the scooters impounded by Public Works, and then ultimately we filed a lawsuit,” she said. “Eventually, they did agree to voluntarily remove the scooters from the streets in exchange for promises we would work on a regulatory scheme or ordinance to allow them to operate.”

Like Nashville, other cities have taken to impounding scooters or temporarily banning them. Some have filed criminal complaints and civil lawsuits against companies providing the service, citing both municipal and state laws.

Officials in several municipalities have expressed frustrations at being behind the eight-ball in knowing how to legislate and regulate the emerging kick scooter industry as well as what they feel is a lack of communication and partnership with some kick scooter companies.

Personal injury lawyers are already getting in on the game, advertising that they handle scooter-related claims both for users who have crashed due to malfunctioning scooters and pedestrians that have tripped over scooters left abandoned on sidewalks.

However, proponents of these scooters have fired back alleging it’s not the scooters themselves that are the problem but that cities aren’t providing enough space for pedestrians, bicycles, and other types of alternative transportation.

They also cite the desire to decrease congestion as well as the fact that many scooter companies provide resources for low-income residents who might not otherwise be able to afford transportation as reasons why the scooters should be permitted.

Costonis said that Metro had to balance the public safety issues raised by kick scooters and the desire for tourists and locals to use the service. She said city officials consulted with the state before crafting an ordinance.

“There was some involvement from the state, but it was more guidance than anything legally binding. Two Nashville city councilmembers communicated with state officials at the Department of Safety,” she said. “The Department of Safety had an interpretation of a much older ordinance that related to horses not being able to cross sidewalks in certain areas. Based on that, the state’s opinion was that these vehicles couldn’t be on the sidewalk. TDOT came to a different conclusion because there have been subsequent state laws enacted that allowed vehicles on sidewalks. After talking to the Department of Safety, TDOT felt it was at the local government level to determine if these vehicles can operate on the sidewalk or not.”

Meetings were held with city officials, community stakeholders, company officials, and members of alternative transportation groups like Walk Bike Nashville to craft the legislation surrounding kick scooters ultimately passed by the Nashville City Council in August.

Nashville officials ultimately decided not to require helmets because helmets were not required for bicycles and transportation advocates felt that would discourage use of the scooters, ultimately discouraging people from using alternative transportation. Scooter users must be 18 or older and have a valid driver’s license.

“We said the scooters must be operated off the sidewalk in business districts, and we used the TCA definition of business districts,” Costonis said. “Most of downtown Nashville meets that definition. We also put a lot of generic failsafe language in our ordinance to help us address anything that might turn out to be a problem.”

The ordinance also restricts the parking of the scooters on certain areas of sidewalks, bus shelters, public benches, bike lines, bus lanes, loading zones, entryways, driveways, and several other locations.

“We put the burden on the scooter companies that they have to educate their patrons on where they can and cannot ride,” she said. “We also put the burden on the companies. Not everybody is compliant, however. If the violations continue, the company’s permit is subject to revocation. If the police want to cite riders for violating general traffic laws, they can. Parking violations are assessed to the company. In addition to that, police can take enforcement action against anyone violating a rule of the road. Police and public works crews have the ability to remove any scooters they think are a safety impediment. We also said that if the company releases the users from liability they needed to release the city from liability as well.”

Costonis said two of the biggest issues with the company ended up being over how many scooters could be operating in the city at one time and permitting for scooters. Companies were permitted to operate 500 vehicles in their first month in the city and 1,000 afterwards.

If the company wants to operate more vehicles, they have to contact city officials and prove there are enough users to justify the need as well as prove they are operating in good standing. Companies also have to renew operating permits yearly.

Despite the rocky start, there is hope the services will have a positive impact.
“I know that our planning people were excited about the data-sharing aspect of the service,” she said. “It gives them data about when and where people are using these types of vehicles. There is also the alternative transportation aspect.”

Scooter-sharing services are continuing to rollout in cities across Tennessee. Kick scooters launched in Memphis in June after much conversation with city officials. The city of Memphis passed legislation regarding the scooters around the same time, entering into an interim operating agreement with the company. Knoxville city officials have put a moratorium on the use of the scooters until February so regulations and policies can be developed.