Seattle’s proposed scooter rules set riders up for failure

Banning electric scooters on sidewalks seems to make sense at first. Sidewalks are for walking, right? That seemed to be the guiding principle behind Seattle’s decision to mostly leave the existing ban on riding electric scooters on sidewalks in place while launching a permit scheme to allow large numbers of shared scooters to start operating on Seattle streets.

But the city could be setting up a very serious problem, exposing scooter riders to confusing laws and creating a big new opportunity for racially biased policing. The city is effectively prepared to punish individual users for the city’s own failure to build safe streets.

As we reported yesterday, Ordinance 119867 would also amend Seattle’s city code to allow electric scooter use on sidewalks only if “there is no alternative for a motorized foot scooter to travel over a sidewalk that is part of a bicycle or pedestrian path.” The intention here is to allow sidewalk riding on key routes like over the Fremont and Montlake Bridges where there is no feasible alternative, but it’s very squishy and will be confusing in real life.

The language seems to be pulled almost word-for-word from state law and city code updates made a few years back that allowed e-bikes in bike lanes and on paths. Though most e-bikes are mostly allowed anywhere bikes are allowed, rarer and higher-speed “Class 3” e-bikes capable of assisted power beyond 20 mph are not allowed on sidewalks “unless there is no alternative to travel over a sidewalk as part of a bicycle or pedestrian path.” This language has posed confusion for Class 3 e-bike users, but the problem wasn’t massive because there are not many of those bikes around and because there is really no way for an observer (like a police officer) to know which class an e-bike belongs to without measuring its assisted top speed or seeing the regulation sticker if there is one. So Class 3 e-bike users have just sort of existed in legal limbo with very little chance of facing enforcement unless they do something obviously dangerous (contact me if you know of a case).

But electric scooters are a totally different story. They are very easy to identify and there may soon be thousands of them on the streets available for rent in addition to the growing number of people who own them. So the sloppy language here will not be a marginal problem, and the City Council and SDOT needs to carefully consider the effects of this law.

How is a regular user (or a police officer) supposed to determine when a sidewalk user has “no alternative.” Who gets to decide whether an alternative exists or whether a stretch of sidewalk is “part of a bicycle or pedestrian path?” They often look exactly the same:

Two photos side-by-side of streets with sidewalks. One says "scooters illegal" and one says "scooters legal"

These images are just a couple blocks from each other.

And how is a “pedestrian path” different from a “sidewalk?” The terms have different legal definitions, but practically nobody is going to know the difference in the real world. I’ve been writing this blog for a decade, and even I had never read the legal definition of a sidewalk before. We tend to just call all paths you walk on a “sidewalk” unless it’s obviously a trail like the Burke-Gilman Trail. But this law will somehow expect scooter users to know the difference.

It’s also not clear how anyone is expected to know what qualifies as a sidewalk with “no alternative.” If someone doesn’t consider riding a scooter in traffic on Lake City Way a viable option, can they scooter on the sidewalk? What if a police officer disagrees and says Lake City Way traffic is a perfectly fine option for riding a 15 mph electric scooter?

As we have seen with too many other discretionary traffic laws, police tend to use their discretion inequitably. Jaywalking tickets in Seattle go disproportionately to Black and Indigenous people, for example. Councilmember Lorena González has even considered an ordinance to address this problem:

There is no reason to think sidewalk scootering enforcement would be different.

The city is also changing the law to allow electric scooters in bike lanes and on trails. That of course makes sense. But this also means that people who live in communities with fewer safe bike lanes will be more likely to end up on the sidewalk and exposed to enforcement. Seattle has long neglected to build safe bike infrastructure in Black and brown communities, but instead of righting that wrong, this law would double down on this historic and ongoing injustice.

The scooter share permit is trying to have it both ways. It has admirable equity goals, including a requirement that companies put at least 10% of scooters within “Environmental Justice Community Areas,” which make up about 10 percent of the city’s land. But these same neighborhoods are also home to streets with some of the city’s highest traffic injury and death rates, and that’s not an accident. It’s part of our city’s legacy of injustice.

By making it illegal to ride a scooter on sidewalks, where exactly does Seattle expect someone to ride? People on scooters in Rainier Valley are very likely to be headed somewhere on Rainier Ave or MLK Jr Way. Are they supposed to scooter in traffic on these streets? Look at this image and tell me where someone on a little 15 mph electric scooter is going to ride:

Photo of a wide street with four general purpose lanes, light rail and a sidewalk.They are going to be on the sidewalk because that’s the only real choice the city has offered them. There is no bike lane. There is no shoulder. And until there is an actually safe option, how can we justify sending police to stop people who choose the sidewalk over the street?

The same goes for Rainier Ave and Aurora and Lake City Way and Holman Road and West Marginal Way and 1st Ave S and Airport Way. Sadly, this list could go on and on. Live in a neighborhood with neglected streets full of fast traffic? Too bad. Ride in the street with fast car and truck traffic or get a ticket (or worse) for being on the sidewalk.

This is not racial equity, and it’s not good policy.

Look, I understand that riding scooters and bikes on sidewalks is not good for people walking, especially people with disabilities. Sidewalk riding is also not good for people on scooters and bikes. But this problem is not the fault of people biking or riding scooters. It’s the city’s fault for prioritizing people driving cars and trucks over everyone else and for decades of failing to invest in safe infrastructure everywhere but especially in Black and brown communities. Don’t put this on the people who are just trying to get around as best they can with the options available. They didn’t make this mess.

We do not have a complete bike network in Seattle, and it’s not even close. And to make matters worse, Mayor Jenny Durkan has spent her time in office delaying and cutting the city’s effort to build our network. People have been advocating for quality bike lanes on Rainier or MLK for many years, but they still don’t exist and the mayor is in no rush to change that. So what option is Seattle giving people? The sidewalk of course.

Councilmember Tammy Morales brought up this problem during the Utilities and Transportation Committee meeting.

“I’m worried about Rainier Ave” said Morales. “If they can’t be on sidewalks, then where should they be?” There was no real answer to this question because the city’s plan just doesn’t offer one. And there is no easy answer. The idea of allowing scooters on sidewalks is problematic, and the city doesn’t have a complete bike network. So they’re just going to squeeze scooter users into a space between fast cars and people walking that simply does not exist.

Maybe there’s some kind of middle ground where people can be encouraged not to bike on the sidewalk or something, but Seattle hasn’t done the work to make a total sidewalk ban fair. Leaders have hopes that people using electric scooters can be part of a vision of a more environmentally friendly and equitable city, a city where more people can get around without driving cars. Seattle is also hoping that scooters can help more people in West Seattle get to and from transit or to make local trips without adding more cars to the peninsula’s streets while the West Seattle Bridge is out of commission. These are all very good reasons to pursue this permit program, and Seattle should do what it can to help low-impact modes of transportation like scooters succeed.

But until our city has a complete network of bike lanes, the rules as proposed are setting scooter riders up for failure.

This entry was posted in news and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

17 Responses to Seattle’s proposed scooter rules set riders up for failure

  1. Jeff says:

    I’m in complete agreement with the points in this article, my only concern is that if sidewalk riding was made legal, I doubt these scooter would be used on a lot of the residental areas of Seattle and Rainer Ave. Our sidewalk in areas outside of downtown are in really poor shape to ensure a comfortable and safe scooter ride. Raised sidewalk panels, cracks that are large, narrow pathways, protruding routes, it’s almost inenvitable that you eat pavement in any area other than downtown.

  2. asdf2 says:

    This reminds me of a plan I had a couple years back to visit Jetty Island by a combination of Sound Transit and a Lime scooter (which were deployed in Everett at the time).

    But, when I researched the rules, I quickly had second thoughts. Scooters were illegal on sidewalks. Scooters were illegal on streets with speed limits over 25 mph. The only way to reach the Jetty Island ferry is to take a 35 mph street for at least a mile, or its sidewalk. Thus, it is impossible to ride a scooter to the Jetty Island ferry without breaking the law to get there.

    I ended up shelving the plan, a decision made easier by Lime’s sudden announcement of a 40% price increase, bringing the cost into “may as well just ride Uber” territory.

  3. Ballard Biker says:

    If forcing pedestrians to dodge e-scooters on sidewalks is required for e-scooters to make sense, then maybe the best option is to maintain the existing ban on e-scooters. Pedestrians should not be asked to give up their safety to allow for a handful of unsafe scooter users of a for-profit company and frankly I’m surprised this is even being discussed on Seattle Bike Blog.

    The city is also changing the law to allow electric scooters in bike lanes and on trails. That of course makes sense.

    We fought long and hard to get these bike lanes and trials built so we can safely ride away from motorized vehicles. How does it “make sense” to all of a sudden allow motorized vehicles on this same infrastructure? It was already bad enough when e-bikes were forced upon us.

    Though most e-bikes are mostly allowed anywhere bikes are allowed, rarer and higher-speed “Class 3” e-bikes capable of assisted power beyond 20 mph are not allowed on sidewalks “unless there is no alternative to travel over a sidewalk as part of a bicycle or pedestrian path.”

    Class 3 e-bikes are not allowed on any infrastructure other than roads. That’s actually a state law.

    https://www.seattle.gov/parks/about-us/current-projects/multi-use-trail-pilot-project

    This language has posed confusion for Class 3 e-bike users, but the problem wasn’t massive because there are not many of those bikes around and because there is really no way for an observer (like a police officer) to know which class an e-bike belongs to without measuring its assisted top speed or seeing the regulation sticker if there is one.

    There are actually quite a few Class 3 e-bike users out there and considering they use multi-use trails as their personal 30+ mph highways, I don’t think there’s any confusion, but rather they are selfish people with no regard for laws or people’s safety. Try talking to a Class 3 rider on a multi-use trail sometime. They will openly admit they don’t care about the laws.

    So Class 3 e-bike users have just sort of existed in legal limbo with very little chance of facing enforcement unless they do something obviously dangerous (contact me if you know of a case).

    That’s like buying a non-street legal Lamborghini, yet driving it around because the law is “confusing”. I don’t have any sympathy for someone that buys a motorized bicycle that has codified restrictions about where they can and cannot ride. There’s no legal limbo, just people that either didn’t do their research before buying or people that just don’t care.

    • Tom Fucoloro says:

      “Pedestrians should not be asked to give up their safety to allow for a handful of unsafe scooter users”

      It isn’t scooter users’ fault that the city hasn’t built safe streets. I don’t want scooters on sidewalks, either. I don’t even want bikes on sidewalks, which is legal here. But where else should they be? When it’s a slow street or has a bike lane, the answer is clear. But what if there isn’t? People are being asked to only exist where it is convenient for them to exist, and that’s just not how it works. People deserve an honest and realistic policy.

      And for the record, I don’t personally plan to ride these scooters because I don’t really enjoy them. But lots of other people do. And I just can’t imagine riding one down MLK or Lake City Way or any number of these other streets that are often unavoidable.

    • Jeff says:

      “We fought long and hard to get these bike lanes and trials built so we can safely ride away from motorized vehicles. How does it “make sense” to all of a sudden allow motorized vehicles on this same infrastructure? It was already bad enough when e-bikes were forced upon us.”

      Are you classifying an e-scooter in the same category as a car?

      • Ballard Biker says:

        Are you classifying an e-scooter in the same category as a car?

        In the sense that it’s a fully motorized vehicle: yes.

      • asdf2 says:

        If it moves at the speed of a bicycle and has a size and mass comparable with a bicycle, then it should be treated as a bicycle. Whether the propulsion source is muscle power or battery power makes no difference.

        There is one case where I do draw the line though – gasoline powered bicycles/motorcycles have absolutely no place on any public trail, no matter what speed they move at. The reason for the difference is that gasoline motors emit large amounts of noise and pollution, which batter-powered vehicles do not, and riding a trail should not entail breathing exhaust fumes from the bike in front of you. In fact, due to lax regulation, motorcycles actually emit more pollution and a lot more noise per mile traveled than the average car does, in spite of burning less gas.

    • asdf2 says:

      Private rental companies aside, rule changes to treat electric scooters as bikes do make sense, and they’ll be needed anyway to handle the growing group of people that own their own e-scooter (which is much more economical than renting the scooter on demand).

      I’m general, it should be the scooter rider’s responsibility to go slow when on a sidewalk, avoid sidewalks when practical, keep out of of pedestrians’ way, and consider walking the scooter when the sidewalk is crowded.

      But, I don’t support rules that get too heavy handed. Many sidewalks are wide, smooth, have minimal pedestrian traffic, and are alongside a busy, fast road that is not suitable for anything that’s not a car. There’s no reason someone shouldn’t be able to ride a scooter in places like that.

      In general, rules should be made to reflect common sense, and common behavior should be legal. For instance, technically, until a couple years ago, anybody in Seattle on an e-bike would be unable to cross Lake Washington or even the ship canal without breaking the law. This was eventually fixed, under the paradigm that common sense actions should be legal. Laws exist to prevent behavior that actually poses a danger to others. It’s the same here.

      • Breadbaker says:

        The case that has to be dealt with is the most likely scenario, where the scooter is used on crowded sidewalks downtown at rush hour, in the U District, Capitol Hill, Queen Anne or Ballard on Friday or Saturday nights, near the stadia or Seattle Center before or after large events (when these can occur again).

        Have you ever encounters scooters on crowded sidewalks at night? I have, in Austin, Texas, where they are ubiquitous, on a football weekend near where all the bars are. The scooters are quiet. They have only headlights, meaning that the outline or the scooter and its rider are not just invisible, but are actually made less visible because the headlight blinds a pedestrian. The people riding them in these circumstances are not the most careful people.

        Yeah, they may have some legal liability for riding on a crowded sidewalk in these circumstances, but it’s never going to be enforced except in the most egregious of circumstances. People with limited vision or mobility or both are going to find them impossible to avoid, shouts of “on your left” will be meaningless to them, and they have the right to peaceful passage on the sidewalk.

        Given that these vehicles, even if people do own them, are not sidewalk legal today, I see no equity in the claims of their owners, their future owners or the companies that want to lease them to the sidewalks.

      • Ballard Biker says:

        I’m general, it should be the scooter rider’s responsibility to go slow when on a sidewalk, avoid sidewalks when practical, keep out of of pedestrians’ way, and consider walking the scooter when the sidewalk is crowded.

        I agree in principle, but as we’ve seen with any free floating rentals, users have no expectation of personal responsibility and therefore show none. We’ve also decided that we shouldn’t expect any corporate responsibility from the for-profit rental services.

        But instead of trying to ensure pedestrian safety, we’re going to unleash the floodgates and assume e-scooter users will follow the law and respect pedestrian safety despite the current batch of users showing no indication of doing this.

        If this was some major transportation revolution, there might be a case of “it’s going to get worse before it gets better”, but it’s not. It’s a for-profit company strong arming the Council to allow them to scatter scooters around the City until they (1) go bankrupt or (2) gather enough data and pull out before they hemorrhage too much money.

    • NickS says:

      I’m disappointed to see the anti-e-bike rhetoric (“It was already bad enough when e-bikes were forced upon us”) from @Ballard Biker. Speak for yourself, your “us” does not include me, I do not share your narrow and incredibly entitled perspective. A Class 1, pedal assist e-bike allows me to make my 18 mile mile commute from SE Seattle to Pioneer Square without showering and gets me out of my car or off my motorcycle; when I resume working on site, it will allow me to get to work without being crowded on the #7 bus or light rail. It allows others who are not healthy or fit enough to navigate Seattle’s hills to get back on a bike or consider recreation or commuting via bike for the first time. Electric cargo bikes allow parents to replace car errands with bikes with kiddos and gear on board. Do I love the idea of heavy 25+mph e-bikes speeding along on crowded trails? No, I don’t. But you’ve lumped in everyone together.

      We’ve been making full use of Lake Washington Blvd, on foot (my wife isn’t comfortable riding a bike there because there are no bike lanes from our house to access it). We’ve had several near misses while walking on the roadway with speeding bicyclists, and shocker to no one that has ever been on the Burke Gilman, they have _universally_ been 40s and older white guys on non-electric road bikes tucked in and riding insanely fast within touching distance of pedestrians, when the whole road is open. No bell ringing, no “on your left”, just whizzing past at 25+ mph within a foot or two, intent on climbing that Strava leaderboard or having a new personal best to brag to their tech executive buddies about. We have seen plenty of bicyclists on e-bikes, and not one has passed us unsafely.

      Based on my experiences, I’d be much more inclined to support a ban on lycra-clad carbon / titanium framed road bike warriors than a ban on e-bikes.

      • Ballard Biker says:

        While I don’t typically see too many of the tights brigade on my commutes and can’t comment on their behavior, I do see quite a few e-bikes. One thing that seems clear for nearly all e-bike riders I see is that they are not experienced for the speeds that their e-bikes can go, resulting in unsafe behavior. Cargo bikes are exasperated by the fact that they can push 20 mph and have a lot of mass to them. Not to mention e-bike users have ignored the Seattle Parks pilot program and ride their e-bikes wherever they want. Want to talk “entitled”?

        And I’m not anti e-bike, I’m anti “unleash the floodgates” that our state and local governments have foisted on us, with little to no public comment, just e-bike lobbying driving the narrative. E-bikes need to be limited by law to 10 mph, not 15, 20 or 30. The Seattle Parks pilot program originally allowed 15 mph on the pilot trails, but silently raised that to 20 mph, again with no public input. That’s insanity! Who is advocating for this?

        There should be discussion about allowing the higher speed e-bikes and cargo bikes on roadways, where I think they can fill a needed niche, but they do not belong on trails or bike lanes any more than a gas powered motorcycle.

        So excuse me if being concerned about my and other’s safety is “entitled”.

      • asdf2 says:

        “E-bikes need to be limited by law to 10 mph, not 15, 20 or 30.”

        10 mph would turn e-bikes into slow obstacles that about 95% of pedal bikes would be passing. It would also make e-bikes nearly useless for those 10-15 mile commute trips, which take half the time at 20 mph than they do at 10. On roads, there are sections where the bike lane disappears and you have to ride with the cars, and riding at 20 mph makes for much less annoyed and impatient car drivers behind you than riding at 10 mph.

        Of course, riders need to use common sense and go with the flow, not weave past people and pass dangerously close. This applies equally for e-bike riders and the spandex-clad carbon fiber road bikers. It also applies for cars too, as there are plenty of dangerous drivers out there who treat the freeway as some kind of video game and try to weave through at 90 mph while everyone else around them is doing 60. They shouldn’t be doing that either.

        But singling out e-bikes and forcing them to ride at half the speed of other bikes accomplishes little except to encourage people to switch to their cars because their e-bike is too slow.

      • jay says:

        A 10 mph assist speed doesn’t mean the user couldn’t pedal faster if they wanted to (and if they can’t, well, it is a rare electric wheelchair that can even go 10 mph)
        If one’s bike has the cheapest possible 5 speed drivetrain one probably won’t like having to pedal. But a bike built with a good quality drivetrain and a lightweight motor geared for assisting on difficult hills would be a useful thing.
        How about outlawing charging ports, and requiring the users to pedal on the flats and downgrades to charge the battery for hill climbing? If someone wants to pedal hard for a couple hours to spend a minute at 40 mph, go ahead (pro tip, find a big hill and you can save the price of the motor) While the Pacific Northwest has mostly hydropower, in some places those e-bikes are coal powered

        And how about renting kick scooters? Of course people would not be willing to pay very much, but the maintenance cost would be much less.

  4. eddiew says:

    why does Seattle need e scooter share at all? to be effective, they have to everywhere; if everywhere, they will be in the way. we also need good transit flow. we need good pedestrian infrastructure.

  5. Peri Hartman says:

    Now is the time to push – very, very hard – for bike lanes on all aterials. That would provide a safe place to ride a scooter on streets with traffic. Residential streets generally are light on traffic.

    Once bike lanes are on arterials, the scooter ordinance can say “sidewalk riding allowed only if there is no bike lane.”

    Many of us wish we had more bike lanes. We can take this opportunity to join forces and get the city to do what it promised.

    • Breadbaker says:

      This would of course work better in a city where the Safe Streets ordinance was given more than lip service, and where “close the bike lane for a couple of years due to construction” wasn’t the norm.

Leave a Reply