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Scooter and bike companies say D.C.’s new rules for dockless vehicles are too restrictive

The companies criticize official limits on fleet sizes and scooter speeds

A Bird scooter in downtown D.C.
AFP/Getty Images

Mobility companies that deploy scooters and dockless bikes in the District are pushing back against new regulations for the vehicles that city transportation officials declared last week.

Half of the companies say the rules, which are poised to come into effect in January, overly restrict growth for their D.C. fleets. Another half say they have concerns about the 10 mph speed limit for electric scooters in the regulations. Currently, six companies operate either scooters or dockless bikes in D.C.: Bird, Lyft, Lime, Spin, Skip, and Jump, an arm of Uber.

Each operator could maintain up to 600 dockless vehicles per type on city streets next year as a starting point. With regulators’ approval, they could also expand their fleets by 25 percent every three months. As of now, 400 vehicles per operator (whether scooters or bikes, or both) are allowed, under a pilot program that the District has been running since September 2017.

But in a letter to Mayor Muriel Bowser dated Nov. 11, California-based scooter-share operator Bird said the proposed cap on dockless vehicles “eliminates any chance of this program being equitable, of solving issues related to transportation deserts in the city, and ultimately of getting more cars off the road.” Bird also asked Bowser to “consider intervening in” the District Department of Transportation’s (DDOT) implementation of the policies to ensure “fair and practical conditions” for scooters based on “convenience and accessibility.”

The company added that DDOT “provided no guidance” for how it will decide whether an operator may grow its fleet after every quarter, and that the 10 mph restriction on scooter speeds could make D.C. roads more dangerous. “Vehicles traveling at significantly different speeds...could increase opportunity for collisions between cars, e-scooters, and bikes,” Bird said. “There is also no data to suggest that 10 mph is safer for e-scooter riders than 15 mph.”

In a statement, a spokeswoman for DDOT says the agency seeks to balance “the needs of users and the concerns of residents.” “From the very beginning of this program, we have tried to keep an open playing field in this emerging industry,” she points out. “The Bowser administration is committed to embracing technology that provides more transportation options that reduce the impact of emissions on our environment.” People have taken more than 940,000 rides on the scooters and bikes since the pilot program launched, per DDOT.

In its instructions for applying for 2019 dockless vehicle permits, the agency says it “will reward reasonably good stewardship of public space, vehicle safety and maintenance, and adherence to data sharing conditions” in assessing whether operators may grow their fleets. Companies must apply for separate scooter and dockless bike permits to operate either type.

While scooter speeds would be capped at 10 mph, electric bike speeds would be capped at 20 mph. Additionally, DDOT is mandating that dockless vehicle operators deploy at least 100 vehicles throughout D.C.’s eight wards by 6 a.m. each day. The bikes must have self-locking capabilities, as Jump’s electric bikes do, and the operators must share data with regulators. Officials have said they want to make sure that the new technologies are safe and equitable.

Not all operators say they disagree with how DDOT plans to control the number of dockless vehicles in D.C. Spin, which launched scooters in the District on Thursday after it had pulled its bikes off the streets over the summer, says in a statement that it sees “no problems in having operators capped at 600 vehicles in D.C. while the city understands demand and usage in service areas.” But it says the 10 mph speed limit for scooters is “the wrong way” to address officials’ safety concerns about e-scooters and could deter riders from taking them.

“While we are set up to comply, we hope the city reconsiders this piece of regulation so they don’t unintentionally limit usage of an environmentally-friendly transportation lifeline,” adds Spin, which is based in San Francisco. Skip, another San Francisco-based scooter firm, says it “supports DDOT’s measured and thoughtful approach to fleet size growth,” given its experience in other cities. “We do have some concerns, including the 10 mph speed limit, and are in the process of working with DDOT to address this issue,” Skip explains in a statement.

California-based operator Lime, which pivoted to scooters from bikes in D.C. in late August, is even asking its riders to advocate for a higher dockless vehicle cap by writing to officials. “The proposed 600 vehicles are simply not enough to met the City’s transportation needs,” says Maggie Gendron, Lime’s director of strategic development, in a statement. “The most common feedback we hear from our D.C. rider community is the need for more scooters.”

Ride-hailing companies Lyft and Uber, which operate scooters and e-bikes, respectively, are also hoping for changes. Chris Dattaro, Lyft’s marketing manager for bikes and scooters, says his company is “working closely” with the District “to grow the size of our fleet to better meet the demand of D.C. residents who want to take city-friendly trips on two wheels.” And Uber spokesman Colin Tooze says more alternatives to cars are needed as D.C.’s population grows.

“A closer look at expanding e-bikes and scooter options would be a concrete demonstration of [Mayor Bowser’s] personal commitment to attract growth in a way that is good for the environment and can be shared by everyone in the District, regardless of where they live,” says Tooze. D.C. transit advocates have petitioned for allowing 20,000 dockless vehicles.

This post has been updated with comment from DDOT.