By Yustin Riopko
CHARLOTTE – You may have seen it: people zooming all over on electric scooters, especially in busy places like NoDa, Plaza Midwood and Uptown.
Electronic scooters, or e-scooters, started popping up around May last year. Now, there are more than 800 of them (owned by three companies) around the city, ready to rent and ride. There are stations, or
“nests,” where you can pay to unlock the scooter, and then for each per minute you use it.
With ridership numbers reaching a high of 140,000 in August – 6.1 rides per day per vehicle – city council and transportation officials want to make sure e-scooters are as safe and effective as possible.
The average trip distance on an e-scooter in Charlotte is 1.4 miles, according to Dan Gallagher, the deputy director for Charlotte’s department of transportation.
“Some criticisms of e-scooters are that they’re displacing walking trips,” Gallagher said. “I would argue that at 1.4 miles, that’s not a typical walking trip. Most people will walk a quarter mile, so e-scooters are hitting that sweet spot that’s the distance where we might be able to peel some automobile trips off the roads.”
Gallagher said Charlotte has been one of the first cities in the Southeast to have working permits and guidelines for e-scooters. Now officials are trying to improve those and introduce a city ordinance.
The way things are currently set up, scooter vendors have to provide 24-hour customer service and respond within two hours to complaints about scooters blocking rights-of-way. Each vendor can only have up to 400 scooters available in Charlotte. City leaders want to replace that flat cap with a dynamic one.
“They can expand by 50 scooters when they demonstrate over a 30-day rolling average that they had more than three trips per unit per day,” Gallagher said. “So at the point that the number of scooters out there on the streets goes to less than two trips per unit per day, we’d want them to constrict their system. Our intent for this is to allow the system to grow when it’s being heavily used and allow it to return to balance when it’s being underutilized.”
Other N.C. cities like Raleigh, Durham and Greensboro have since picked up on the e-scooter wave and taken pointers from Charlotte for the details. Now, Charlotte’s transportation and planning committee is looking to them for where to go next.
Raleigh and Durham don’t allow sidewalk riding, whereas Greensboro only allows sidewalk riding outside of its downtown area. Charlotte is taking notes from Greensboro on this one, opting to prohibit riding on the sidewalk in the very center of Charlotte within the area bordered by Stonewall, College, 7th and Church streets.
“Given the lower speeds in center city, that’s an appropriate place to have scooters go into the travel lanes and mix in with the traffic at speeds that are approximately 25 miles an hour,” Gallagher explained.
The transportation and planning committee thinks of scooters like bicycles. People riding scooters should have the choice to ride in traffic lanes on the road, or in the sidewalk or bike lanes. However, the city will be limiting traffic lane travel for scooters to streets with speed limits 35 miles per hour or lower.
“If one of those streets does not have a sidewalk or bike lane, and it’s posted at above 35 miles an hour, that may not be an appropriate street to ride an e-scooter down,” Gallagher said.
Charlotte is the only of the four cities not to have implemented a fee on e-scooters. Vendors pay $50 per unit in Greensboro, $100 in Durham and $300 in Raleigh. Leaders haven’t decided whether to use a flat fee like in the other cities, or a dynamic fee.
Council member LaWana Mayfield thought messing with dynamic fees wasn’t worth trying to reinvent the wheel.
“If there’s already a model out there that has a per unit cost associated with it that offsets our cost and also brings revenue to the city, why would Charlotte be looking at working with a pilot?” Mayfield asked.
“The easiest thing to do would be a per
unit cost,” Gallagher admitted. “But in considerations with the transportation and planning committee, there seemed to be interest in exploring a dynamic pricing approach that incentivizes better behavior. Just charging a per-unit charge may not address some of the behavioral issues out there with regards to, say, parking. So what we’re proposing to do is to explore whether we can use technology to improve parking behavior while simultaneously using that technology and data to charge a fee for parking and for utilizing the streets.”
Following suit with Durham and Raleigh, Charlotte wants to implement an equity distribution requirement.
“Then we also are proposing 20 percent of the e -scooters that are employed by the vendors each morning be distributed to low income neighborhoods in Charlotte,” Gallagher said. “We haven’t worked out quite the methodology yet for that, but we think that would get more access to more people across our city to the e-scooter options.”
Council member Ed Driggs thinks the council should keep an eye on that program.
“If that turns out departing too much from where the natural demand occurs and you’ve got underutilized scooters being put in places because we thought they should be served, it’s going to affect the economics of the business and the cost of the service to everybody else,” Driggs said.
Council members could make a decision about the new ordinance as early as Jan. 14 but some, like Mayfield, aren’t sure they’re fully satisfied with the details. Council member Dimple Ajmera said it’s better just to get something out there for now.
“There is a lot more certainty and this is a lot easier to understand than what we’ve had in the past,” Ajmera said. “There is no perfect solution here. We don’t have perfect sidewalks throughout the city, no perfect bike lanes. And if you continue to delay this, I think it adds a lot more complexity and confusion.”
Mayor Vi Lyles agreed.
“I don’t know if there is a perfect answer, but I do know that anything that we put in place – we can certainly come back and try and re-do,” Lyles said. “We’re looking right now for some solution that works to get these things some certainty around it so if somebody talks to you, you can say this is the rule this is the permit. And we can always come back.”
As long as council gets their questions answered by the Jan. 14 meeting, they will make the decision then on the new permits, guidelines and ordinance.