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Seattle starts the electric scooter process

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The city has long resisted an electric scooter share

Four sets of handlebars, each with a rectangular green battery pack attached and a round lime logo at the base, with bricks in the background.
A line of Lime scooters in Tacoma.
Shutterstock

Seattle was the first major American city to set strict rules governing dockless bikeshare more than two years ago. But as shared mobility companies like Lime have started focusing efforts on scooters—and the vehicles have become commonplace in other cities, including nearby Tacoma—Seattle has stayed out of the scooter game.

Wednesday, the Seattle Department of Transportation officially got the ball rolling for scooter-share by starting a public engagement period, although actual scooters on the streets are a ways off. SDOT has laid out a three-phase process for starting an electric scooter pilot—that’s a kind of trial-run for a program—with the goal of deploying scooters sometime next year. The announcement comes several months after Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan directed SDOT to craft a pilot.

Now through this fall, the city will engage community groups, including the city’s pedestrian, transit, and bike advisory boards, along with disability rights and transportation equity organizations, to lay out what a program will actually look like. This will help launch environmental review, a required Washington State process that analyses the impact of major programs. While this first phase focuses on stakeholders, SDOT says there will be “more opportunities to engage” in the next couple of weeks.

Starting later this year and early next year, the city will run another engagement process to help shape permit requirements for scooter-share operators. (For example, when the city put together long-term bike-share rules after the pilot, it started requiring that bike-share operators put equity plans in their applications.) After that’s finalized, the city will start accepting permit applications.

The final phase would be launching the pilot—which SDOT anticipates happening during the first half of 2020.

It’s also possible the Seattle City Council will have to approve legislation to allow the pilot to move forward. The council is currently in an election year, and the all-new lineup will likely be in place by the time legislation would be introduced, including a new transportation committee chair (current chair Mike O’Brien is not seeking re-election).

Although cities often roll the two together (Tacoma even used Seattle’s bike-share rules as a scooter framework), Seattle’s scooter permit will be a wholly separate program from shared bikes, according to SDOT. While many operators provide both bikes and scooters, SDOT spokesperson Ethan Bergerson says that long-term it will “most likely be a separate permitting process” for scooters.

While Seattle is a little late to the scooter party, it’s been in the local conversation for quite some time. When Lime, previously just a bike-share company, launched its scooters, it raised the possibility of bringing them to the city. Then-bike-share operator Spin flounced after Seattle launched its permanent bike-share program, partially because of the ongoing scooter ban. Late last year, both Lime and scooter-share operator Bird launched petitions asking the city to allow the vehicles.

In anticipation of scooters popping up in more cities, the Washington State Legislature even passed a law earlier this year setting guidelines for scooter-share programs.

While Seattle has, until now, resisted allowing scooters, they’re exploding across the country—and residents of other cities are fast accepting them as part of their transit landscapes. Introducing them to car-centric streets has been shaky in many cases, though: San Francisco pulled scooters from the streets last year citing public safety concerns. After widespread parking issues, Austin issued an emergency rule requiring all dockless vehicles be capable of being locked to something. During Chicago’s pilot program, seven out of ten operators garnered fines.

SDOT says part of this process is studying what’s worked, and what hasn’t, in other cities.

“We’ve studied other cities around the U.S. and their approaches to scooter share from Portland to Los Angeles to Nashville and reviewed best practices and lessons learned,” says SDOT spokesperson Niki Seligman in a blog post. “We’ve also surveyed the scooter industry, talked to scooter companies big and small, and learned about the different approaches vendors are taking to offer a safe and responsible mobility option.”

“There are benefits to scooters in Seattle, particularly given their potential to replace driving trips,” the post continues. “But we also know those opportunities may not be equitably distributed, and there may be unintended consequences for specific communities.”

Lime, currently the longest-running bike-share operator in the city, praised the effort.

“We welcome the City of Seattle’s announced due diligence process leading to a scooter-share pilot program in the city,” said a Lime spokesperson over email. “We look forward to being an active participant in the process and are thrilled to be continuing the conversation around bringing scooters to the city of Seattle.”

This article has been updated to include a statement from Lime.