After motorized scooters dropped unannounced in Raleigh and Chapel Hill, Durham officials began preparing for the same inevitability. But their fix is presenting headaches of its own.
A proposed revision to a city ordinance defines motorized scooters as mopeds under North Carolina law. That subjects the scooters to a host of equipment requirements in order to be safely driven on roads, where Durham scooter users would be relegated.
The problem is, the electric scooters descending on American cities don’t generally have all of the requisite moped stuff—inflatable tires, lights for riding at night, a mirror, registration, and a license plate.
“We have a balance to strike in this between having the scooters operating and providing benefits to the, city and not,” says council member Charlie Reece, who ventured to Raleigh last week to give a Bird scooter a spin. (He reports that it was “scary and exciting in equal measure.”) “The balance we have to strike is that scooters will almost certainly come here at some point. The danger is that, because of a quirk in state law, there are certain legal requirements that the statutes impose on the devices that they will not meet when they are deployed.”
According to Cody Charland, Bird’s Raleigh fleet manager, Bird scooters have inflatable tires and lights, but not mirrors or license plates—although Charland says he can’t speak to whether those features could be added. It’s also unclear whether the scooters meet the registration requirement.
But the company’s government affairs representatives don’t seem concerned about the moped part of the proposal. They didn’t bring it up in a recent email to the city council expressing support (with some reservations) for the ordinance or in remarks at Monday’s city council meeting.
The proposal would ask companies seeking permits to operate in the city to affirm that their devices meet the moped requirements outlined by state law. Actually making sure they do is a whole other problem.
As such, council members on Monday night delayed a vote on the ordinance until they could get input from the city’s Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee and the Durham Police Department, which could be put in the position of telling unsuspecting riders that the scooter they just rented doesn’t comply with the law. Under state statute, it’s a misdemeanor to drive an unregistered moped on a street or to allow a moped you own to be driven unregistered. Moped riders also have to be at least sixteen and must wear helmets.
City attorney Patrick Baker says whether the term moped is in the ordinance or not, the classification is basically unavoidable. Scooters are obviously not cars, ATVs, bikes, or electric-assisted bikes, as defined by state law. Personal-assisted mobility device, like Segways, would be a nice bucket to drop them in if that definition didn’t specify that they have two wheels not in tandem.
“Once you stick a motor on it, it’s got to be some sort of motorized vehicle,” Baker says. “Through the process of elimination, you end up with: It must be a moped.”
What’s more, city code prohibits bikes (and vehicles) on sidewalks, and the council hasn’t expressed a desire to treat zippy fifteen-mile-per-hour scooters differently. So they have to go on roads, which means they have to have lights, a mirror, and inflatable tires—like mopeds.
In meetings about the scooters, council members also haven’t made pleas to outright ban the things—as cities from San Francisco to Miami have done—or let them exist “in a lawless state,” as Reece describes the current situation in Raleigh, where city staffers have been given two months to craft an ordinance regulating scooters that are already there. (Unlike Durham, Raleigh doesn’t have a dockless bike-share program whose regulations can be amended to cover scooters.)
The scooters offer an alternative to cars for short trips, particularly the last bit of a commute after exiting public transportation, and take up less space than bikes. Companies round them up nightly to avoid the kind of clutter that has prompted complaints about Durham’s bike-share system.
Durham’s existing ordinance requires companies to make the shared transportation devices accessible to low-income areas. The proposed revision adds a requirement to accommodate people without smartphones or credit cards.
Bird has some qualms about this last part because the service is built around an app. Before their first ride, customers must snap a photo of any government ID showing they are at least eighteen. After each ride, they’re asked to take a picture proving they parked properly. (The company does discount fees for anyone enrolled in state or federal assistance programs.) Servando Esparza, Bird’s senior manager of government relations, also asked council members Monday night to revisit a $100 per-device fee, which he said is “one of the higher ones of all the cities we operate in.”
City officials have asked the DMV and the state Attorney General’s Office for guidance, but ultimately they think a change in state law is needed to define this new technology.
“That’s the challenge we’re having,” Baker says. “This is a case where the technology is out in front of the legislation.”