Dodging the potholes and construction patches on West Chapel Hill Street is hard enough in a car. On two wheels, tight bicycle lanes make the commute even more difficult. Now imagine making the trip standing on a thin piece of metal going fifteen miles per hour. 

Durham is moving forward with plans to bring shared electric scooter systems to the Bull City. But transit advocates, including the advocacy group Bike Durham, worry that the city’s infrastructure isn’t prepared to absorb these new devices.

Because a city ordinance restricts users from operating e-scooters on sidewalks, they’ll be relegated to loosely connected bike lanes, says Bike Durham spokeswoman Allison Shauger. But most of Durham’s bike lanes are in wealthier, predominantly white neighborhoods.

“The result is a piecemeal smattering of lanes that don’t form a strategic, accessible connected network,” Shauger says. 

Bike Durham is lobbying for a “low-stress” transit system: safe and accessible infrastructure that allows pedestrians, bikers, and scooter riders to easily get from origin to destination. Durham bike lanes, where they exist, aren’t always connected to a citywide network. They’re also generally not protected by a barrier, which can make biking on a major road precarious for amateur bikers, not to mention scooter riders. 

In fact, Durham does not yet have a single protected bike lane downtown.

“How this plays with scooters is anyone’s guess,” says Aaron Lubeck, chairman of the advocacy organization Durham Bicycle Boulevards. “When it comes down to it, people are gonna go where they feel safe. If their only option is an unsafe street or a sidewalk, they’ll go with the sidewalk. That’s more of a comment on insufficient infrastructure.”

Durham Bicycle Boulevards’ map of bicycle priority streets—also known as neighborhood greenways—marks fifteen miles of low car-traffic roads that will create a network for bike and scooter users throughout the urban core. Instead of designated bike lanes, these streets will use signage, speed management, and pavement markings to encourage bike use over trips in cars. The city adopted the plan in late 2017, and Lubeck says that the priority streets should be marked by the end of the year.

“Our bike network should cover the entire urban tier,” Lubeck says. “That’d be a huge start to where safety should be less of an issue when people are trying to get from place to place on scooters.”  

Both to prepare for the coming onslaught of scooters and because residents want it, Durham Bicycle and Pedestrian Coordinator Dale McKeel says the city is trying to expand its bicycle network. In 2017, the city surveyed 1,040 Durham residents on how to encourage greater bicycle use. Nearly 40 percent of respondents ranked either “better connections between bike paths” or “more bike lanes” as their top priority. Nearly all of the respondents said that they would feel either “very uncomfortable” or “uncomfortable” biking on a major road with no bike facilities.

According to McKeel, Durham currently has 46.5 miles of bike lanes and an additional 39 miles of greenway paths. The city expects to open another mile soon on East Carver Street and aims to add another eight to ten miles later in the year. 

These projects make a real difference, bike advocates say.

“Until Durham has better network connectivity for low-stress travel, the majority of bikeshare and scooter users will either be confident riders or those without any safer option,” Shauger says.

The city began accepting applications from electric scooter companies after the city council amended its shared transportation ordinance in October. Under the ordinance, companies could seek permits for scooters, electric bikes, and traditional bikes, with each device incurring fees of $100, $50, and $25, respectively. The city received applications from five companies that want a piece of the scooter action: Lime, Spin, Gotcha, Lyft, and Bird. 

“We initially thought that there would be a maximum of six hundred scooters and twelve hundred bicycles,” McKeel says. “But based on the number of companies that applied, we are willing to consider increasing the number of scooters.”

None of those companies, however, sought permits for bikes. Even Lime and Spin, which previously operated bikeshare programs in the city, decided to phase them out and invest in scooter fleets. 

This presents a challenge for the city. Scooters are supposed to be used on roads and to adhere to applicable traffic rules, but without protected bike lanes, safety could be an issue. Since the implementation of its scooter program in July 2018, Raleigh has seen at least twenty-five scooter-related accidents resulting in hospital visits.

Durham city staffers are also concerned about finding places to park the devices. Given the restrictions on the use of dockless scooters on sidewalks, it’s unclear where people will leave them after finishing a trip. 

“We’re looking at innovative ways to address parking and looking at some designated parking locations,” McKeel says. “That’s something else that we want to have a game plan for before we launch.” 

In addition to the sidewalk and greenway trail prohibitions, the city’s ordinance includes other regulations meant to encourage safety and accessibility on shared transit devices. These regulations require that scooter users be at least sixteen years of age and that they wear helmets. The city is trying to encourage scooter companies to provide their users with helmets—and figure out how to get Durham riders to wear them.  

It’s unclear, though, to what extent the police will enforce these regulations. In October, the Durham Police Department told the city council that it plans to “address violations of the law that present an obvious and immediate risk to public safety” but “does not anticipate being the primary agent for the regulation of these devices.” Asked for details, a spokesperson told the INDY that the police will “enforce this city ordinance as [they] enforce other city ordinances.”

Forthcoming state rules may further complicate the matter. The state House is considering a bill that would not only provide a definition for “Electric Standup Scooters” but would also strike down municipal policies that conflict with its definition. The bill would prohibit municipalities from banning scooters while giving them specific regulatory powers. Fred Lamar, Durham’s senior assistant city attorney, says the bill, currently in committee, could lead to some changes in city policy. 

“I am certain we will need to modify our ordinance once the final bill is made law,” Lamar says. “The question is how much will it need to change.”

In the meantime, city officials are trying to improve existing infrastructure before permits are issued. Though current bike lane networks are concentrated in wealthy neighborhoods, bike advocates say these devices need to be accessible to low-income residents and communities of color. 

“I can tell you that in the five years that we’ve been advocating, almost every conversation starts with equity,” Lubeck says. “A lot of the bike lanes scheduled for the next few years are spread more evenly throughout the city.” 

The city’s ordinance includes several provisions to encourage accessibility. It requires operating companies to provide at least 20 percent of their devices in low- and moderate-income neighborhoods and mandates that they allow for means of payment that don’t require a credit card or smartphone. 

McKeel says the city has yet to issue permits to the five companies, though he expects that to happen soon. Right now, the city is trying to address its concerns and convince at least one operator to provide a bikeshare program. 

Bike advocates like Shauger remain cautiously optimistic. 

“The most promising possibility of new mobility options, namely scooters, is their potential to attract new users that wouldn’t necessarily ride bikes but have, until now, preferred to drive,” she says. 

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