Seattle’s scooter plans are moving forward.
The city launched a six-month due diligence process Tuesday to prepare for a scooter-share pilot that will begin next spring, officials confirmed with GeekWire.
The Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) will start with community outreach and then begin crafting a pilot permit that will finally allow mobility companies to launch free-floating electric scooter-share services in the city.
Seattle was one of the first cities in the country to embrace dockless bicycle share, launching a pilot in 2017 and formalizing the program in 2018. But the city has taken a far more measured approach to scooters, even as surrounding communities embrace them. Neighboring cities Redmond, Tacoma, and Bothell launched scooter pilots in recent months.
SDOT’s bike-share program manager, Joel Miller, said Seattle is hoping to avoid some of the safety and accessibility issues that have plagued other cities.
“We’re really excited because we’re taking this thoughtful approach that gathers all this information that other cities that moved really fast haven’t been able to do,” he said. “We’ll be able to take that information and put together scooter pilot that does a lot more to address those concerns while still allowing for this great new mobility option.”
Starting Tuesday, SDOT will begin reaching out to community and neighborhood groups for feedback on how to create an equitable scooter-share program. City officials expect to finalize permits that scooter companies can apply or by the end of the year and roll scooters out in the spring of 2020.
Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan said in May that she was ready to embrace a scooter-share program if vendors addressed certain safety issues and other concerns. Researchers are just starting to catch up to this new mode of transportation, but early reports indicate that scooter-related injuries are on the rise, particularly among riders who don’t wear helmets. Durkan also said she wants to ensure scooters are accessible to low-income residents and don’t hinder people with disabilities.
Miller said that SDOT’s outreach and research over the next six months will inform its strategy to deal with those issues. Seattle transportation officials will be studying whether some scooters are safer than others and other factors, like time of day and location, that could impact safety.
“That’s one of the advantages of not being the very first city to do scooters,” he said. “We can see what other cities have experienced, where they’ve seen higher injury rates.”
Miller also said SDOT wants to “see where battery technology evolves over the next six months.” Scooters and e-bikes sometimes catch fire because of their lithium-ion batteries. Last week, a Lime e-bike and a warehouse holding Lime e-bikes caught fire on the same night in Seattle.
Durkan also wants to ensure that the city is not held liable if scooter-related injuries occur. Miller said he is confident vendors will agree to that condition based on early discussions.
SDOT said it was too early to say whether certain vendors were more likely to secure a permit than others, but Lime has been a fixture in Seattle since the initial bike-share pilot launched in 2017.
“Lime is proud to be a leader of the micromobility movement here in the Pacific Northwest,” a Lime spokesperson said in a statement. “We welcome the City of Seattle’s announced due diligence process leading to a scooter-share pilot program in the city.”
SDOT has some concerns that introducing scooters will make bike-share obsolete in Seattle. In 2018, scooter ridership surpassed bike-share nationally for the first time. Mobility companies are prioritizing scooters over bikes, which could spell trouble for Seattle’s bike-share program.
But SDOT is studying ways to make Seattle’s bike-share and scooter-share permits work together. One possibility Miller floated is a mandate on the number of bikes a company must operate in order to run scooter-share services.
Scooters started cropping up in U.S. cities about two years ago and spread swiftly. There are now free-floating scooters for rent in more than 100 U.S. cities, a trend that is rapidly reshaping urban transportation infrastructure.
In that short time period, scooter-share has grown to a heavily funded industry. Bird raised $300 million earlier this year at a $2 billion valuation. Lime, secured $310 million shortly thereafter, bringing its value to $2.4 billion. Those are sky-high valuations for young startups in an untested industry.