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The Lessons Seattle Learned After a Year of E-Scooters

The city’s Department of Transportation found that, during the 13-month pilot program, 22 percent of riders used scooters for commuting and 12 percent used them for running errands. The average trip was 15 minutes and cost $6.63.

(TNS) — It's been nearly a year and a half since the first electric rental scooters hit Seattle streets amid concerns of safety, access and obstructions on sidewalks.

Over 1.4 million trips were taken by 260,000 riders during the pilot program between September 2020 and October 2021, with the initial fleet size of around 1,500 colorful devices growing to 5,000 citywide, according to a report recently released by the Seattle Department of Transportation.

Four companies — Lime, Link, Wheels and Spin — currently deploy scooters, and SDOT says the devices are here to stay, with the pilot laying the groundwork for a permanent program.

Spokesperson Ethan Bergerson said the application process for the next round of permits opened last Monday, which will allow up to four vendors in the city. Those vendors could include the companies from the pilot or new ones, he said.

City Council members voted in September 2020 to allow scooters on roads and bike lanes. Since then, the number of scooter trips has outpaced the number of rides taken using the city's mixed fleet of pedal and electric bikes, according to SDOT. In September, Seattle saw just under 300,000 scooter trips compared to about 35,000 bike trips.

As of this year, Lime and Veo are the only companies still operating a bike-share program.

As part of its evaluation report, SDOT conducted audits and a rider survey last fall. Just under 5,200 people responded to the survey, which found:

  • 43% of riders used scooters for recreational purposes like going to the park or to meet friends;
  • 22% percent used scooters for commuting;
  • 15% used scooters for going to restaurants;
  • 12% used scooters for running errands like going to the bank or for a medical appointment;
  • 6% used scooters for shopping.

About one-fifth of respondents said they used scooters to connect to transit and more than half said they would have used a personal vehicle or taxi if the scooters weren't available.

Gordon Padelford, executive director of Seattle Neighborhood Greenways, said he was pleasantly surprised by the popularity of the program despite the pandemic.

"People like having different options, and that's a good thing for the city overall," he said.

Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda said these numbers indicate that scooters can be a feasible low-carbon alternative to cars.

"Not only are scooter shares cleaner and more affordable than taking a vehicle — they also complement our transit system investments by creating connections between transit stops and where people live, work, and recreate," she said in a statement.

The average scooter trip lasted 15 minutes, traveled 1.4 miles and cost $6.63, according to SDOT. Most trips took place in the central downtown area with additional hot spots around the University District, Fremont, Ballard and the Alki Beach area. The most popular times were around late afternoon and the weekends.

While SDOT's survey is not a representative sample, around 70 percent of the scooter riders in the survey identified as white, 65 percent identified as men, and 96 percent said they primarily spoke English at home. About 40 percent of the survey respondents were between the ages of 25 and 34, 25 percent were 35 to 44, and 15 percent were 18 to 24.

Helmets, Sidewalks and Accidents

The risk of injuries and collisions was among the leading concerns leading up to program's approval. There were also concerns over pedestrian safety and whether scooter parking would block sidewalks for wheelchair, walker and cane users.

Helmet use on scooters in Seattle is rare, with 70 percent of riders in the survey responding they never or almost never wear a helmet.

SDOT examined police reports and found 17 collisions, the vast majority of which occurred between a scooter and a vehicle. Five of those cases resulted in "serious" injuries and one was fatal. A man died in West Seattle last April, after he was struck by a driver attempting to make a U-turn.

In the survey, 11 percent — about 570 respondents — reported some type of injury from rides and around 22 percent of those injured said they sought medical help.

Injuries ranged from road rash, requiring stitches, to broken bones and a concussion. Riders attributed factors like poor weather, road conditions like potholes and raised pavement, and interactions with other drivers.

Two council members said they're not convinced the devices are safe and say they want more information.

"We still need answers to our questions about hospital injury stats and how the quantity and type of scooter injuries in Seattle compare to scooter injuries in other cities," Councilmember Alex Pederson said in a statement. Pederson, chair of the council's transportation committee, was the sole vote against the program in 2020.

Councilmember Lisa Herbold said she is still concerned about scooter use on sidewalks and has requested SDOT to seek hospital information on scooter-related injuries.

The survey found that about 22 percent of the survey respondents made some trips on sidewalks, which is not allowed unless a section of a bike lane goes onto the sidewalk like the Fremont Bridge. Bicycles, on the other hand, are permitted on sidewalks as long as riders do so in a "careful and prudent manner."

According to audits conducted by SDOT staff, at the start of the pilot program, about 20 percent of scooters were obstructing sidewalks, improving to about 8 percent by the end of the one-year pilot. SDOT says their goal is to have only 3 percent of parked scooters obstructing sidewalks.

Padelford said he was pleased to see increased education has improved scooter parking and that a wide bike lane network is needed to avoid sidewalk use, since scooters users say they prefer to ride wherever they feel safest.

Equity in Scooter Deployment, Costs

SDOT requires companies to deploy at least 10 percent of their scooters in "equity focus neighborhoods," where people of color, immigrants and people with low incomes live. Those neighborhoods include areas like Bitter Lake and Haller Lake in North Seattle, and South Beacon Hill, Rainier Valley, the Central District and South Park.

SDOT said an average of 15.5 percent of scooters were used in these target areas during the pilot. Around half these trips took place in South Seattle, and 42 percent took place in Central Seattle neighborhoods like First Hill. Only 2 percent of trips took place in the northern targeted neighborhoods.

Vendors are also required to offer "reduced fare membership plans" to people who provide proof of a government income-qualified assistance program, like food stamps or a reduced-fare ORCA card. The plans vary in cost between companies, but SDOT said they set a maximum fare of $1.50 per hour.

Reduced-fare scooter riders represent less than 1 percent of all riders but take about 4.5 percent of rides. Reduced-fare riders took an average of 64 trips per person compared to around three trips per rider overall. The survey indicated, however, that many riders were not aware of how to sign up for a reduced fare plan.

Survey respondents also showed a wide range of income brackets.

About 30 percent of respondents earned less than $50,000 annually and 24 percent earned between $50,000 and $99,999. About 14 percent of respondents said they made less than $25,000 annually and 46 percent made more than $100,000.

With many people not having access to a bike, scooters seem to be a promising way to help people get around if they are just outside of walking distance to transit, Padelford said.

As some scooter companies are merging or going out of business, Padelford said he wonders if it might be worth investing in a public program.

"There's a question mark in a lot of people's minds about whether it's sustainable to be in a private sector model, but we will find out in time," he said.

(c)2022 The Seattle Times. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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