Bellingham might soon offer a new way of getting around the city

Bellingham is looking at changing its laws regarding electric bikes and motorized scooters and skateboards, with an eye toward a trial program to allow shared e-scooters and other trendy modes of transit citywide.

Shared scooters could arrive by spring 2020, city officials said in a recent report to the City Council’s Public Works and Natural Resources Committee.

Interim Public Works Director Eric Johnston summarized the types of “micro-mobility” devices and how they could provide new transportation options during an Aug. 26 committee meeting.

“They’re seeing a great growth in this industry,” Johnston told the council, adding that devices such as e-bikes and especially e-scooters have become wildly popular throughout the U.S. and the world in just two years.

“The shared scooter is really increasing the number of micro-mobility small trips that people are seeing throughout the United States. That industry only got started about early 2017, exploded in 2018, and in 2019 just continues to take off,” Johnston said in his presentation.

According to data from the National Association of City Transportation Officials, there were 84 million trips on station-based shared bikes, dockless shared bikes and shared scooters in 2018, up from 35 million trips in 2017.

Almost all that growth from 2017 to 2018 was in dockless shared scooters such as Lime, which uses an app to help users find an available scooter and bills them for the time they ride.

Flexible transportation

“Everyone wanted to ride it,” said Rose Lathrop of Sustainable Connections, one of four Bellingham residents who got a Lime scooter to test-drive last month, courtesy of Lime and coordinated by the Downtown Bellingham Partnership.

Lathrop said she liked the ease of being able to use the scooter and then walk away — although for trial purposes she had to keep it with her.

“I think there’s a lot of value in having that flexibility,” she said during a Lime e-scooter demonstration at Waypoint Park. “I rode it everywhere. I took it almost out to the airport.”

Lime scooters are on the streets from Portland, Ore., to Tel Aviv, Israel, and dozens of cities in between.

Seattle is planning an e-scooter program, according to Curbed.com, and pilot programs are underway in Redmond and Bothell, according to GeekWire.com.

Even Everett is on board with e-scooters, Johnston said Thursday in an interview with The Bellingham Herald.

“A lot of times, (e-scooters) can fill the gaps and connect the dots” when public transit isn’t available or practical, said Jonathan Hopkins, Lime’s director of strategic services.

‘A lot of fun’

“It’s a lot of fun,” said Mike Estes, who also got to preview the scooters last month.

“I’m a confident biker,” Estes said in an interview. “For me, the learning curve was very quick.”

Estes, a member of the city’s Planning Commission and a software developer who works downtown, said he zipped around Bellingham despite the rainy weather — even heading to Fairhaven for lunch.

“When I’m stopped on the sidewalk, people ask me a lot of questions,” he said. “You’re going pretty quick, but you catch people’s eye more than you do on a bike.”

He also liked the ease of using a scooter for short errands.

“Those tasks that took 15 minutes of walking, I just hopped on the scooter and there I was,” he said.

E-scooters sit on display during an event held by the Downtown Bellingham Partnership at Waypoint Park in Bellingham Sept. 26. Lacey Young The Bellingham Herald

Cheaper than Uber

Estes said that teens he talked with were impressed with e-scooters’ low cost compared to a shared ride.

Limes have a $1 basic charge to unlock and cost 15 cents a minute, but rates can vary by city, time of day and day of the week, according to the Lime website.

“It’s a quick, cheaper version of taking a cab or a rideshare,” Estes said. “ I’d like to see what these would look like all over Bellingham.”

For low-income users, Hopkins said that Lime offers a reduced price of 50 cents to unlock and 7 cents a mile.

It’s part of Lime’s commitment to transportation equity, he said.

Alternative transportation

Johnston said e-scooters and their cousins can help reduce traffic congestion and pollution.

He told The Bellingham Herald on Thursday that shared e-scooters bridge an alternative-transportation gap between buses, bikes, cars and pedestrians.

“There’s very clear policy throughout the bicycle and pedestrian master plan, the transportation plan, the climate action plan, that we want to promote people using alternative transportation devices. Our code is a little bit lagging behind that,” Johnston said.

Western Washington University is working with the city as it plans for the pilot scooter project, said university spokesman Paul Cocke.

“As the city moves forward with its plans to update municipal codes, we will update university policies so that the two entities are aligned as much as possible,” Cocke said.

‘Accident waiting to happen’

Councilman Terry Bornemann said he favors the proposed e-scooter trial, but he’s wary of allowing motorized bikes and scooters on sidewalks.

“It’s an accident waiting to happen to pedestrians,” he said.

Speeds can reach 15 mph with a range of 12 to 25 miles.

Several recent studies have focused on e-scooters, including one at the Austin (Texas) Department of Health, with help from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

It found a rate of 20 injuries per 100,000 trips on shared scooters.

Researchers found 190 injuries on shared scooters in Austin from September to November 2018, and half suffered head injuries.

One-third of those injured were taking their first ride, according to the report.

Nearly half the serious e-scooters injuries involved alcohol, according to an article in the medical journal Trauma Surgery and Acute Care.

A May 2019 article in TheVerge.com called the scooters “fast, cheap and out of control.”

A Bellingham man was seriously injured in March 2018 when he ran a red light and was hit by a car while riding an electric skateboard, according to Bellingham Herald files, and The Associated Press reports that scooter injuries are increasing nationwide.

‘No evidence’ scooters more dangerous

In contrast, a 2019 report on a study conducted by the Multnomah (Oregon) Health Department encouraged the city of Portland to keep its e-scooter program.

“After reviewing emergency department and urgent care clinic data, the Health Department found no evidence of injury rates that would discourage a further scooter pilot in the city of Portland,” the report said.

Multnomah County officials counted 176 emergency room visits for scooter injuries from July to November 2018, but noted that the rate of injuries declined over time, rose, then fell again.

During the four-month e-scooter pilot program, there were no deaths involving e-scooters.

But over the same period, there were 14 car crash fatalities, the report said.

“We’re not seeing that there’s a greater likelihood of people getting injured using a scooter over other modes of transportation,” Johnston said. “There’s no evidence that scooters are more dangerous.”

Changes to city laws

Johnston told committee members that city codes don’t adequately address modern “active transportation devices” such as electric skateboards, electric scooters and electric-assist bicycles.

He said city codes treat these vehicles differently — requiring helmets for scooters but not bikes, for example.

Council member April Barker said that a Bellingham resident told her that he’s been ticketed for riding his electric skateboard in a bike lane.

Johnston said that’s an indication that city codes should be adjusted.

“We need some consistency across these modes. We don’t have that right now,” Councilman Micahel Lilliquist said.

Lilliquist said changes might be required for helmet laws, how and where bikes and scooters could be used, and whether electric bikes and scooters could use parks, urban trails and sidewalks.

“Do I treat these like bicycles or pedestrians? I think I’d tend to treat them more like bicycles. And bicycles can ride down streets, bicycles can use bike lanes, bicycles can use sidewalks in neighborhoods, but bicycles cannot ride in pedestrian zones,” Lilliquist said. “I don’t think sidewalks are all the same. We treat downtown and residential sidewalks differently.”

He said the city should adopt its codes quickly. He also worried about data-sharing and scooters that are abandoned, clogging streets and sidewalks.

“These forms of transportation are coming forward whether we like it or not,” he said. “People will use them, and we need good rules.”

Helmets were provided with test E-scooters during an event held by the Downtown Bellingham Partnership at Waypoint Park in Bellingham Sept. 26. Lacey Young The Bellingham Herald

Top complaints

Most complaints about e-scooters concerned riding on the sidewalk and lack of helmet use, according to a story in Seattle Met.

Some Bellingham officials feared that the scooters could be abandoned on sidewalks and create a hazard for pedestrians, people who use wheelchairs or parents with strollers.

“Proper use of helmets can reduce the risk of serious injury to a user of active transportation devices,” Johnston said in an Aug. 20 to Mayor Kelli Linville. “However, enforcement of the requirement to wear a helmet while using an active transportation device may prove difficult. Further, some jurisdictions worry that a helmet requirement may reduce the interest and use of an active transportation device.”

Requiring that shared-scooter companies provide helmets is logistically difficult, Johnston said.

He said some cities, such as Spokane, don’t require rental companies to provide helmets and don’t enforce helmet requirements.

Half of 2,600 Bellingham residents surveyed this year by the city’s Planning and Community Development Department and the Downtown Bellingham Partnership favored a shared bike or scooter project, Johnston said.

Some 35% of residents opposed such a program and 16% were unsure.

Residents who were opposed or unsure cited safety concerns, visual clutter, or blocking of sidewalks, Johnston said.

“I would have the same concerns as other people,” said Bradley James Lockhart of Lariat Creative, after his week-long test-drive. “Such as where do we put them and will they get in the way?”

Nevertheless, he enjoyed riding his scooter.

‘Nerd’ factor

Jim Straatman, vice president of new products for Faithlife, said the downtown Bible software company has a dozen scooters for its employees to use around town. He also got an e-scooter to test-drive.

“My experience was amazing,” Straatman said in an interview. “I’m into two wheels and getting around. I hopped right on. I’m a bike commuter and a snowboarder, so I’m used to that kind of thing.”

Johnston said the city recently bought six e-bikes for employees to use in short trips around downtown.

Lathrop said she sometimes got the ‘stinkeye’ or jealous glances from people on the street.

“There is this nerdiness factor, but when you’re riding it, it’s not nerdy at all,” she said. “You mostly get shade from people who don’t have one.”

Robert Mittendorf covers civic issues, weather, traffic and how people are coping with the high cost of housing for The Bellingham Herald. A journalist since 1984, he’s also a volunteer firefighter for South Whatcom Fire Authority.