Love ‘em or hate ‘em, e-scooters could be coming to a Pennsylvania city near you

By: - February 28, 2019 6:30 am

Lime, a scooter ride share company, is hoping to expand into Pennsylvania by mid-summer, but needs law changes to start offering their wheels to riders (Capital-Star photo).

A big city Democrat and a central Pennsylvania Republican are teaming up with a former Uber lobbyist to open Pennsylvania up to electric scooter-sharing companies like Lime.

San Francisco-based Lime already has pilot programs lined up across the state. But under current law, electric scooters are considered motorcycles and can be impounded if used without the proper license.

A bill co-sponsored by Reps. Greg Rothman, R-Cumberland, and Stephen Kinsey, D-Philadelphia, would classify electric scooters as bicycles and apply existing bike laws to them.

City planners and public officials across Pennsylvania are balancing their excitement for new tech with safety concerns.

“These things don’t go so fast, but it’s another means of transportation for areas where there’s not necessarily mass transit,” Kinsey said.

Shari Shapiro, Lime’s head lobbyist for the mid-Atlantic and a former hired gun for Uber, said many of Pennsylvania’s neighbors have already updated their codes to allow for electric scooters.

Founded in 2017, Lime rents bikes, cars, and electrics scooters in cities across the country, including Los Angeles, Austin, Washington, D.C., and Baltimore.

The company has also targeted such college campuses as Notre Dame, Duke, and Ohio State.

Using an app, customers pay $1 to unlock an electric scooter, and then pay 15 cents a minute to ride it. According to the company, people have taken 35 million rides on Lime bikes and scooters.

Lime’s electric scooters are dockless, meaning riders can grab them and leave them anywhere when they’re done with them.

That feature has driven some locales crazy trying to keep sidewalks clear.

While its bikes are already in such cities as New York and Chicago, Lime’s electric scooters have been grounded by legal hang-ups and concerns about safety.

Local and state officials who represent those two cities are working on regulations — as is Boston.

Lime’s Shapiro said there’s an assumption that when it comes to innovation, “of course Pennsylvania is always last.”

“But why should that be the case?” she asked.

She added Lime is eyeing Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, State College, and the Harrisburg region for electric scooter pilot programs. Philadelphia City Council, while still hamstrung by state law, held a hearing on scooter legislation Wednesday.

A 2018 report prepared by Lime found its bike and e-scooter riders were on average 32 years old. And 34 percent had an average income of $50,000 or less.

Riders don’t use Lime just to joyride to a bar: 40 percent of riders reported using them for work commutes.

Shapiro said Lime’s electric scooters would take cars off the road. According to the company, 30 percent of users reported replacing trips by car with a scooter.

All the other perks of public transit, like better connection to jobs and businesses, would come at no cost to the municipalities, Shapiro argued. They’d also get ride data for future planning.

Under Kinsey’s and Rothman’s bill, cities would regulate, license, and set insurance requirements for electric scooter companies.

The reception from state bike advocates and transit planners to the proposal is mixed.

Karina Ricks, Pittsburgh’s director of Mobility and Infrastructure, acknowledged the need for “micro-mobility” tech like electric scooters but had some concerns.

For example, Pittsburgh has streets laid with everything from asphalt to cobblestones to woodblocks. Ricks isn’t sure what will happen when and if small rubber wheels meet the city’s various roads.

Electric scooter rides have been linked to injuries in other cities, while a recent bug caused “sudden excessive braking during use.”

There’s also an issue with the scope of the proposed law.

Ricks said the bill “is narrowly written for e-scooters because it is legislation that is essentially sponsored by Lime.”

While she’s for innovative solutions that could get vehicles off the road and reduce carbon emissions, to boot, Ricks thinks a broader bill addressing a number of new technologies might be a better option.

“I think we still are thinking through if we are ready for this kind of bill or not,” she said.

Harrisburg-based urban designer Bret Peters questioned whether Pennsylvania’s cities have enough space to add e-scooters into fledgling bike infrastructure.

“Cities and towns need to have much more worked out bike lane structures in order to accommodate [e-scooters],” Peters said.

He suggested that cities such as Harrisburg reclaim seldom used back alleys as corridors dedicated to bikes, scooters, skateboards, and other types of low-speed personal transportation.

All concerns considered, lawmaker Kinsey feels that, with a Republican and Democrat signed on, the bill has a chance of passing.

“If local municipalities are saying, ‘Hey, OK, it’s not going to cause any negative effect to our communities,’ I think we have a good chance to push it out,” he said.

Shapiro said she hoped to see the bill passed by summer, but the bill still faces skepticism in high places.

House Transportation Committee Chairman Tim Hennessey, R-Chester, said allowing e-scooters is “one possible solution for automobile congestion,” but he is “not promoting it.”

“I don’t think we’ve reached a point where there is a drumbeat for scooters,” he said.

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Stephen Caruso
Stephen Caruso

Stephen Caruso is a former senior reporter with Pennsylvania Capital-Star. Before working with the Capital-Star he covered Pennsylvania state government for The PLS Reporter.