Arlington, VA

Modern Mobility is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.

On November 16th the County Board will hold a public hearing on the “micromobility ordinance.”

In addition to providing a permanent framework for “for-hire” micromobility companies like Bird and Lime to offer e-scooters and e-bikes on Arlington streets, the ordinance tries to finally make some sense of Arlington’s vague and conflicting rules and regulations around bicycles, e-bikes, scooters, e-scooters, motorized skateboard and a whole range of other weird and unique ways to get a person around without a car.

Unfortunately, the ordinance still needs some work and time is short – if Arlington does not regulate these devices before the first of the year, state law will take over and the window of opportunity will have closed.

The Good

The draft ordinance gets several things right. First off, it creates clear regulations on where it is and is not appropriate to park micromobility devices. They must not be parked:

  1. Where they would obstruct curb ramps, pedestrian access within bus stops or fire access
  2. On private property without permission
  3. On public property other than streets and sidewalks except where designated.

Finally, it requires them to be “parked upright, in such a manner as to afford the least obstruction to pedestrians and vehicular traffic.” The fine for violation is set at $50.

Second, the ordinance brings much needed clarity and consistency around who can ride where. All micro-mobility devices would be allowed on streets, in bike lanes, on trails, and on most sidewalks.

Finally, the ordinance transitions the framework of “for-hire” micromobility devices from pilot to permanent and adds a requirement for geographic dispersion to help ensure that this new mobility option is available across Arlington.

Giving “for-hire” micromobility a permanent home on Arlington’s mobility menu is an important milestone given micromobility devices’ potential role in replacing cars for short trips. Half of all trips taken in the U.S. are 3 miles or less. If we don’t regulate them into oblivion, these devices can be extremely attractive and competitive at providing a short distance mobility option to driving alone.

We’ve already seen the beginnings of this in the pilot – micromobility devices were used for 70,000 trips per month during the pilot (despite much of the pilot being during the winter) and about one third of scooter trips replaced what would have otherwise been a car trip.

The Bad

Unfortunately, some not-so-good, nasty provisions have made their way into the ordinance and there’s not much time to get them fixed. The ordinance provides the County Manager the option to unilaterally ban micromobility devices (remember that’s not just scooters, it’s also bikes, e-bikes and e-skateboards) from certain sidewalks while defining no clear process for how such a determination would be made.

While one would hope that it would be a data-driven process looking solely at safety, past experience in Arlington makes me concerned that such a process would instead reward the squeakiest wheel – those happy with the old status quo, those with plenty of time on their hands to attend evening meetings and pack a civic association meeting.

The draft ordinance gives the Board two options for additional sidewalk bans. The first (which I support) is to ban micromobility devices from sidewalks on streets that have a protected bike lane. Protected bikes lanes are the gold standard for all-ages, all-abilities infrastructure for micromobility devices and where they exist requiring their use is reasonable. However, the advertised ordinance gives the Board the option to instead ban devices on sidewalks where any bike lane exists. This option would be a huge step backward for the County.

The recently-passed update to the Bike Element of the Master Transportation Plan finally acknowledged that plain bike lanes are not sufficient infrastructure for safe, low-stress travel by for the majority of the population. Requiring people to ride where they do not feel safe would strongly discourage travel by modes that could help us on our difficult transition to a carbon neutral county.

The Ugly

Especially concerning, the ordinance sets a bunch of disparate and confusing speed limits for micromobility devices on streets and trails. E-scooters and e-skateboards would be limited to 15 miles per hour, e-bikes to 20 miles per hour and non-electric bicycles would continue to have no speed limit whatsoever. These speed limits are completely arbitrary, backed by zero data, and the result of no study whatsoever.

Changing the automotive speed limit on our streets requires an extensive engineering study, but apparently changing the speed limit for bikes and scooters on every street and trail in the County just requires staff to pluck a number out of thin air.

The trail speed limits may be appropriate – fast moving bikes and scooters certainly present a perceived safety problem for pedestrians, though perhaps not an actual safety problem. The speed limits on streets, however, are just as likely to worsen safety as to improve it – they will create an additional speed differential for micromobility users when sharing space with cars that are going 25 miles per hour or more. Additionally, these speed limits would severely limit micromobility devices’ ability to compete with cars for trip speed making people much more likely to choose cars instead for their trips.

Finally, the ordinance gives the Board the option to pass a speed limit of either 6 mph or 15 mph on sidewalks, with staff recommending 6 mph. This proposed speed limit springs forth from good intentions — limiting reckless behavior around pedestrians — but is a poor means to accomplish that end.

It’s difficult to accomplish — riding under 6 mph on a scooter is challenging and doing so on an e-bike is even harder. And it limits device speeds on every sidewalk, all the time — including completely empty sidewalks well away from bustling urban areas, and in the middle of the night – an unnecessary restriction that does not accomplish its stated goals. Finally, it’s unlikely to ever be enforced, except perhaps in the event of an actual crash between a device rider and a pedestrian.

Do you think Arlington police will be, or should be, out tagging scooter riders with a radar gun? If the goal is, in fact, to give police something to charge a rider with in the event of a crash, then something like a “reckless driving” ordinance for micromobility devices would be more properly applicable and potentially easier to make stick in court.

Moving Forward

If you have opinions on how bikes, e-bikes, e-scooters and e-skateboard should be regulated, now is the time to contact the County Board and let them know your feelings. The Board will hold a public hearing on the draft ordinance on November 16. Should there be a speed limit for these devices on streets, trails and sidewalks? If so, what should they be?

Chris Slatt is the current Chair of the Arlington County Transportation Commission, founder of Sustainable Mobility for Arlington County and a former civic association president. He is a software developer, co-owner of Perfect Pointe Dance Studio, and a father of two.

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