ITHACA, N.Y. – When e-scooters last appeared on the Planning and Economic Development Committee agenda in March, the committee hit the brakes. PEDC members wanted recommendations from the Mobility, Accessibility and Transportation Commission, which has been tasked with researching e-scooters, regarding best practices before rolling out an electric scooter sharing program in the City of Ithaca.
At a meeting Monday, MATCom voted to recommend an e-scooter pilot program, starting as early as June and continuing through November, with policies designed to mitigate safety and nuisance concerns. The volunteer commission’s recommendations will be passed on to the PEDC in May, and if the committee votes to move forward, to Common Council in June.
The commission’s recommendations come after a months-long research process that weighed information from similar cities with e-scooter sharing programs, findings from research studies carried out in larger cities, and input from community stakeholders including residents and transportation advocates.
Sarah Barden, who co-authored MATCom’s report on e-scooters with Megan Powers, said she approached the project with an open mind but was convinced the vehicles could benefit the City of Ithaca after talking to representatives from four cities and considering available data from existing programs.
“When we went into this process, we weren’t going into it with an agenda,” Barden said. She said programs in other cities “showed that there are some pretty positive aspects to e-scooter sharing, particularly with how they fill gaps in the transportation system.”
The scooters, which can travel up to 15 m.p.h. and require minimal rider exertion, have proven in to be an efficient way of connecting to other modes of transportation, like buses, in some cities.
The goal of a pilot program, Barden said, would be to evaluate whether e-scooters are a good fit locally. If the city decides to move forward with a pilot program, the commission suggested some ground rules for getting started.
First, the city should establish that companies need formal MOUs with the city before operating scooter sharing programs, the commission concluded. Lime, which operates the city’s bike-share program, is the only company in conversation with the city about e-scooters so far, so MATCom’s recommendations for an MOU were written with Lime in mind. By requiring an MOU to operate in the city though, the commission said officials can maintain local control over regulations if other companies enter the scene.
MATCom suggested that the city should wait until the end of a pilot period to establish a formal MOU with Lime if it proceeds with an e-scooter program, so the terms of the agreement can be informed by local data. Still, the commission drew on data from existing programs to recommend regulations that could be put in place for the pilot program.
The commission recommended establishing a curfew, after which time e-scooters would be removed from the streets for overnight recharging. They also recommended using “geofencing” technology to establish zones where scooters cannot operate, including the Commons, and zones where scooters can only operate at reduced speeds. Lime can remotely power down the motors of e-scooters when a curfew strikes or when a scooter enters a prohibited zone.
MATCom suggested two options when it comes to where Lime should be allowed to place e-scooters. While all the scooters will be dockless, like LimeBikes, the commission said the city should decide whether or not to allow e-scooter staging on major hills. While they raised the possibility of prohibiting e-scooter use on steep hills like East Buffalo Street, they ultimately did not recommend a ban due to concerns about enforcement. Instead, they advised the city to weigh safety concerns and decide whether Lime should be allowed to stage e-scooters at the top of hills.
Apart from safety, MATCom considered how e-scooter policies would impact transit accessibility. Lime limits e-scooters to riders 18 and older, so based on public feedback indicating middle and high school students use LimeBikes to get around, the commission recommended requiring Lime to maintain a fleet of pedal bikes. Elsewhere, Lime has been phasing out pedal bikes for e-bikes and e-scooters, which the company has said are more profitable. MATCom’s recommendations leave it up to Common Council whether the company should be held to a specific quota – they suggest 68 pedal bikes and 34 electric bikes, with no more than 50 scooters introduced at the launch of the pilot – or should simply be required to uphold its bike-share MOU alongside a new e-scooter MOU.
The commission proposed fining the company for e-scooters that are improperly parked, including e-scooters that block fire hydrants, ADA access to sidewalks, building entrances or pedestrian crossings. They also proposed fees per scooter ride and a one-time permit fee, with fines and fees going into a city account designated for infrastructure improvements and program administration costs.
To increase residents’ and the city’s knowledge around e-scooters, the commission recommended an educational campaign and data collection efforts. They propose using channels from online and in-app pages to staffed booths at festivals to spread information about e-scooter safety, both to riders and to drivers, cyclists and pedestrians who will encounter them. They also suggest the city should take advantage of GPS data from Lime and whatever safety and enforcement data they can collect to inform an eventual decision about a longterm e-scooter MOU.
Barden acknowledged that there are still a lot of unknowns about e-scooters, including whether they can be safely and feasibly used on Ithaca’s street grid and hilly terrain. The purpose of the pilot program, she and other commissioners said Monday, is to determine whether the level of risk is tolerable and whether the scooters bring demonstrable benefits.
“It’s a pilot to see how e-scooters interface with Ithaca. We want people to be aware that, if the pilot happens, as data is collected the intention is for that to inform how the program moves forward. We want it to work for people,” Barden said.
MATCom has already received significant feedback from the community, which shaped revisions of its report and its ultimate recommendation, but there are still several opportunities for community members to weigh in before Common Council decides whether to approve a pilot program. Residents can reach out to MATCom with questions or comments via email, or can participate during public comment at the next PEDC meeting, 6 p.m. Wednesday, May 8.
Featured image: Lime e-scooters staged on a sidewalk in Oakland, California. (Devon Magliozzi/Ithaca Voice)