ITHACA, N.Y. — It remains to be seen whether e-scooters will hit Ithaca’s streets this summer after Common Council voted Wednesday to allow negotiations with the Lime transportation company to move forward but did not vote to approve a pilot program. Reiterating concerns about the safety and legality of e-scooters, Common Council members said they would reconsider a pilot program after seeing a detailed memorandum of understanding between the city and Lime — and once lawmakers in Albany vote to explicitly allow e-scooters on the state’s streets.
As Mayor Svante Myrick summed up, Wednesday’s vote kept the pilot program “alive to come back another day.”
The city has been debating whether to allow the Lime company to add e-scooters to its local fleet of pedal bikes and e-bikes for months. After completing extensive research on e-scooter programs elsewhere, the Mobility, Accessibility and Transportation Commission recommended that the city approve a pilot program with regulations designed to mitigate safety risks. The Planning and Economic Development Committee voted 4-1 in May to bring the proposal to the full Common Council.
Even as they voted to advance the proposal, though, PEDC members said they were conflicted about bringing the vehicles to the city. Ithaca’s geography and transportation infrastructure present challenges for e-scooters, which are not powerful enough to get up the city’s large hills, can reach high speeds while coasting downhill and have small wheels susceptible to getting caught in the city’s potholes. Council members also worried that the scarcity of bike lanes could push riders onto sidewalks, creating a safety hazard and nuisance for pedestrians.
MATCom suggested that a pilot program would help the city assess whether e-scooters are viable locally, but some representatives questioned whether there was a clear plan for gathering and evaluating data during the proposed trial.
In addition, they questioned how safety regulations would be enforced given that city code does not include any e-scooter rules. Even if the Ithaca Police Department was committed to ticketing unsafe riding, “they can’t regulate anything because there’s no code prohibiting anything,” as Alderperson Cynthia Brock put it.
Too many unknowns remained to convince a majority of council members Wednesday that the benefits of an e-scooter pilot program outweigh the risks. It will be the task of the mayor, city attorney, and a small working group to eliminate variables by negotiating a detailed MOU with Lime before returning to council for approval.
Myrick said he has spoken with acting Police Chief Dennis Nayor and that IPD will be involved in negotiating an MOU. Already Nayor has put forward suggestions like marking each scooter with a visible plate number to make it possible to identify rule violators.
Jeff Goodmark, Lime’s local operations manager, said the company is open to working with the city to implement safety protocols and has done so in other cities. For example, Goodmark said in Hoboken his team marked e-scooters with plate numbers and outfitted each with a hanging card listing five key safety tips.
“I share all of your concerns. Safety is absolutely paramount to the success of this program,” Goodmark said.
Whatever MOU is hashed out, the soonest it will return to the full Common Council in July. “All we’re saying is the mayor should move forward and do the research and bring it back to us,” PEDC chair Seph Murtagh said.
Meanwhile, local officials will be tracking the progress of a bill in Albany that would explicitly allow e-scooters and e-bikes on streets across the state, while leaving room for local regulations. Unregistered motorized bikes and scooters are not currently allowed by state law, making the legal status of municipal e-scooter programs murky.
After seeing detailed plans for a pilot and getting an update from Albany, Common Council could approve, delay or reject an e-scooter pilot outright at a future meeting.
Featured image: A Lime e-scooter. (Provided by Lime)