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Opinion >  Column

Getting There: Lax enforcement makes Lime scooters a hazard for some

Jacob Proost and Ben Stone ride Lime scooters in spring 2019 in Riverfront Park.  (Dan Pelle/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
Jacob Proost and Ben Stone ride Lime scooters in spring 2019 in Riverfront Park. (Dan Pelle/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

Lime announced a milestone in mid-June: 1 million rides had been taken on its scooters and bikes in Spokane since they first arrived in 2018.

That may be a celebratory milestone for the company, but for anyone who has been buzzed by a flock of speeding tweens on electric scooters, the news that Lime is thriving may not be entirely welcome.

And for some, the city’s arrangement with Lime is more than an inconvenience.

Scooters ridden on, and left in, the middle of sidewalks represent a serious hazard for those who are disabled and who have to navigate the obstacles, often by leaving the sidewalk altogether, according to Ryan Parrey-Munger, director of the disability studies program at Eastern Washington University.

“It sends my friends and family into the middle of the street, into more unpredictable danger, because you’re now in the middle of the road,” Parrey-Munger said.

Parrey-Munger is blind, and his wife, Kelly, who also teaches in the EWU disability studies program, has cerebral palsy and uses a mobility scooter. Their family also includes a 5-year-old girl.

Over the past few years, Parrey-Munger said he’s tripped over scooters, been bruised by them and otherwise been endangered by them.

On one recent and brief trip to the store, he said, his wife had to navigate six improperly parked scooters.

But Parrey-Munger isn’t against Lime’s presence. He’s just for their proper, thoughtful and considerate use.

“I think people like and need the scooters, just as much as people like and need the scooters not to be in the middle of the sidewalk, not in doorways,” he said.

There are rules against that.

According to the city’s contract with Lime, users are supposed to park unobtrusively, in the landscape/furniture zone that lies outside the main pathway of some sidewalks.

While Lime has touted its efforts to “work tirelessly” to compel people to park properly, including in the language of its 2019 contract with the city, those efforts haven’t always been successful.

So when the city renewed its contract with Lime this spring, it added something new: mechanisms for enforcing the rules.

The new contract creates a $15 fee for parking violations, which the city is tasked with documenting. The city is then supposed to invoice Lime each month for the total number of fees, which are to be passed on to the scofflaws.

“It is required that, when possible based on trip data and time-stamped photographic documentation of each parking violation, the shared mobility vendor pass this fee directly to the offending user,” the contract states.

The contract also explicitly requires Lime users to abide by existing municipal code that regulates sidewalk riding and parking, and states that violators are subject to penalties.

“Penalties will be applied directly by the City to users, per violation,” the contract states.

The city will also submit to Lime a list of users who have been fined each quarter, according the contract. Lime, in turn, is tasked with providing the city with a report “listing notifications, warnings, and suspensions delivered to users on a quarterly basis.”

Lime is instructed to suspend those who incur three violations in one “operating season,” per the contract.

Michael Norco, Lime’s operations manager for the Pacific Northwest, sent an emailed statement about the changes.

“Lime’s goal is to work with the City of Spokane and our local partners to design the best micromobility experience for everyone, riders and non-riders alike,” Norco wrote. “We consider these updated regulations a next step in our partnership with the city and we are more than happy to comply.”

While the new measures are in place, it appears they haven’t yet been robustly deployed.

The company’s own enforcement arm, Lime Patrol, logs about 40 hours per week in the downtown area, Davis said. And while they “have given out warnings and suspended accounts,” they “have not issued fees to date,” wrote Kirstin Davis, a city spokeswoman, in an emailed response to questions.

Asked how many tickets or citations the city has issued since Lime became available in Spokane and since the new contract took effect on May 13, Davis said, “The City currently does not have separate records of citations or tickets issued by the City of Spokane specifically to people on electric scooters, as these would fall under general violations of the Sidewalk Safety ordinance.”

When asked whether that means no such violations have been issued or if the city hadn’t combed through violations to check whether they were related to scooters, Davis wrote, “The City has not performed an analysis of the citations issued for sidewalk safety ordinance violations to determine how many are related to scooters specifically. The law requires access to and review of violations is restricted to specialized City staff members.”

As for parking violations, Davis said some have been documented since the new contract took effect, but the company has not yet been invoiced for them because “the new systems for documenting and invoicing for these violations” has not been set up.

But she did note that police and code enforcement officers would “take an education first approach” and would “continue to use discretion based on availability, behavior, call load and other priorities that may occur during an officer’s shift.”

That education-first philosophy may have contributed to the relatively miniscule number of reported violations documented since those 1 million rides started.

Davis said the city counted 62 reported violations in 2019, 30 in 2020 and 23 in 2021.

Combined, those violations account for 0.0115% of the ride total.

Anecdotal evidence, however, strongly suggests the true rate of improper use is far higher.

Lime’s scooters and bikes are also available in Spokane Valley, though without a contractual agreement in place, according to Jeff Kleingartner, city spokesman. But existing regulations mean devices are not allowed to block sidewalks.

“We do receive periodic complaints and there is a local Lime representative we contact with issues that is responsive,” Kleingartner wrote in an email. “Enforcement is by Spokane Valley Police. We are not aware of if any citations have been issued related to Lime scooters/bikes.”

Parrey-Munger isn’t a fan of harsh penalties, but argues the existing level of enforcement isn’t working.

“I wish we didn’t need the regulations,” Parrey-Munger said. “In the ideal world, people would use their scooters and leave them out of the way and it wouldn’t be an issue. But obviously people don’t think that way, so something has to happen.”

While it remains to be seen how extensively the city of Spokane will use its new enforcement tools, Davis said the Lime program offers benefits as well.

“Shared mobility, including e-scooters and e-bikes, provides one more option for getting around Spokane, and fits a unique gap in the transportation system by providing a convenient option for quickly and easily accomplishing short trips of 1 mile or less,” Davis said.

She said surveys indicate “that over one-third of these trips are for work and over 20% are for shopping or errands. These surveys also indicate that more than 70% of riders visit local businesses more when this program is available. Almost every rider surveyed visited a local business on a shared vehicle, as 97% of riders indicated they had visited a local business on a scooter.”

Parrey-Munger said he agrees that the program has benefits, but that lax enforcement undermines its underlying purpose.

“I always thought that the point of Lime scooters was a low-cost means of transportation to make freedom of movement easier,” he said. “And to see them being a hazard to access in this way, I think it goes against the spirit of Lime, as far as I understand it.”

He also said the impediment created by ditched scooters and bikes is “erasing” some of “the progress we’ve made toward more accessibility” for those who get around in different ways, even if they only account for a minority of the population.

“Most people can reach out and open a door without thinking about it, most people can step onto a curb without thinking about it, and yet we have curb cuts and automatic doors and braille in elevators,” he added. “So why would you draw the line arbitrarily here?”

What may be an afterthought for a Lime user or a low priority for a swamped city police officer can mean much more for a family who has to enter a busy street to circumvent a scooter on the way to the grocery store, Parrey-Munger said.

“It’s sending the message on a broad level and in a very concrete way: ‘You can’t be here’ and ‘We don’t think about you and we don’t care about you.”

Work to watch for

Construction began Saturday at the intersection at Argonne Road and Montgomery Avenue in Spokane Valley. Over the next 10 weeks, crews will update pavement, signal equipment, stormwater facilities and curb ramps.

Work on Phase 3 of the Bigelow Gulch project means Weile Avenue is closed from Thierman Road to Bigelow Gulch Road through July 31. Bigelow Gulch Road is also closed from Weile Avenue to Argonne Road starting Friday through July 19.

Arterial chip-seal work is happening on Southeast Boulevard from Perry to 29th Avenue, today through Wednesday; Post Street from Cleveland to Maxwell Avenue, today and Tuesday; Wellesley Avenue from Milton to Ash Street, Wednesday and Thursday; and Freya Street from Wellesley Avenue to Upriver Drive, Friday.

A School Safety Project starts today and will cause lane closures on Wellesley Avenue at Helena Street.

Crews also will be working on Perry Street between Longfellow and Empire Avenue.

Nevada Street between North Foothills Drive and Francis Avenue will have closures of single lanes starting today.

Crews also are starting a grind and overlay project on Hamilton Street today between Desmet and Indiana.

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