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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Lime scooters – or some kind of rental e-scooters – probably coming back to Spokane in June

A dozen or so Lime scooters lie on the Spokane River bottom at the east end of snxw meneɂ (sin-HOO-men-huh) Island in August 2022 in Riverfront Park.  (Jesse Tinsley/The Spokesman-Review)

Electric scooters are expected to return to Spokane streets next month, with Lime Scooters the most likely after a six-month hiatus from the city.

City officials hope that a new contract will mitigate some of the harms associated with them, including users leaving them to clog city streets and waterways or driving them on downtown sidewalks.

Despite the mixed reception of the public, many of whom have expressed concerns about sidewalk access, safety and other issues to the Spokane City Council in recent years, the shared electric scooters have proved a popular way to get around the city.

The devices were used more than 550,000 times last year by more than 10,000 riders, up from around 370,000 in 2022. They have seen use on every street in the city, especially around downtown and Gonzaga University.

But the electric scooters, which typically show up every March and continue scooting until November, have been absent from Spokane’s streets in recent months. The Spokane City Council, hoping to modify the terms of their contract with any scooter vendor operating in the city, opted last year not to grant Lime a two-year extension while new proposals were explored.

Lime scooters first appeared in Spokane five years ago when the company launched a small pilot program. The city signed a contract with Lime shortly thereafter, and as of last year Spokane was home to about 1,500 scooters each operating season.

Spokane has previously granted Lime a monopoly and didn’t allow any competitors to operate in the city. While three vendors submitted proposals to operate in the city, staff have recommended once again Lime receive the sole rights to operate in the new two-year contract to cut down on the staff time needed to manage the program.

Councilmen Jonathan Bingle and Michael Cathcart believe that, if the program is allowed to continue, it should only be with multiple vendors on city streets. Competition, they argue, would not only keep prices low but is the best way to ensure that an e-scooter company is compliant and proactive about problems.

Others like Councilwoman Kitty Klitzke worry that contracting with multiple vendors would only exacerbate existing problems, putting more scooters in Spokane and making it more complicated for the city to oversee the companies.

The new contract would include new concessions from Lime to prevent some of the chronic problems associated with their devices. These include requirements that its electric scooters have technology to detect when they’re being illegally driven on the sidewalk, that some of the devices be located in impoverished – and thus less profitable – areas of the city, and, for the first time, makes it Lime’s responsibility to remove scooters that are dumped in the Spokane River.

Under the proposed contract language, Lime would have 24 hours to remove any scooter thrown into any body of water in the city, so long as it is “practically possible and safe to do so.” That clock would begin ticking immediately after a submerged scooter was reported by the public or, more likely, the company’s own software.

If the company fails to do so within the allotted time, the city can retrieve the scooters at Lime’s expense and plans to contract with Spokane-based Able Clean-Up Technologies to do so. Lime would also not be allowed to unilaterally retrieve scooters around the river’s hydroelectric dams, which would require a specialized contractor.

The contract does not make clear how the city would verify in real time when the operator has gotten a report, though it does allow the city to audit the companies records for various purposes.

Hundreds of the scooters, powered by batteries with toxic heavy metals that risk leaching despite waterproofing, have been pulled out of the river and intersecting waterways since Lime first hit Spokane streets in 2018. No one but Lime knows how many of the devices have been chucked into the city’s waters, and the company has previously declined to publicly disclose that information.

Safety and sidewalks

Scooters parked haphazardly on sidewalks can create obstacles for people in wheelchairs and the blind. The proposed contract has higher fees for those who improperly park their scooters in the middle of the sidewalk, including a full ban from the service for the fifth violation.

Pedestrians also often say it’s frightening or unsafe when scooter riders whiz by them on city sidewalks.

Under the new contract, the vendor would also have to implement some kind of sidewalk detection technology that would either audibly alert a rider that they were illegally using the scooter on the sidewalk or else forcibly slow the scooter. Lime made its first attempts at such a technology in 2020 with software that tried to predict if a rider was on a sidewalk using vibration detection and an accelerometer, which the company claimed was a 95% accurate system. This experiment appears to have proven insufficient, however, as the company began piloting a camera-based system in a few markets in 2022 that uses machine learning to visually detect when a rider is on the sidewalk.

Sidewalk riding is actually allowed in most areas of the city, according to the contract, with the notable exception of the downtown retail area where the scooters see the heaviest use.

The new contract comes with another first: Lime will have to periodically provide a report to the city about any collisions involving the scooters for which they have data, which the company was not previously required to monitor and which is not available from other agencies, including the state Department of Transportation, which tracks general vehicle collisions but does not have a trackable category for electric scooters. It’s not apparent how reliable Lime’s data will be, however, with collision reports likely needing to be self-generated by riders or those they collide with.

The bottom line

The city’s partnerships with electric scooter vendors brings in a bit of money for the municipality.

Under the prior contract, Lime paid the city 75 cents per vehicle for every day one is out on the streets, plus a $17,000 annual fee. Spokane has received more than half a million dollars from Lime since 2019, including $190,000 in 2022 alone.

Last year, several council members expressed a desire to see higher fees for the operator due to the number of scooter-based complaints the city sees. The proposed contract under consideration would not increase those rates but does include a number of ways that Lime or another vendor could lower them, such as by spending money on educational outreach to get riders to use the scooters properly.

A vendor could also lower its fees based on the generosity, not of their owners, but of its riders. The company would be required to allow donations to a local non-profit through their app and could lower its fees to the city by as much as $5,000 per quarter if it does so.

The proposed contract does have some nominal teeth if Lime or another vendor violates its provisions or doesn’t enforce the rules with its riders, with fines ranging from $500 to $2,500 per violation. Every day a violation goes unaddressed would count as a separate violation with its own fine.

On Monday, Cathcart proposed fining Lime directly for improperly parked scooters, letting the company pass those fees onto the violator without letting it off the hook when it can’t prove who committed the violation.