Baltimore officials to amend proposal that called for 30 days in jail for riding electric scooters too fast

The Baltimore Transportation Department said Monday it would amend legislation that could have exposed people who ride a rental scooter too fast or on some city sidewalks to a month in jail and a $1,000 fine.

German Vigil, a spokesman for the department, said officials’ intention is for riders to face $20 citations if they violate a set of proposed rules. He said they had never expected a scooter rider to face jail time.

Vigil said the department would offer an amendment to the proposal “to eliminate any possibility that criminal penalties could apply to a rider.”

The criminal sanctions are included in legislation the department asked the City Council to consider regulating the companies that provide dockless rental bikes and the electric-powered scooters, which appeared last year on Baltimore’s streets, and to impose rules of the road on riders.

But Vigil said the department’s intention had been for the criminal sanctions to apply to companies if they broke the rules that would apply to them.

“For a criminal penalty to be imposed, a court would need to find that a violation of the law was so egregious that a criminal penalty is deserved,” he said. “That situation was never expected to arise for a rider, but potentially might arise for a provider of a vehicle for hire.”

Bird and Lime operate the scooters under a pilot program with the city and Lime has a fleet of rental bikes, too. There were as many as 1,400 of the scooters in Baltimore as of October, and in the first few months, users had taken some quarter of a million rides.

The companies generally have taken the approach of offering the vehicles in U.S. cities and waiting for the authorities to catch up. The proposed law is Baltimore’s response and it calls for strict rules on the scooters, backed by stiff penalties.

Transportation Director Michelle Pourciau briefed council members Monday on the legislation at their working lunch.

“We’ve been working diligently to see what we’ve found from the pilot,” Pourciau said. “We know from the pilot, for the most part, it’s providing a new form of mobility and it is very popular.”

But advocates for alternatives to using cars to get around said they are concerned that the proposal puts too many limitations on the use of the scooters and bikes and focuses on penalizing riders, rather than on creating infrastructure, such as dedicated lanes, where they can be used safely.

Councilman Ryan Dorsey said he was passed by a scooter user and a cyclist on the sidewalk while he spoke by phone about the proposal.

“They’re not hurting anybody, and to relegate people to have to operate in an unsafe environment is immoral,” Dorsey said. “We should be actually committed to creating a safe environment.”

Maggie Gendron, Lime’s director of strategic development, said the company’s research has found its users generally ride on sidewalks when they don’t feel safe on the streets. She said the San Francisco-based company is encouraging a broader discussion of how cities design their transportation routes.

Gendron said in general the company welcomes the proposed Baltimore law because it would allow it to make better plans.

“We want to know where do we set up a long-term warehouse and what staff are we hiring and how do we give them long-term security,” she said.

Bird spokesperson Mackenzie Long said: “Bird has concerns regarding the City Council's proposed regulations of e-scooters, particularly regarding the proposal to criminalize rider behavior with overly severe consequences and the suggested fee structure. We were pleased to learn that Department of Transportation has already said they will amend the proposal to eliminate the overcriminalization of e-scooters, and we hope they will similarly revisit the proposed fees. We are working with City Council and the Department of Transportation and we hope to help define a framework that can best serve everyone in the community."

The scooters and electric bikes cost $1 to unlock and 15 cents per minute to ride.

The legislation would put the cost of regulating the scooters onto the companies that operate them, in the form of fees, and would impose a 10-cent per ride tax. It also would give traffic enforcement officers the power to seize scooters that have been improperly parked.

Riders, meanwhile, would have to be at least 16 years old and ride in the street on roads that have a speed limit of 30 mph or less. Scooters and e-bikes would be subject to a 15-mph speed limit. On roads with higher speed limits, riders would be allowed on the sidewalk, but would face a 6-mph speed limit.

Riders would be required to use lights at night, but the law does not call for any other safety gear, such as helmets or pads.

Baltimore’s proposal also would require the transportation director to ensure equitable access to the scooters and bikes by people throughout the city.

The proposed law says the violation of any of its provisions or rules subsequently imposed by the Transportation Department would be a misdemeanor, punishable by up to 30 days in jail and a $1,000 fine. But it also includes a provision for $20 civil citations in cases where the rules for using or parking the vehicles are broken — and it’s that provision Vigil said officials intended to apply to riders.

Violating the city’s bicycle laws — which ban riding on the sidewalk — is already a misdemeanor, but carries a fine of just $10.

The potential for criminal penalties in the dockless vehicles legislation worried activists. David Rocah, an attorney with the ACLU of Maryland, said that even without criminal penalties, conflicts between rules for electronic bikes and scooters and those for regular bicycles could lead to racial disparities in enforcement.

“The more confusing the rules you’re writing, the more opportunity for police intervention and the more potential for disparities in the ways the rules are enforced,” Rocah said.

Vigil said the proposed rules are different because scooter riders are more exposed than those on bicycles. He did not address a question about battery-powered bikes.

The scooters quickly gained a sense of ubiquity in Baltimore, but the proposed law would allow far more of them on city streets. Currently, operators are capped at 1,000 each. The proposal would permit a total of 12,000 scooters and dockless bikes.

Cities and states around the country are working to set rules for the scooters and bikes. In November, officials in Washington, D.C., announced an alternative approach to dealing with speeding scooters and electric bikes. Companies that want to operate in the District of Columbia are being required to cap scooters’ speed at 10 mph and that of electric bikes at 20 mph. In New York, Mayor Bill De Blasio has called battery-powered bikes a danger and police launched a crackdown in which hundreds were seized. But delivery drivers, many of them immigrants, rely on the bikes to get food to their customers.

Jed Weeks, the policy director for cycling advocacy organization Bikemore, said he was concerned that the Baltimore proposal would spell out too much in difficult-to-change laws rather than giving city officials the flexibility to adapt to rapidly changing technologies.

“We don’t know what could happen tomorrow,” Weeks said.

Pourciau said a committee of city officials and representatives from downtown business groups contributed ideas for the legislation and officials have been seeking the public’s thoughts on the scooters.

But Dorsey said that an important group was left out of the process.

“A big part of the collective people you see using scooters are young, black people, and you know who had absolutely no part in the committee that came up with this legislation? Young, black people,” he said. “They were not at the table.”

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