Cover Story

Watch Out! Alexandria Is Abuzz Over Electric Scooters!

The Zebra investigates the e-scooter craze.

Joel Kirzner has retrofitted his back patio to be a scooter charging station. (Courtesy photo

By James Cullum

ALEXANDRIA,VA- Watch out! In case you missed it, that was an electric scooter that almost hit you, and it was driven by an underage kid on the sidewalk not wearing a helmet! Just kidding, but in all seriousness, the city’s Dockless Mobility Pilot Program will be coming up for a City Council vote next month and many are wondering what restrictions, if any, will be placed on the city’s newest form of public transportation – the electric scooter!

“I think the usage stats show that a great many of our residents and visitors find scooters fill an important need as a ‘last-mile’ connectivity option for them. There are clearly issues with their use, some transitional, and some more intractable, that we must work through,” said Alexandria Mayor Justin Wilson. “But ignoring the fact that we’ve seen hundreds of thousands of trips in the City is not something we should quickly do.”

So far, 2019 has unquestionably been the year of the scooter in Alexandria. The dockless vehicles have been set on fire, thrown in the Potomac River, and placed high in tree branches by creatively frustrated vandals. Members of City Council and city staff have been inundated with thousands of scooter-related messages, and all of it boils down to one question: Are the e-scooters here to stay?

Sure looks like it.

For one thing, city staff have attended farmers’ markets and other public events with scooter companies throughout the year. Bolt, the Miami-based e-scooter company which also gives out free helmets on its app, even showcased some of its new prototypes recently at the Four Mile Run Farmers and Artisans Market, including models that have phone charging stations and have enough space to hold groceries.

“Safety is first and foremost at Bolt. We will constantly be giving you helmets,” said James Motley, a Bolt Booster, at the Four Mile Run market. Being a Booster means that Motley is a company employee who picks up drained scooters, charges them, performs minor repairs, and puts the scooters back out when they’re all charged up.

Electric scooters on North Washington Street. (Photo: James Cullum)

Hal Hardaway Hates ‘Em

It’s no secret to anyone how Hal Hardaway feels. It seems like every day the Old Town resident is sending emails to city officials and the press with pictures and videos of adults and underage kids joyriding through the city like they own the place. Hardaway bitterly believes that the scooters are here to stay, and has no shame in telling people how he really feels. He hates e-scooters.

“It’s already decided. It’s a preordained outcome where the city council talks and ignores public input. I’ve seen it happen time and again and it’s going to happen with scooters,” Hardaway said. “Someone’s going to be seriously hurt or killed. They’re dangerous. Nobody ever wears helmets and people ride on the sidewalk. They’ve almost hit me.”

But Stephen Calamia has been hit. The 38-year-old lives in Belle Haven, just a couple miles from his work as a barista at Misha’s Coffeehouse and Roaster. In August, Calamia was the victim of a hit-and-run while on his way to work. A car pulled out of a parking space on Columbus Street, and Calamia wasn’t able to stop his e-scooter in time. He injured his right wrist, and the female driver in her 20s in a white SUV drove away as Calamia was able to gather his balance and senses. It was his fourth accident since he started riding e-scooters last year. On the bright side, he said that Bird has agreed to help pay for some of his medical expenses. He also doesn’t drive a car and always wears a helmet when he operates a scooter.

“Cars are great. They’re wonderful tools and machines, but there’s so many of them on the road and we have this sense of entitlement,” Calamia said. “The mindsets need to change. People need to make space and accept that others are not trying to be in a car.”

Alexandria Mayor Justin Wilson (far right), City Councilman John Chapman, and City Councilwoman Del Pepper at George Washington Middle School on Earth Day, April 27, 2019. (Facebook photo)

Want to Go For A Ride?

In the beginning of October, City staff will present City Council recommendations on how to move forward with the Dockless Mobility Pilot Program, which was kicked off in January with the permitting and launch of the first operator – Lime. The number of scooter companies operating in Alexandria has grown to seven, and also includes Lyft, Jump, Bird, Bolt, Skip and Spin – all of which paid a $5,000 permit fee to operate 200 scooters apiece within the city. The companies also paid that same fee when the pilot program was extended an additional three months until the end of the year.

For the most part, users download the app for the scooter company on their phone, dial in credit or debit information, and within minutes are clear to ride an e-scooter up to 20 miles per hour. The rules include that they must be 18, wear a helmet, and stay off the sidewalk and ride on the street.

“Whether we have a program or not, they’re probably not going anywhere. It’s just whether the city can manage them or not,” said Hillary Orr, deputy director of the city’s department of transportation and environmental services. “A lot of people are saying, ‘You’re doing this pilot program and you’re letting the scooters in.’ Scooters are going to be here – without a program, without a permit structure, and MOU [memorandum of understanding], we have no control over the company, we have no control over what data they give us and can’t make any requirements of them. They can just be here. So the point of this pilot was really to figure out how they’re operating and work with them and figure out how to better manage them and what type of requirements we would need.”

Orr and city staff have spent the last several months assessing the pilot program and making adjustments here and there, like the addition of scooter corrals in July, and geofencing to keep scooter trips from starting or ending at Market Square, the City Marina, and Waterfront Park. Additionally, on July 1, legislation from the Virginia General Assembly went into effect stating that beginning Jan. 1, 2020, e-scooter riders will be able to ride on sidewalks, a practice which is currently outlawed.

“Our legislation hasn’t been caught up with a lot of the technology. So we were down in Richmond working with the state a lot to even define what an e-scooter is, so that it can be enforceable,” Orr said.

Two Wheels to Freedom

The Dockless Mobility Program began in January, but didn’t really get kicked into high gear until the spring – when it was warm enough to ride a scooter outdoors. In July, city staff from the Department of Transportation and Environmental Services released a memorandum detailing the effects of the scooters in Alexandria, and the results were fascinating.

The data revealed that City leaders and staff were being inundated with thousands of scooter-related emails, letters, voicemails, and social media posts. Additionally, Alexandria Police have warned hundreds of users that the scooters aren’t allowed to be ridden on sidewalks, and issued citations for reckless driving. As of the end of May, there were 101,515 trips taken in Alexandria, equating to 91,644 miles traveled by more than 18,000 registered users.

E-scooters created a bit of a puzzle for Alexandria Police Chief Michael Brown. So far, there have been at least four crashes reported to the police and a number of injuries, one of which required a brief hospitalization. But it is difficult to enforce laws on vehicles with an unclear classification on the books.

“These are not toys,” Brown said. “We want our roads to be safe for residents and visitors of this city. But there are still gaps in the legislation that passed in Richmond last summer, because the vehicles are not subject to impaired driving. We need to come up with a more uniform way to address these personal transportation devices so when they operate in the commonwealth they do it the same way across jurisdictions.”

Nikisha Kozik of Alexandria Colonial Tours on a scooter in Old Town. (Photo: James Cullum)

City Council Reactions

Wilson said he’d like to see the number of scooter companies operating in the city reduced, and is hesitant to require drivers licenses for riders, as it would limit residents who do not drive from participation.

“While I’m open to options, my inclination is that we should competitively select a smaller group of companies to operate in the City,” he said. “We need to improve the companies’ enforcement of the rules to relieve our Police from the obligation to address these issues.”

A second phase of the pilot that would include a city ordinance is one option that staff will present to council. Phase II would begin in January and be reevaluated by council after a predetermined period.

Vice Mayor Elizabeth Bennett-Parker believes that scooter companies should improve their responsiveness to complaints. She also believes there should be fewer companies operating in the city that undergo a more selective process and that they should pay a bigger operational fee.

“It would be nice to see them come out with a scooter accessible to individuals with disabilities and expand this transportation option to a larger audience,” Bennett-Parker said. “The scooter companies also need to find a better way to track the scooter users so violations can be more easily enforced and ban users who repeatedly violate the law.”

Councilwoman Del Pepper said that the scooter corrals have been working to ease tensions on the streets of Old Town.

“The people who use the scooters seem to really enjoy them,” Pepper said. “Now people are able to see the dockless corrals, and I think they feel that some progress is being made, and the tenor of the emails we get is not as angry in tone. We are working on it and we are all aware of the problems, and we are counting on hearing of some kind of relief starting with October’s staff update.”

During the summer, Councilman Mo Seifenden called for a suspension of the program after the 11th e-scooter related death occurred. He said that if someone was killed that it would be a “nightmare” for the city’s police and court system, and that scooters are not largely available in poorer areas of the city, including the West End.

“As far as I can tell, the equity issue has been largely ignored,” Seifeldein said. “I recently met with two representatives from scooters companies about equity, but I do not see any good faith changes. In my continuing research of the matter, I spoke with a Councilman from Amsterdam, Netherlands about their rejections of scooters. I spoke with a Councilwoman from London and a senior aide to the Mayor of London about the issue as well (they have an existing law prohibiting scooters). I am still looking at how many jurisdictions in the states have dealt with scooters and will have my research complete soon.”

Councilwoman Amy Jackson is still hearing from constituents about the dangers of e-scooters.

“The council before us passed this pilot program. I think that was done in a haphazard fashion,” Jackson said. “We on council now are dealing with the mistakes of the past. Seven companies? I don’t think it was well thought out at all. It was shock treatment. I will probably not be part of their ridership, but as a progressive city we need to look ahead and see how other cities have taken them and have adapted their communities to them.”

Hundreds of scooters in Old Town had such low bounties that they were left uncollected for weeks. (Screenshot from Joel Kirzner’s phone)

Making Money On The Side By Charging Scooters

has been around the block – picking up scooters! For the last year, the 42-year-old has grossed upward of $20,000 charging scooters for Bird and Lime in the patio of his Shirlington town home. During the day, Kirzner is a consultant for an Arlington-based engineering firm, but his evenings throughout the week are frequently spent picking up scooters and putting them in the back of his Subaru Impreza Hatchback.

Kirzner said that his electrical bill at home has barely increased at all.

“I’m not kidding. It’s gone up, like 7 or 8 cents. It costs me more to run my heat in the winter for 10 minutes than to charge two dozen scooters on my patio,” he said.

Remember during the spring when it seemed like Old Town was inundated with spent scooters? Kirzner said it’s because the bounties on the scooters went to $3 per vehicle, and soon the city found itself full of scooters that nobody was willing to pick up. He has a photo of the hundreds of drained scooters in a screenshot on a map on his phone.

“Old Town was like a disaster area, and I refused to come down here,” he said. “They were going to pay as little as possible and were testing the market, like college towns where they can get away with stuff like this by charging a small amount that kids can charge for beer money, or whatever.”

“I’m actually making more now than when I first started because there’s less competition and there’s less fraud,” Kirzner said. “People come out in the morning and think the scooters have been lined up like it’s magic. I mean, the reality is there’s a whole like army of people, whether it’s actual company employees or it’s these independent folks like me all running around making the system work.”

Kirzner was walking out of his office in Arlington for lunch last fall when he first saw a Bird scooter parked on the sidewalk. He’d read about them online, and after going back to work downloaded the Bird app on his phone.

“They were asking if I wanted to make money as a charger. Why not? So, I signed up and a week later Bird sent me three scooter chargers, which are like AC adaptors,” he said. “I have encountered the whole spectrum of people that do this, from retired people to younger college kids. There are some people who own cargo vans, and that means you’re picking up 30 to 40 scooters at a time. I mean, you do the math, and you can do multiples of these runs. Like, there are some times when if I’m going full, full on with this, I can do like 20 scooters tonight.”

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One Comment

  1. Scooters are convenient but when I saw at the intersection of Fairfax and Wilkes, a man with a newborn baby on a scooter with the infant attached at the front of the man, I was horrified not only as a mother but as a health care professional. Logic is not a property humans have when expedience trumps. The scooter companies should be charged with the cost of dedicated police on bicycles to patrol Old Town streets and ticket dangerous behavior on city streets or remove underage or inebriated riders. Scooters are indeed a public health threat in part due to the forward weight of the head of riders which may be the first to hit the pavement during a fall, speed of the vehicles, distracted drivers who too often fail to yield to stop signs and red lights, and the use by children who create a danger to themselves, pedestrians and cars and to public health accident prevention. City Council has a precipitous learning curve and the companies, if they prevail, must pay for the required safety and oversight infrastructure.

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