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Clearwater may soon have electric scooters downtown. Who’ll use them?

The city’s plan is coming into focus, but there will be limitations.
Tampa has a pilot program underway to test scooters. Clearwater could soon have one of its own. But if it's limited to downtown, who will use it? CHRIS URSO | Times
Published Sep. 18

CLEARWATER ― The city will one day be home to electric scooter sharing. But there will be limits.

Chief among them: Clearwater’s scooter pilot program will be limited to downtown. No scooters on the beach, no scooters in Countryside, Morningside or any other neighborhood. That raises a key question in a city that for decades has struggled to remake its downtown:

Who is going to use scooters?

City Manager Bill Horne said he believes downtown residents with short commutes will use the electric “micro-mobility” devices, which are activated by a cell phone app and can reach speeds of up to 15 miles per hour. But even if residents don’t flock to the vehicles, Horne said, the city isn’t overly concerned with scooter economics.

RELATED STORY: Clearwater says ‘no thanks’ to scooters ― for now

“The council is not trying to speak for the market,” Horne said. “So it may very well be that wherever the council thinks is appropriate for their use is not where there’s a market.”

In other words, if nobody uses the scooters, that’s not the city’s problem.

Richard Hartman, the city’s senior transportation planner, is Clearwater’s point person on scooters. He said that last year, a number of scooter sharing companies, including Bird and Spin, expressed interest in entering the market. So city staff began compiling a list of questions for the council: Should they be allowed on sidewalks? On streets? On the beach? Where would scooters be docked?

OCTAVIO JONES | Times Spin scooters ready for deployment at a local Spin scooter distribution warehouse located in east Tampa on Wednesday, June 19, 2019.

The Legislature weighed in this year with a state law that says scooters are allowed anywhere bicycles are allowed, unless an individual local government says otherwise.

So Clearwater in June passed a 180-day moratorium on all motorized scooters to give staff time to work on its plan. The moratorium will expire in December; the council will likely vote on a specific program before then.

That program is coming into focus. At a City Council meeting this month, elected officials gave Hartman and his staff permission to design a plan that would limit scooters to downtown, ban them from sidewalks and prevent them from being driven down streets with speed limits above 30 miles per hour. That would include parts of Court, Chestnut and Drew streets.

Those rules would only be temporary, part of a one-year pilot program. Hartman said the city’s decision to limit scooters to downtown provided a confined area to work out the kinks should the program be expanded in the future.

For instance, if citizens start to complain about scooters being left on the sidewalk, like they have in Tampa, Clearwater can work to correct the problem.

RELATED STORY: Scooters have arrived on Tampa sidewalks, and there are ‘growing pains’

But City Council member Hoyt Hamilton in an interview expressed skepticism that scooter sharing would ever work on Clearwater’s popular beach.

“We already have so much conflict out on the beach just because of the number of people out there,” Hamilton said.

Natalie Sawyer, a spokeswoman for Bird, wrote in an email that the company is not concerned about a lack of demand for scooters in Clearwater, even if its customer base is limited to the downtown.

“Bird has found that residents and visitors eagerly want alternative forms of transportation and based on our vast experience riders embrace our vehicles regardless of destination,” Sawyer said.

The scooter sharing companies can remotely disable scooters that stray from a geographical area determined by cities. But Tampa’s experience shows the technology doesn’t work perfectly, said Jean Duncan, Tampa’s director of transportation and stormwater services. Tampa got numerous complaints early into its scooter pilot program, which launched in May, about riders in forbidden areas like the city’s Riverwalk, Duncan said.

The scooters have also raised safety concerns for some. In June, a man died after being hit by a truck while riding a rented electric scooter in Tampa.

Hartman said Clearwater will strongly encourage helmet use among scooter riders.

And for its part, Bird will send a free helmet to any rider who asks for one, Sawyer said.

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