Electric scooters are coming to Tampa early next year — the newest development in the urban “micro mobility” craze. The Tampa City Council has signed off on an experiment and rules aimed at avoiding issues created by a flood of dockless scooters in cities that weren’t prepared. It’s smart for Tampa and other cities around Tampa Bay to create a framework and strategy for regulating scooters before they show up.
In September 2017, scooter-share startup Bird dumped hundreds of motorized scooters on the streets of Santa Monica, Calif., without permission from the city. Other companies joined the fray, and the scooters spread to other big cities. No surprise, the scooters caused some problems, eliciting complaints from residents about dangerous sidewalk use and haphazard parking. Santa Monica, San Francisco and Austin are among the cities that rushed to update city regulations, as various scooter-share companies jumped in to duke it out with one another.
The same thing happened in Miami this summer. Scooters hit Miami for about two weeks before the city issued cease and desist letters. Local officials needed answers. Should scooters be confined to bike lanes or roads or sidewalks? Will scooters cause more sidewalk crashes? Should these companies be required to help fund infrastructure for small vehicles? These questions are important ones, and they are best thought through before scooters come to town.
Tampa has issued a request for applications for up to three electric scooter rental companies to bring dockless scooters to city streets in February. Looking to Santa Monica as a model, Tampa has mapped out certain rules for companies to follow in a yearlong experiment. As many as 1,800 scooters could operate on the sidewalks south of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, between Armenia Avenue and 40th Street, a 12-square mile area. The city plans to have the selected companies paint "parking corrals" in designated areas.
Moving fast to test out different regulations is not necessarily a bad thing. In July, Coral Gables passed an emergency ordinance to ban unauthorized scooters and bikes, and in the same meeting approved an exclusive short experiment with dockless scooter company Spin, becoming the first city in Florida to allow scooters on its streets. Now, the city has branched out, striking short term agreements with other companies. But cities in Tampa Bay have the chance to be ahead of the curve: they should do their research and determine their strategy before the scooters arrive.
The Florida Legislature also should consider changes in state law to deal with scooters. Tampa plans to allow scooters on sidewalks, but state law bans them from operating in bike lanes and streets. Bird policy director Matt Kopko points to another Florida statute that carves out authority for local governments to adopt and enforce temporary or experimental regulations for “emergencies or special conditions." Even if this statute might give cities some leeway to put scooters in bike lanes, it’s only a temporary answer.
If small dockless vehicles — scooters, bicycles and even vespas — are here to stay, bike lanes may be more appropriate for them than sidewalks. That’s something the Florida Legislature should look into next spring.