Philly’s coronavirus response

Open to the air and socially distant, e-scooters are trending — but they’re still illegal in PA

Detractors include the insurance industry, SEPTA and the Kenney administration.

Riders were invited to test drive Lime scooter at Philadelphia City Hall in May 2019

Riders were invited to test drive Lime scooter at Philadelphia City Hall in May 2019

Kimberly Paynter / WHYY
michaelawinberg-square-crop-feb2018

With many Americans still wary of public transit as cities rustle back to life, some people are turning to electric scooters as a new way to get around.

But not in Philadelphia — because they’re illegal. Pennsylvania is one of the few states where e-scooters are still prohibited by law. A bill that would legalize them has been at a standstill in Harrisburg for almost two years.

Across the U.S., e-scooters have been lauded as a relatively safe way to travel during the pandemic. You’re socially distanced by default, and have plenty of open air blowing around.

While scooter use did take a dive during outbreak peaks, it’s back on an upswing. Rental companies like Lime and Bird report data that suggest people trust the two-wheelers more than other modes of transit right now.

According to a June survey by Lime, people in American cities are more likely to try riding an e-scooter now than before the coronavirus. Among regular riders, journeys are an average of 35% longer — up from 9.72 minutes pre-COVID to 13.1 minutes. Bird also reports more first-time riders during the pandemic, and found 93% of them ride again.

“It’s not to say we’re at pre-COVID levels,” Phil Jones, Lime’s government relations director in Pennsylvania, told Billy Penn. “But we are seeing people in cities and neighborhoods and adjacent communities really using these to get around their local districts.”

Scooter share has been active in many states for years, including California, Washington, Texas, North Carolina and the District of Columbia. New York State gave them the green light in April, while Chicago and Seattle started pilot programs to see how well the scooters work in their cities.

E-scooter stans cite benefits like reducing congestion and damage to roadways and bucking climate change.

Why has the idea stalled out in Pa.? It faces pushback from multiple parties, including the insurance industry, SEPTA and even Mayor Jim Kenney’s administration.

In PA, e-scooters can’t be registered with the DMV

The barrier to scooter use in Pennsylvania comes down to the wording of a specific law.

Technically, a vehicle can’t ride on the street in Pa. unless it’s been registered and certified by the Department of Transportation. Since there’s no class for e-scooters — like there is for cars, trucks or motorcycles — they’re a no-go.

Pa. Rep. Stephen Kinsey, who serves Germantown and North Philly, introduced House Bill 631 to amend state law so scooters don’t need DMV registration, paving the way for them to hit the streets.

The bill, cosponsored by Rep. Greg Rothman of the 87th District near Harrisburg, has languished in committee for the past 19 months.

James Fox, SEPTA assistant GM for system safety, testified before the Pa. House Transportation Committee last April.

With ridership still at 65% of normal and budget cuts looming, SEPTA could easily be worried about how the alternative transport would impact its customer base. But its stated concern is e-scooters’ potential impact on service.

Fox suggested people using e-scooters might create obstacles and cause delays for buses, much in the same way Uber and Lyft dropoffs and pickups have. He asked the committee to “proceed with caution.”

Safety concerns outweigh potential tax revenue

The city’s primary concern with scooter share is traffic safety, said Kelly Cofrancisco, a spokesperson for Philly’s Office of Transportation, Infrastructure and Sustainability.

“It is worth noting that this has been an extremely deadly year for overall traffic deaths and we have remaining concerns that scooters are more likely to lead to crashes than other transportation modes,” Cofrancisco said.

A 2019 study from the medical journal JAMA Network Open found more riders were injured on e-scooters than while walking or biking — and the injuries were mostly serious in nature.

Rep. Kinsey, who sponsored the scooter legalization bill, said he’s aware of the dangers, which he pointed out exist for any form of motorized travel.

“There’s a safety concern any time anybody’s out on a bicycle or motorcycle or driving a motor vehicle,” Kinsey said. “We take that risk in order to travel to and from.”

He’s been meeting with officials from SEPTA and the Philadelphia Department of Streets, he said, working to address their concerns. Co-sponsor Rothman has been working with folks from the insurance industry.

The bill’s authors expect that if Pennsylvania were to legalize scooter riding, cities would draft their own legislation to ensure safety.

There’s also the potential for a new revenue source that might help offset COVID budget shortfalls. When Portland brought the e-vehicles to the city, it imposed a hefty 25-cent tax per trip.

With so many issues facing lawmakers right now, Kinsey’s not optimistic scooters will get on the docket anytime soon. “In an ideal world, we would’ve already done this,” the state rep said. “There’s a lot of big fish in this sea we have to address.”

Want some more? Explore other Philly’s coronavirus response stories.

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