Scooter share legalized for Pittsburgh only, still banned in Philadelphia

A pilot program for the Western Pa. city was tucked into the budget bill.

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-2020-2

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A state lawmaker from Philadelphia has spent the last couple years trying to legalize e-scooters in Pennsylvania, with the goal of bringing Philly residents the same amenity that’s already popular in Washington DC, Atlanta, Denver, and cities around the world.

The Kenney administration and SEPTA pushed back — and now Pittsburgh is getting them first.

In 2019, Pa. Rep. Stephen Kinsey, who serves parts of Germantown and North Philly, introduced a bill that would’ve amended state code to allow the electric scooters, which are prohibited because of a technicality in DMW law.

Kinsey’s bill languished in committee and was never brought up for a vote.

This year, a scooter provision wiggled its way into the state budget. Tucked 55 pages into the appropriations bill is the green light for an “electric low-speed scooter pilot program.”

It’s defined by some pretty specific language: the scooter pilot can only happy “within the boundaries of a city of the second class.” And there’s only one of those in the entire Commonwealth: Pittsburgh.

That means Philadelphia — “a city of the first class” — cannot host a pilot, and still cannot have e-scooters at all.

“It’s like, damn, you do the work and then somebody makes a side deal and gets it written in there as something else,” said Rep. Kinsey. He took an optimistic approach: “But it all starts somewhere. If constituents in Pennsylvania benefit, then we all share in the glory of it.”

More details on the Pittsburgh program are expected in the next week or so. In Philadelphia, attitudes have not changed.

The Philadelphia Streets Department’s Office of Transportation, Infrastructure and Sustainability has long been an e-scooter opponent — citing safety concerns as their reason for keeping them out of the city. A 2019 study found more riders were injured on e-scooters than while walking or biking, and the injuries were mostly serious in nature

“Things have not actually changed a whole lot in regards to OTIS’ stance on scooters,” said spokesperson Joy Huertas. “The concerns we voiced last year still largely stand.”

Philadelphia held back changes at the state level

Spend an hour on Philly roads, and you’ll probably see dozens of people riding electric scooters that they’ve bought.

But state law bars any vehicles that can’t be registered with the DMV from using the street. And e-scooters cannot be registered.

That’s kept scooter share companies from launching in Pa. — though they have tried. Both Bird and Lime, the two major U.S. scooter share operations, have tested the waters in Philadelphia, hosting test rides and lobbying officials. And two locals also tried, though their company Verve S just pivoted to the e-bike industry instead.

In 2019, James Fox, SEPTA’s assistant GM for system safety, testified before the House Transportation Committee that he had concerns about e-scooters blocking buses and causing delays. He asked the committee to “proceed with caution.”

Even as e -scooters surged in popularity during the pandemic, Philly officials wouldn’t budge.

“Having Philly on there was a death sentence,” Kinsey said. “There was just too much opposition in Philadelphia, and they worked behind the scenes and were pretty strong in shutting it down.”

Pittsburgh-area state Sen. Jay Costa took a different tack, pitching a two-year test instead of full, permanent legalization — and he confined it to Pittsburgh city limits.

“Since this is a pilot program, the ideal location would be smaller than starting statewide or in a larger city so that safety and oversight could be handled on a more manageable scale before any expansion,” said Costa’s spokesperson, Brittany Crampsie.

And there are plenty of rules. Riders have to be 16 or older. Scooters can’t go faster than 15 miles per hour — the same limit set by DC — and they can’t use roads with posted speed limits higher than 35 miles per hour. Most electric scooters max out at about 20 miles per hour.

Also, Pittsburgh is only contracting one e-scooter company at first, so officials can easily collect data and hold them accountable for any issues.

Pending the pilot’s results, Gov. Tom Wolf is keeping an open mind, per spokesperson Elizabeth Rementer: “We look forward to reviewing the results of the pilot program to determine whether this is in the best interest of Pennsylvanians.”

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