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From California to New York: Electric scooter sharing may be coming

ALBANY – Electric scooter sharing might be coming to New York State this year.

Ubiquitous over the past couple years on the streets of many California communities and spreading eastward to dozens of other communities, the electric scooters are getting the backing of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and some lawmakers who want to see the devices operating from Buffalo to Manhattan.

Called electric scooters, the one-person devices can zip in and out of traffic – and, to the dismay of pedestrians, along sidewalks in some communities – at up to 20 mph pace. They are already in some areas of the state – though in violation of New York law.

Now, electric scooter startups are pushing hard to get New York State law changed, clearing for ride-hailing companies to flood the state’s marketplace with tens of thousands of the motorized devices. A push is also underway to explicitly permit operation of electric bikes, which offer riders assistance with pedaling.

For policymakers, however, there are questions still to be resolved, not the least of which is how to make electric scooters safer – for users and nonusers.

“Authorizing these transportation alternatives in a sensible and safety conscious manner will provide cheaper and more environmentally friendly transit options to New Yorkers and visitors who can use these options for work or leisure,’’ said Jason Conwall, a Cuomo spokesman.

Scooter lobby comes to Albany

Heard of Bird Rides, Lime or Bolt? Most New Yorkers haven’t.

But the companies have top shelf lobbyists working the Capitol’s hallways pushing measures to bring electric scooters to the state in less restrictive ways than how Cuomo last month proposed to legalize electric scooters and e-bikes.

Lime, based in San Francisco, last week had a couple of dark-suited lobbyists pushing around one of its scooters on the Capitol’s third floor, showing off the device – an unusual sight in the hallways here – to lawmakers and staffers.

Bird Rides, based in the California beach community of Santa Monica, where mostly helmetless scooter drivers zoom around on streets, sidewalks and the boardwalk, is not yet two years old and is already valued at $2 billion.

The firm has hired a small army of New York lobbyists, paying them a total of $40,000 a month. That’s a lobbying price tag that outpaces what most of the nation’s largest companies spend to influence Albany.

Executives with Bird, the largest electric scooter company already operating in 100 cities around the world, late last month submitted written testimony to a joint Assembly and Senate panel that was going through Cuomo’s budget related to transportation. It called electric scooters a “transformative, affordable, and environmentally friendly way to travel.’’

Electric scooters, which have a handlebar with throttle and brake controls and a narrow platform on which riders stand, emerged on the streets of several California communities via a ride-hailing program less than two years ago. Unlike bike sharing programs in many communities in New York, the scooters are not docked, or locked, into any sort of public station.

The scooter industry calls what they offer “last-mile” transportation, such as getting consumers from a bus or subway stop to their home or work. The pitch is that it gets people out of cars, thereby relieving congestion and pollution.

Using smartphone apps, riders in California pay $1 to activate a scooter and then 20 cents per minute. Rides usually stretch from a half-mile to a bit more than a mile.

Safety has been a rising concern, however. The third known scooter-related death on a road or sidewalk occurred last week in Austin and Consumer Reports recently said at least 1,500 people in the United States have been injured in electric scooter-related crashes since late 2017.

Scooter plans afoot

Legislation has been kicking around to permit electric scooters in New York. But the effort has intensified this year via well-placed lobbyists and the recent plan that Cuomo put into his 2019 budget.

A central provision in Cuomo’s proposal would allow localities to “opt in” to an electric scooter program. The scooter industry is trying to change that to make it an “opt out” program.

Cuomo also wants a requirement that all electric scooter riders wear helmets. Such a requirement does not fit with the dockless world of electric scooters. Bird Rides gives free helmets to customers who ask, but anyone who has been to California in the past year can attest to the helmetless ways of most electric scooter riders.

The Cuomo plan would limit electric scooters to one rider who must be at least 16 years old. It allows localities to further regulate things like maximum e-scooter speeds, time of day they can operate and areas of a community where the devices would be banned. The proposal also states that the devices could operate on public roads where speed limits have a posted maximum of 30 mph, though localities could let them operate on sidewalks – something more likely in parts of Buffalo than, say, Manhattan – so long as electric scooter operators kept their speeds below 8 mph.

The Cuomo proposal also sets fines for improperly operating electric scooters, with penalties rising sharply for using the devices while impaired by alcohol or drugs.

The Cuomo administration believes its plan will attract new businesses and align New York with electric scooter efforts in other states and cities.

Not all officials sold yet

Some local government leaders are taking a cautious approach. Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown, one of the cities targeted by electric scooter companies, has concerns about the proposed legislation, his spokesman said.

“There have been issues in other municipalities regarding these vehicles when it comes to the safety of them, the storage of them and other concerns,’’ said Brown spokesman Michael DeGeorge.

Michael Galligano, CEO of Buffalo-based Shared Mobility Inc., which has helped launch bike sharing programs in communities across the state, supports efforts to bring electric scooters and e-bikes to New York. But he cautioned that the devices are markedly different from one another and need to be treated by regulators accordingly. For instance, e-bikes don’t have the ability to accelerate like electric scooters.

“The effect will be huge if done right, but detrimental if done wrong,’’ Galligano said of New York’s attempt to increase use of the devices. He noted problems have arisen in other states where electric scooters, not having to be tethered to a locking station like bike sharing programs, have been left scattered around sidewalks.

There are also concerns about liability. Some cities require scooter companies to carry insurance policies on devices, but questions have been raised about liability in scooter-related crashes.

“There are hundreds of scooters in some cities and they have caused some headaches and have insurance implications for consumers, municipalities and insurance companies,’’ the National Association of Insurance Commissioners recently warned in a consumer alert.

Clearly, the electric scooter sharing industry has its eyes on the state’s biggest prize: New York City. Bird Rides, in its recent testimony provided to state lawmakers, presented an array of safety claims an economic and environmental benefits. The company, whose founder was a top executive with Lyft and Uber, said cities in New York have been made to “fall behind the rest of the country in adopting this next generation of micromobility.”

The company wants electric scooters to be treated like bicycles; in New York, only bicycle riders under the age of 14 must wear helmets. Treating electric scooters like bikes, for the purposes of regulations, is “an intuitive and simple approach” that is easiest for consumers to understand, Bird Rides told state lawmakers.

Electric scooter advocates say communities in New York should embrace infrastructure improvements – such as dedicated bike and scooter lanes and parking areas for e-scooters and e-bikes – if the devices are going to truly mean a reduction in auto use.

State Sen. Tim Kennedy, a Buffalo Democrat and the new chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, said “there’s definitely movement” on a measure to legalize electric scooters. He called the devices “convenient and environmentally friendly.’’

But he said there is further examination to be had to ensure they do not pose a danger.

“The governor moved the ball forward, but the full implementation and integration into the communities has to be done in a way that’s safe and effective in the long run,’’ Kennedy said.

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