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Electric scooters in New York? Lobbyists pushing Cuomo to make them legal

ALBANY – Will those convenient, yet controversial, electric motorized scooter sharing services, which are exploding across some areas of the country, be coming to New York by next summer?

That depends on the ability of a battalion of well-placed lobbyists and their clients to convince a reluctant Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo to sign – not veto – legislation approved by lawmakers in June to legalize both e-scooter and e-bike sharing services.

The companies, nearly all of them start-ups that formed in California the past few years, have spent thousands of dollars a week on lobbyists to try to win Cuomo to their side, according to disclosure reports filed with the state.

With their customers ringing up more than 100,000 rides a day in the 100 or so U.S. municipalities that that have welcomed the devices onto their streets and sidewalks, e-scooter companies are eyeing the Empire State, and especially New York City, as a potential cash-cow that could lure even more states to join the micromobility revolution.

Dozens of in-house and retained lobbyists are engaged in this last-ditch effort – with a Dec. 31 deadline for Cuomo to act – of holding meetings and phone calls with top officials from the governor’s counsel’s and budget office, as well as his tax and motor vehicles agencies, state lobbying records show.

Will it work? The Cuomo administration declined to say, and that has left scooter companies – from California startups to Ford Motor Co. to Uber and Lyft – uneasy.

Jason Conwall, a Cuomo spokesman, released only two things on the scooter matter. One was a statement saying it is the responsibility of the administration – in considering the more than 350 bills still not yet acted upon by Cuomo from the past legislative session that ended in June – to ensure bills are “responsible, enforceable and accomplish their intended purpose."

He also provided comments Cuomo made at a Capitol event on the day the session was ended. Cuomo, asked by a reporter about the scooter bill, returned the question by asking aloud a series of questions about road and sidewalk safety and whether it makes sense to simply let an unlicensed electric scooter or bike on New York’s streets. “That’s a bill that’s going to need more review and discussion," he said then.

Supporters of the bill say, privately, that few, if any, substantive discussions on the matter with have been held Cuomo’s office. One source said Cuomo met last week with e-scooter representatives, where he again raised concerns about the bill and said he is not sure if he will sign it into law.

That could lead to scenarios whereby Cuomo could veto it, simply sign it or sign it having cut deals with lawmakers to amend the bill when the 2020 session starts in January to address whatever specific concerns Cuomo might have.

Neither of the bill’s sponsors – Democrat Jessica Ramos in the Senate and Democrat Nily Rozic in the Assembly – would discuss the matter.

A lobbying money flow

Lobbyists and their clients are bumping into one another at the Capitol and on phone calls on every issue as Cuomo and his advisers weigh still-pending bills minor and big, highly local and statewide in scope.

The e-scooter sharing industry is no exception. One company, California-based Bird, spent $23,000 on two lobbying firms in September and October to press its case with officials in the Cuomo administration, as well as New York City – which could become the nation’s financial prize for the industry if the bill is adopted.

Another California company, Neutron Holdings, which goes by the street name of Lime, spent $42,000 on lobbying during the same period.

Other scooter interests spending money in Albany this fall include some other firms few New Yorkers have ever heard of — yet, anyway:

• Skip Transport, out of San Francisco, spent $8,000 in September and October.

• Spin, also from San Francisco and which is now owned by Ford Motor Co., spent $22,000.

• Lyft and Uber, the ride-sharing giants, also reported some undisclosed amount of lobbying expenses to pitch the governor’s office and others to get the scooter bill signed.

“We’re encouraged by conversations we’ve had with leaders throughout the state, including the second floor (at the Capitol where Cuomo works), and we’re hopeful this can get done by the end of the year. Cities across the state have shown a clear interest in adopting micromobility as a way to improve access to opportunity while reducing environmental impacts from personal car use," said Phil Jones, Lime’s senior director for government relations.

The pitch

The pending legislation in New York would permit e-scooter and e-bike sharing services statewide. The devices are activated via a mobile app and charge users on a per-minute basis. Advocates say they are a cheaper alternative to cars while also reducing carbon emissions, serve as a “last-mile” option for people to get to their destination from public transportation and are convenient for people living in urban neighborhoods.

In parts of New York City, the electric bike issue has become a kind of human rights push; low-income food delivery people, for instance, have faced heavy fines for using e-bikes to make their trips. The pending bill would ban the devices in Manhattan, given its already congested streets and sidewalks.

The bill features a key section that advocates are using to try to promote its approval with Cuomo: local say. It states that communities must “opt in” – through a vote by a local governing board – in order for the e-scooter or e-bike services to commence. No support, no e-scootering around a community.

Moreover, localities can make stricter rules than called for in the state bill. For instance, lawmakers sided with e-scooter companies and left the bill silent on whether e-scooter users have to wear a helmet. A locality could require them, just as it could also limit precisely where and when the scooters and bikes could be used.

A number of local government officials – in communities from Rochester to Yonkers to Long Island – have expressed an eagerness in having e-scooters and e-bikes as part of their transportation offerings for residents to be better able, for instance, to get from a bus or train stop to their homes or jobs in areas that now offer either no or spotty public transportation. The Buffalo city council in September passed a resolution asking city agencies to look into the feasibility of how e-scooter and e-bike programs might work.

Sen. Tim Kennedy, a Buffalo Democrat and chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, is urging Cuomo to sign the bill to “give New Yorkers all across the state an opportunity to participate in the new transportation alternative that other communities and states are taking advantage of."

Bird said e-scooters “fit naturally into the governor’s (environmental) platform and help cities all over the Empire State reach their carbon-reduction goals. New Yorkers are ready for this new transportation option, and we are counting on Governor’s Cuomo’s leadership to make their hopes a reality.”

The problems

When all shared micromobility devices are counted, 84 million trips were taken on them in 2018 in more than 100 U.S. cities, up from just 35 million the previous year, reported the National Association of City Transportation Officials, a North American group.

When just e-scooters are counted, 38.5 million trips were taken last year, up from just 321,000 eight years ago. The growth period has occurred over the past two or so years following the emergence of Bird, Lime and some other firms.

In what is called the “dockless” sharing industry – where riding devices are not picked up at a designated, locked docking station – e-scooters surpassed dockless bikes in 2018, the group said. About 40% of e-scooter trips took place in three U.S. communities: Los Angeles, San Diego and Austin, Texas.

That growth has presented problems. Chief among them is safety. Many riders don’t wear helmets and the devices can exceed 20 mph at top speed; a number of deaths have been reported. Communities have had problems with people getting drunk at bars or parties and then hopping onto a scooter. Some places, including Oregon, now require helmets for e-scooter users.

In April, the Austin Public Health Department, with help from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, released a study of e-scooter use over a three-month period. It looked at nearly 1 million rides during that period. It found 190 scooter-related injuries; of those, only one rider was wearing a helmet at the time of an accident.

Some e-scooter users ride on sidewalks, presenting safety problems for pedestrians. Some scooter users don’t follow voluntary company requests that they return the devices to a bike rack area and instead just drop the scooters wherever they feel like it – like in the middle of a sidewalk or on somebody’s private property.

Industry officials say it is in scooter company’s interests to ensure e-scooters are used safely.

The industry now has to convince one person in New York: Cuomo. In January, Cuomo proposed his own e-scooter/e-bike plan. It was more restrictive than the industry wanted, requiring helmets by users and imposition of certain fines for misusing the devices.

The Legislature came up with its own version and passed it in the waning hours of session.

The last time he spoke just a bit extensively on the topic, Cuomo in June said he had “heard a number of concerns from safety advocates who don’t think you should allow scooters and e-bikes on sidewalks with pedestrians. They think people should have to wear a helmet,’’ he said.

“When does a bike with an engine become a bike that should be registered as a motor vehicle, and licensed?" he asked. "Remember mopeds? At what point is it a motor vehicle?"

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