Bird scooters in downtown Asheville./ photo by Jason Sandford

Asheville city officials have been working on the city’s official approach to handling e-scooters after Bird unceremoniously dropped hundreds of the electric scooters in downtown last October. Barb Mee, the city’s bicycle and pedestrian coordinator, delivered an update on those plans at the Asheville Downtown Commission last week.

The city of Asheville had already begun studying the feasibility of launching a bike-share program when the e-scooters showed up, so city officials rolled both into their study. Mee talked about both issues.

Here are highlights from Mee’s update:

-The city is using the term “micro-mobility” for modes of transportation such as e-bikes and e-scooters that are designed for short trips. City officials see micro-mobility as a service than can potentially work hand-in-hand with city-supported public transportation, such as the city’s bus system, as well as a possible bike-share program.

-The city, caught off-guard by the arrival of the e-scooters, responded by picking up the scooters and asking Bird to hold off on deploying them, Mee reminded the commission. When the company put out more scooters, the city obtained a judge’s order to stop Bird from operating in Asheville, and then passed an ordinance that essentially banned e-scooters. (Some Asheville City Council members said at the time that the move was temporary, and that they were interested in having e-scooters in town.)

-City goals for a bike-share or e-scooter program include: improved “last-mile” connections (for example, the connection from a home to a bus stop, or from a bus stop to a workplace); a reduction of the use of cars; a reduction in the demand for parking; an improved image for the city; an increase in the number of bicyclists on the streets (which has shown to increase safety of all riders); an increase in physical activity for residents; the promotion of tourism.

-The city wants to identify sustainable funding sources with minimal public investment for any e-bike or e-scooter program, Mee said.

-“So far, we believe we can have successful bike share and some sort of e-scooter” program, Mee said. City officials are still working on recommendations. She said there was no set deadline yet for recommendations that would be forwarded to City Council for action.

-Electric bicycles have an established safety record, Mee said, citing a statistic that there have only been three fatalities in 100 million trips. E-scooters don’t have an established safety record yet, she said, noting that anecdotally, there are more reports of injuries for e-scooters.

-City officials are leaning toward electric bikes, rather than regular bikes, for an Asheville bike share program, Mee said. (There are e-bikes with an “assist” to help people with steep terrain, she noted.) She explained the three systems for deploying bicycles: a docked system, a lock-to system and a dockless system. A docking system for a bike-share program has an infrastructure to park bikes. A lock-to system has a lock built into a bike, but it must be locked to something. A dockless system has become popular recently, she said.

-For e-scooters, city officials will likely recommend a pilot project to test them out, Mee said. There will probably be two test spots for e-scooters: one downtown, and the other in a location such as the River Arts District.

-Asheville City Council will likely have to approve a set of regulations for the operation of a bike-share or e-scooter program in the city, Mee said. City officials are closely watching action at the N.C. General Assembly, where she said three bills regarding e-scooters are under consideration. Two of the bills define scooters as vehicles, she said.

– Mee noted that “when e-scooters come to town, they tend to replace bike-share trips.”

-Any program the city adopts, whether it’s e-scooters or e-bikes, should prioritize serving local residents over serving tourists, said Downtown Commission members Andrew Fletcher and Franzi Charen. Commissioner Dane Barrager said any program the city adopts should be integrated into the city’s public transportation system, with bikes or scooters located at bus stations and/or bus terminals.

-Any program should consider communities of color, said Commissioner Kimberly Hunter. Commissioner Ruth Summers asked if city officials had reached out to UNC Asheville. The college’s students would likely be interested users, she said. She also noted that older residents are not likely to be interested users, and thus still need places to park their vehicles downtown.

-Finally, what about the issue of skateboards? They are currently not allowed on city streets/sidewalks, noted Commissioner Andrew Fletcher, yet skateboarders are often much more skilled users than people using e-scooters, he said. (Other forms of micro-mobility, the Onewheel and the hoverboards, are also beginning to take hold but remain un-addressed by city regulations.)

 

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