Birds Take Flight in Baltimore: The City’s Attempt to Regulate the New Electric Scooters

* Christina Araviakis

The Baltimore Orioles and Ravens have some competition because there is a new Bird in town–the electric scooter.  Bill King, Is Bird for the Birds?: Scooter Company’s Presence in Baltimore Raises Eyebrows and Questions, Balt. Sun, July 31, 2018, at A11.  A California-based company, Bird Rides Inc. (hereinafter “Bird”), recently brought over sixty electric scooters to the Inner Harbor in Baltimore.  Id.  Riders simply use an app to unlock any scooter that is available on the street after entering their credit card and driver’s license information.  Id.  Bird hopes to reduce carbon emissions, get people out of their cars, and offer an alternative to sitting in traffic or a sweaty walk to Baltimore residents.  Morgan Eichensehr, Bird Brings Fleet of Rentable Electric Scooters to Baltimore, Balt. Bus. J., (June 28, 2018, 2:31 PM),  Costing only one dollar to start the scooter and then fifteen cents per minute, the scooters have become a quick and efficient way for many to avoid city traffic in Baltimore; however, city regulation of the scooters has become a problem.  King, supra.

Bird has also released its electric scooters in other cities all across the United States and received a lot of pushback from city officials and local governments.  Eichensehr, supra.  In March 2018, after releasing the electric scooters in Los Angeles, California, the city’s lawmakers issued a temporary ban on “dockless transportation systems” because there were no rules in place to manage the use of the electric scooters.  Laura J. Nelson, L.A. Officials Moved to Ban Rental Scooters in March. So Why Are They Everywhere?, L.A. Times, (Aug. 16, 2018, 4:10 PM),  The Transportation Department Manager in Los Angeles, Seleta Reynolds, sent a cease-and-desist letter to Bird demanding that they remove the scooters or else they would be confiscated and impounded; however, the Transportation Department does not have the authority to impound the scooters, so they are still seen on roads and sidewalks throughout Los Angeles.  Id.  Residents are complaining that the scooters pose a safety risk to pedestrians when the scooters are left lying in the middle of sidewalks.  Id.  This situation also makes it difficult for people with wheelchairs to be able to use the sidewalk.  Id.

The electric scooters have also made their debut in Charleston, South Carolina, and Denver, Colorado.  Like Los Angeles, the City of Charleston sent a cease-and-desist letter to Bird threatening to impound the electric scooters and fine the company for launching in the city after it was notified that Charleston had made the scooters, and any unregulated vehicles, illegal.  Thad Moore, Electric Scooters Arrived in Charleston– Then Vanished– With Little Warning, Post & Courier, (Aug 6, 2018),  The scooters, often left haphazardly on the city’s sidewalks, posed a danger to pedestrians and created an unsightly clutter of scooters throughout the city.  Id.  Since then, Bird has taken the scooters out of Charleston pending an effort to find a legal way to get the scooters back into the city.  Id.

Meanwhile, in Denver, Colorado, the electric scooters are making a comeback through a pilot permit program after the city ordered Bird to remove the scooters, and began seizing scooters and fining scooter users.  Jon Murray, Denver Gives Scooter Companies Bird, Lime A Roadmap to Get Legal, Denver Post, (Oct. 3, 2018, 2:53 PM), 2018/06/29/denver-scooter-bird-lime-legal/.  The program is a yearlong program that allows 250 scooters to be brought and operated in the city, and states that Bird will be responsible for ensuring that the dockless scooters stay near bus stops or designated paint parking zones, instead of having them lay in the middle of sidewalks.  Id.  In addition, the city stated that the scooters were not to be ridden in the streets, bike lanes, or parks since electric scooters are considered “toy vehicles.”  Id.  Instead, the scooters should be ridden and parked on the sidewalks.

Baltimore has followed Denver in that a six-month pilot program for Bird was launched on August 23, 2018.  Colin Campbell, Firms to Pay to Operate Bike Share: Bird, Lime Will Pay $30,000 to Operate Six-Month Pilot Programs in Baltimore, Balt. Sun, Aug. 23, 2018, at A2.  The program allows for one thousand dockless scooters and bikes to be brought to Baltimore for people to operate, at no cost to the city.  Id.  The agreements between Bird and Baltimore include a $15,000 operating fee per scooter vendor, which reimburses the city for any payment or insurance liability arising from the program, and at least $1 million in insurance for any claims arising from the program.  Id.  In addition, Baltimore gave Bird a six-hour window after being notified of vandalism or of overconcentration of scooters in particular areas to move the scooters.  Id.  The scooters may be parked on the streets, following the parking rules for motorcycles, or sidewalks, leaving four feet of space on the sidewalks for pedestrians.  Id.  While the scooters can be parked on sidewalks, they cannot be ridden on the sidewalks, and also cannot be used without a helmet by anyone under the age of sixteen, even though the app requires all users to wear a helmet.  Id.; see Terms of Service, Bird, (last visited Nov. 12, 2018).  In addition, Bird must provide Baltimore with weekly reports of the location of the scooters and must provide a twenty-four-hour customer service line for users.  Campbell, supra.

In an effort to improve Baltimore’s public transportation system, Baltimore has adopted this pilot program; however, some concerning questions remain unanswered, and there is still much work to be done to protect the safety of scooter riders, pedestrians, and others.  See Campbell, supra.  There is a potential danger of ordering the scooters to be driven in the street, and especially in streets without bike lanes.  Baltimore Metropolitan Area, Balt. City Dep’t of Transp., (last visited Nov. 12, 2018).  Adding to that danger is that riders over sixteen in Baltimore are not required to wear helmets.  See Campbell, supra. 

In addition, there is the possibility of violating current Maryland law that states that “[a] person may not stop, stand, or park a vehicle in front of a curb ramp designed for the use of individuals with disabilities” because the reality of the situation is that people are still throwing the scooters around, and blocking curb ramps and sidewalks all over Baltimore.  Md. Code Ann., Transp. § 21-1003 (West 2017).

Further, the city has yet to even mention any rules or prohibitions of riders consuming alcohol or drugs and using the electric scooters which do not fit the definition of a vehicle.  Md. Code Ann., Transp. § 21-902 (West 2017); see Campbell, supra.  Can someone receive a DUI arrest while operating an electric scooter?  In Maryland, part of the definition of a motor scooter, which is considered a vehicle, is a “nonpedal vehicle that has a seat for the operator” which does not fit the description of these electric scooters.  Md. Code Ann., Transp. § 11-134.5 (West 2017).  There is also the issue of vandalism.  See Campbell, supra.  Whose responsibility is it to keep the electric scooters from being stolen or vandalized?  These unresolved problems can give Baltimore more issues than a lack of quick transportation without the scooters would.

* Christina Araviakis is a second-year day student at the University of Baltimore School of Law, where she serves as a staff editor for Law Review.  Christina is a scholar of the Royal Graham Shannonhouse III Honor Society, Vice President of the Women’s Bar Association, and a member If/When/How: Lawyering for Reproductive Justice.  This spring, she will be working as a student attorney for the Human Trafficking Prevention Project Clinic at University of Baltimore.  In the summer, she will be working as a Summer Associate at Semmes Bowen & Semmes.

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