Electric scooters could be returning to Chapel Hill, but only after considerable planning and adjustments. The Chapel Hill Town Council was presented with the logistics of having electric scooters return at its Jan. 16 meeting.
“We requested recommendations from staff on questions, such as changes to our current regulations, proposed fee structure, enforcement process, data requirements and any other necessary features,” council member Karen Stegman said.
Sarah Poulton, downtown special projects manager for Chapel Hill, said there are three main laws that would pose an issue with allowing electric scooters in the Town. First, the Town has a ban on using the sidewalks, or public right of way, for anything other than sidewalk dining, the selling of Girl Scout cookies or certain farm products, and newspaper stands. This means the scooters could not be ridden or parked on the sidewalks. Second, motorized vehicles are prohibited on the Town’s greenways. Third, wheelchairs are the only motorized vehicle allowed on the sidewalks downtown.
UNC's campus has similar laws and concerns regarding electric scooters.
“Campus policy specifies that no person other than on-duty law enforcement officers may operate or park a motorized two-wheeled vehicle on a campus sidewalk,” said Olivia James, spokesperson for UNC.
Besides electric scooters not being in compliance with Town laws, the council must also consider the safety concerns that come with them.
“If you were to ride in a public street, you would be subject to the same type of enforcement as we would have for other types of motor vehicles,” Poulton said.
Electric scooters qualify under the same category as mopeds under North Carolina law and require a helmet, insurance and an individual license or identification card.
The Town would need to discuss safety concerns with the scooter companies before making the decision to allow them in the community.
“Scooters don’t really handle imperfections on the roadway or on the surface you're riding on as well as a bicycle does,” said Steve Lehew, a lieutenant in the Chapel Hill Police Department.
Lehew said the standing position while riding the scooters also makes them more dangerous than a bicycle. People should practice riding the scooters in a safe area and make sure they are familiar with it before taking them out to a more crowded, public setting, he said.
Last August, electric scooters made an appearance in Chapel Hill for two days. Poulton said they were removed because they did not comply with Town laws.
“That’s what we saw in that two-day period, people would just ride them and leave them in the middle of the sidewalk, people trip over them or they just lay them down, which ends up cluttering the area,” Lehew said.
Though there are negatives to the electric scooters, there are also benefits to consider.
“Speaking for myself, I think it is important to be open and welcoming to innovations in alternate forms of transit, such as e-scooters and e-bikes that allow people to stay out of their cars. Their use contributes to improved health, mobility, sustainability and the environment,” Stegman said.
Stegman said electric scooters can also be less expensive than cars. Even with these benefits, she recognizes the need for a policy that protects people who use sidewalks from any dangers these scooters could cause.
The council will also consider what other municipalities are doing in regards to laws surrounding electric scooters. Poulton said Charlotte recently approved a new ordinance that allows users to ride the scooters on sidewalks everywhere except for the central business district.
Stegman said the council has received feedback from the community that has shown both excitement for the benefits of the scooters but also worry about their safety.
“I think having electric scooters on campus would be great, it would be a fun, efficient way of getting around. As someone who doesn’t really enjoy bike riding, electric scooters would be an exciting alternative,” said Nicole Johnson, a UNC sophomore.
While the town council has the ultimate say on electric scooter use, they will communicate with the Town of Carrboro and UNC before coming to a final decision.
“Nothing we do will be in a vacuum. It will be collaborative,” Poulton said.
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