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Lime scooter proponents say vehicle sharing program leaves Spokane more sweet than sour

November 16, 2018

When Lime came to town two months ago, the squeeze was on.

Would anyone ride the smartphone-activated electric scooters? Would they be a scourge on the sidewalk? When would a bike find the watery depths below the Monroe Street Bridge?

But as the high-tech bike-share program’s presence in Spokane draws to a close today, few wonder if the 73-day experiment went well. Certainly not Isaac Gross, general manager of Lime Washington.

“Things here just went fantastic,” he said this week.

Not Andrew Rolwes, who deals with public policy at the Downtown Spokane Partnership, the association of downtown business owners.

“We’ve seen it do a lot of wonderful things for downtown, in terms of making it dynamic,” he said. “It’s fun. There’s just a fun factor to it.”

And not Brandon Blankenagel, a senior engineer with the city who helped bring the program to town.

“It’s definitely been cool to see them infiltrate the community,” he said.

In other words, the experiment left a sour taste in very few people’s mouths. As the Silicon Valley company packs up about 300 adult-sized scooters and pedal-assist bicycles over the next five days, it’s not clear when the program will return, or if the city can clear up safety concerns it and others have about the brightly colored alternative to cars.

At the top of the agenda for the city’s policymakers are rules regarding sidewalks and helmets. Not many people wore headgear while riding the scooters and bikes, but city law requires every adult and child to wear a helmet when riding “any bicycle, electric-assisted bicycle, electric personal assisted mobility device, in-line skates, roller skate(s), skate shoe(s), scooter or skateboard.”

And there was the issue of those scooters cruising down sidewalks at a ripping 17 mph, an act forbidden in downtown Spokane.

Regardless, Lime wants to return to the city as soon as possible, and city officials have made their support of the program clear.

It’s easy to see why. In the 73 days the bicycles and electric scooters plied the Lilac City streets, more than 35,000 people rode them. Over the course of nearly 150,000 rides, the people of Spokane rode the vehicles 128,000 miles.

That’s five laps around the Earth.

City bike counts immediately showed a doubling – sometimes more – in the number of bikes being ridden in the city core.

An online survey about the program so far has garnered 2,079 responses. Three out of every four respondents said the bike-share program should be made permanent.

But for Blankenagel, the real revelation came when he looked at a map of where people have ridden the vehicles.

“Within a 2.5-mile radius of downtown, every single street has been ridden on,” he said. “That really surprised me. That’s the full street grid network.”

Where sidewalk ends

Two wheels on sidewalks is nothing new in Spokane.

A century ago, police cracked down on bicycles on the sidewalk, which were causing “old people” to “suffer injury,” not to mention that “little children are often run into, or crowded off the walk.” This newspaper reported the “violations are becoming so flagrant that something must be done.”

Whatever was done didn’t end the problem, as anyone who’s ever walked downtown before knows. When Lime arrived, however, the problem suddenly became an issue again.

“Our No. 1 complaint is the concern about riding on the sidewalks,” Blankenagel said of the city survey’s responses.

It could be an easy fix, he said. When you “unlock” a scooter to ride, they’re parked on the sidewalk, leading some users to believe it’s “a real natural thing to stay on the sidewalk,” Blankenagel said.

Parking them on the street – for instance, in car stalls reserved for Lime vehicles – may be enough of a suggestion to riders to stay on the street.

“The way we stage them may affect the way people use them,” he said.

There’s also some basic training that riders need. Blankenagel pointed to the “yield protocol” hikers, mountain bikers and equestrians are familiar with.

“You go out on a hiking trail and there’s a yield protocol,” he said. Downtown, people aren’t so aware.

“Scooter users are largely a younger population who haven’t dealt with yielding situations,” he said.

Another solution to getting the scooters off sidewalks would further separate traffic by building safer paths for bicycles and scooters.

Such a solution has the support of the DSP.

Rolwes said the city is considering asking Lime to put “governors” on the scooters to limit their speeds in the city core to between 7 and 10 mph, but the business group isn’t in favor of that.

“We think maybe there are other ways to make sure those are operated safely,” Rolwes said. “The chief way is to provide more lane width for bicycles or scooters.”

The city is considering installing a separated bike lane, also called a cycle track, on Riverside Avenue downtown. Unlike a standard bike lane, which is separated from vehicle lanes by a stripe of paint, a cycle track has a curb or a lane of parked cars between it and moving traffic.

Rolwes said the DSP wasn’t endorsing cycle tracks, but was “open” to talking about bringing them downtown.

“We’re open to it, but on a case-by-case basis,” he said. “We want to make sure there’s a good balance between alternative transportation and vehicle transportation.”

Blankenagel said there has been talk about instituting a fee in the permit allowing Lime to operate that would fund such infrastructure, but noted that any decisions are months off.

“We really hope to have some draft policy going forward early spring,” he said.

Hands off my noggin

The second most-cited concern is helmet use, Blankenagel said.

The city’s helmet law was enacted in 2007, but as anyone who has ridden a scooter without a helmet knows, enforcement is light, if it exists at all.

Regardless, Blankenagel said the city would make sure there was a “reasonable effort to supply helmets but not make it onerous and unaffordable.”

Part of the balance, as Blankenagel suggested, was to make sure the program was safe for its users, but also that the rules were not so strict as to convince Lime not to come back.

Requiring Lime to provide a helmet to every user would probably “preclude them from being here.” But telling people of the risks of riding without a helmet while letting them know of the nearest place to get a helmet could work, he said.

“We’re just a blip on the radar and we’re not very bright in that way,” Blankenagel said of Lime’s global presence in more than 100 cities. “But the success of the pilot really speaks to the fact that Lime really wants to be here.”

Dangerously fun?

Spokane fire Chief Brian Schaeffer said he’s responded to just one incident involving a Lime vehicle.

At the intersection of Boone Avenue and Division Street, a motorist struck a Lime scooter rider, breaking the scooter in half but not causing any serious injury.

Otherwise, Schaeffer said, he’s heard nothing to worry him, noting that he would be aware if injuries had increased due to Lime.

“We would certainly know it,” he said.

While the fire department doesn’t track scooter incidents versus motor vehicle incidents, there’s no indication emergency responders have seen a rise from Lime-related injuries, he said.

“I think the paramedics and the people in the field would be very much in our ear about, ‘This is dangerous, we need to do something about it,’ ” Schaeffer said. “We simply haven’t had the incident volume rise to the effect of creating a challenge for us or a concern for public safety.”

While Schaeffer doesn’t consider them that dangerous, he is “very much in favor in having the protection of a helmet.”

Officer John O’Brien, spokesman with the Spokane Police Department, said police don’t track Lime vehicles in accidents.

But online, some riders have shared tales of injury.

Savhannah Robertson, manager of FarmGirlFit in Spokane, wrote on Facebook that she crashed on a Lime scooter on Oct. 20. Photos show her in a hospital bed with cuts and scabs on her swollen face. After the incident, a woman named Ashley Miller started a GoFundMe page to raise money to help Robertson cover bills for a plastic surgeon, dentist and orthodontist. Before the campaign closed, donors had given $6,515.

Attempts to contact Robertson were unsuccessful.

Dale Ringquist, a well-known server at Elk Public House, had just finished shopping at the Carhartt store downtown on Nov. 3 when he came across a pedal-assisted electric Lime bike. He hadn’t tried Lime yet, so he thought he’d give it a shot.

A few blocks later, in front of the old Masonic Temple on Riverside, he put his foot on the ground to slow down. His ankle broke in three places.

“I ended up in surgery the next day. A plate and a screw,” Ringquist said, noting he’ll be out of work for six to eight weeks.

Like with Robertson, a fundraising page was set up for Ringquist, which quickly raised $3,000 to help pay for his surgery, cover a couple of months of rent and supply food for his dog.

He doesn’t blame Lime, but said the emergency room workers noted he wasn’t the first.

”When we all sign up for this app, we know we do it at our own risk,” he said. “When I said what I did in the emergency room, they all said, ‘Oh, here we go again.’ ”

Return of Lime

Lime doesn’t share much. That includes how much money they’ve made in Spokane, or how much they’ve spent.

Lime employs 20 people in the area, but a spokeswoman would only say that “the team in town manages product operations, community outreach and safety education.”

Nearly 300 more people work as “juicers,” who pick up scooters and bikes, charge their batteries and replace them around town. They’re paid per vehicle.

Lime also rents a warehouse in Spokane Valley.

And though reports of injuries are somewhat scarce, stories of broken or vandalized scooters are many. There was the time two scooters ended up in the river below the Post Street Bridge.

There was also the time two mangled scooters ended up in Allan Rushing’s yard in the West Central Neighborhood. He chalked it up to Spokane’s misdeeds, but still doesn’t support Lime.

“Spokane is full of tweakers and homeless people. Bike theft is a big problem. I got security cameras up in the front. I get parts in my backyard all the time,” Rushing said. “I think it’s a bad idea. I’ve no reason to use it. I’ve got a car.”

Gross, with Lime, said Spokane was no different from other cities the company operates in when it comes to loss or damage. Predictions of river dredging for Lime’s vehicles didn’t come true, except for that one time.

“We have about 1 percent loss around the world, and Spokane was below that,” Gross said.

Considering all this, Lime surely made a profit. Gross said the average ride lasted eight minutes, and three-quarters of the rides were on scooters. After unlocking the scooters for $1, the rides cost 15 cents per minute. Back-of-the-napkin math suggests Lime took in $250,000 on the scooters alone.

Though he didn’t share the company’s financial standing, Gross said he wasn’t alone in thinking Lime should come back to town.

“We have 35,000 people who think it’s a great idea,” he said. “We’re thankful of the city for letting us in. And we’re thankful of the people here for not throwing too many in the river.”

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