A bad wreck this week is bringing new urgency to discussions about how the city should regulate electric rental scooters, which appeared on city streets in May. Officials say there are trade-offs - between promoting a popular new transportation option and public safety.
On Tuesday, a scooter rider collided with a van at Fourth and Brevard Streets near the Transportation Center. City council member Tariq Bokhari witnessed the wreck and narrated a Facebook Live video as emergency crews arrived.
Police said the woman was going the wrong way on a one-way street and may have gone through a red light. The woman had serious, but non-life-threatening leg injuries. Bokhari said it was "disturbing."
“It was a stark moment of realization that people can really get hurt on these things when they when they don't follow the rules,” Bokhari said.
But what about those rules?
For now, scooters are treated mostly like bicycles. You're not supposed to ride them on sidewalks downtown, though sidewalks are OK elsewhere. Users must obey traffic laws, including signs and signals. And helmets are encouraged, but not required.
Riders rent scooters with a smartphone app. They're $1 to unlock and 15 cents a mile to ride. You have to be 18 with a valid driver's license, though you don’t have to show proof to rent one. Beyond that, rules are still evolving - all over the country.
That accident downtown came a day after the topic of e-scooter rules came up at the Charlotte City Council's transportation committee.
“Here we are in September, where we recognize now is the time to begin to think about … how do we want to regulate these more clearly, with more clarity, as we move to the future,” Charlotte DOT deputy director Dan Gallagher.
“But we also have to understand, a lot's happened in a short time in terms of ridership,” he added.
He says ridership on e-scooters has grown quickly since May. In August, scooter companies Lime and Bird reported their combined 800 scooters here were ridden more than 140,000 times. That's compared with just 20,000 rides on dockless bikes.
Hard numbers on scooter accidents in Charlotte are hard to come by. Neither the city nor the police department have tracked scooter safety, though CMPD says it's now compiling numbers for the city council.
Hospitals also aren't keeping track. But Novant Health Medical Director Dr. Charles Bregier said they've definitely seen an increase in scooter-related injuries since May.
“I would say in my experience that we're seeing five times as many of these kinds of accidents than we used to before they came on the market,” he said.
At least two e-scooter riders have been killed nationwide in recent months - one in Washington, and another in Dallas. Charlotte has been spared any fatalities, but some injuries have been "significant," Bregier said.
“Broken noses, facial contusions, broken arms, broken shoulders, broken wrists, ankle sprains, wrist sprains, all kinds of problems,” he said.
Scooters are colliding with cars, hitting pedestrians, and they're crashing on curbs and bumpy surfaces.
The question for council members is what kinds of rules - if any - to adopt.
Bokhari said no rules will keep people from doing stupid things on scooters and he hopes any regulations will not stifle this new business.
Council member Braxton Winston says he thinks scooters are a good, cheap option for many people to bridge the last mile to public transportation and get around the city.
“I wanna keep my hands off this as much as possible. I don't think we should jump to regulate these things,” Winston said.
At Monday's transportation committee meeting, Charlotte DOT's Dan Gallagher said the city needs a legal definition of scooters, clarity on where they can be ridden, and parking rules.
City Attorney Bob Hagemann said the city has limited authority to regulate e-scooters.
“This is a situation where technology and the market is ahead of the law,” he said.
A recent blog post by a lawyer at the University of North Carolina School of Government suggests they should be treated like other road vehicles - and be registered and insured.
“Now that's an opinion. That's not a case. It's not conclusive,” Hagemann said. “But it has sparked, in the last three or four days, over the weekend, some conversation in our office, with staff, with other cities, about what to do in response to that blog that was put out by the School of Government."
He says ultimately the General Assembly may need to act to clarify the law.
Meanwhile, the scooter companies are talking to the city.
“Both Bird and Lime have been involved in meetings with officials from the city and county to hear comments, concerns, plaudits,” said Bradford Johnson, the Charlotte manager for Lime.
“You know, everything can be tweaked and improved.”
City transportation planners say they hope to present proposed rules to the transportation committee Oct. 22, and put them to a full council vote in November or December.
City of Charlotte e-scooter pilot program web page, at CharlotteNC.gov
Sept. 19, 2018, "It's a Bird, It's a Scooter, It's an Overnight Sensation ... But Is It Legal," UNC School of Government blog post about e-scooters.