CLEARWATER — The city transportation department is putting together a pilot program for the rental of micro-scooters downtown.
Though the City Council won’t vote on the program’s aspects until November, Transportation Director Ric Hartman said, scooters will not be allowed on sidewalks, will reach speeds as high as 15 mph; be limited to streets with speed limits of 30 mph or less, and the scooter’s range will be limited by geo-fencing, a software that can turn off scooters when riders try to leave an area marked by GPS boundaries.
Other aspects to be decided: whether to allow rentals around the clock or say, between 7 a.m. and midnight; parking only in organized corrals on the street, and requiring renters to be at least 18 years old with a valid driver’s license. Once the pilot program starts, the city can halt it at any time, or make it a permanent offering to tourists.
“The City Council chose to have staff use our research and experience to select the regulations we deem best practices for a downtown pilot program,” Hartman told the Beacon. “The council may decide to adjust what is presented in November at that time.”
The city should also limit how many scooters are on the street, Hartman said.
“A key to a successful program is balancing the number of scooters that vendors can provide with user demand and the characteristics of the streets and land uses,” Hartman said. “Too few produces gaps in service, and too many results in clutter and obstacles.”
The tiny urban conveyances — which can be located and rented by smartphone apps in a growing number of cities — are seen by city planners worldwide as an answer to noise, congested streets, and air pollution. The scooters work by quick response (QR) code that can be read from a rider’s smartphone. The rider finds a scooter, opens the app on his smartphone or other device, and scans the QR code to unlock the scooter and ride it.
The company charges $1 to unlock the scooter and 10 to 30 cents per minute for riding. In some cities, you can leave the scooter on the ground for the next person who needs it. Instead of clogging lawns and blocking sidewalks, Clearwater will require companies to park and rent them from a central place, called a corral.
Several scooter rental companies, including Bird, Lime, Skip, and Spin, have approached Clearwater to open franchises here.
But Hartman on June 3 asked the council to postpone the use and/or rental of electric scooters and other micro-mobility devices for at least six months so the city could study the risk they pose to pedestrians and other motorists. The council approved the 180-day moratorium, which expires Dec. 17.
Florida House Bill 453, which Gov. Ron DeSantis signed into law in June, grants electric scooters and other micro-mobility devices all of the rights and duties applicable to the rider of a bicycle, including the right to operate motorized scooters on sidewalks, streets, and trails. The Legislature’s permissive use standards create safety hazards for pedestrians and others in Clearwater, making it vital for the city to regulate their use, Hartman told the council in June.
During his Sept. 5 presentation to the council, Hartman told councilmembers that cities have run into problems with programs, including the dumping of scooters on lawns, on sidewalks in front of wheelchair ramps, and at outdoor dining areas.
Florida tourist destinations such as Ft. Lauderdale have already received a flood of emailed complaints about electric scooters, including riders simply laying them on the ground once their time is up; intoxicated drivers attempting to jump hedges and curbs; and inexperienced operators colliding with cars and people.
The council will review the pilot program sometime in November, said Hartman. “Although a 12-month program is to be proposed, the program will provide the city with the ability to pause and refine, or stop the program completely in a shorter period,” he said.
The city could vote to allow the pilot program before the moratorium ends in December.
A big unknown facing the city is the question of liability, which local businessmen addressed during public comment.
Councilmember Jay Polglaze cited a Business Insider article on the rise of urban scooter rentals that reported 11 people, most first-time scooter users, have died since 2018. That led Clearwater business owner Gerry Lee to urge the banning of scooters from sidewalks, especially near the beach where pedestrians, cars, and skateboarders fight for room.
“A tourist gets a couple of beers in them, put them on a scooter and somebody gets hit, who is at fault there?” Lee told the council. “What about the business owner who put the table and chairs out there and didn’t have a path?”
Councilman Hoyt Hamilton questioned whether the city should be prepared for lawsuits.
“Somebody’s going to come out of one of the establishments downtown after having probably one or two too many, and they are going to get on one of these, and they’re going to fall and get hurt,” Hamilton said. “They are going to say, ‘The place where I consumed my alcohol shouldn’t have let me drink,’ then they’re going to go to the (scooter company) and say, ‘You shouldn’t have let me on one in that condition,’ then they’re going to come after the city because the city allows the company to operate.”
Riders must waive the responsibility of the scooter rental company before getting on the scooter, usually by clicking “I agree” on a waiver that pops up on the scooter rental app. That may not be enough, Hartman told the council, and suggested the city insist each scooter vendor carry insurance coverage of $1 million to help cover the city.
Doug Kelly, who has experience with renting scooters in Key West, warned that the city “cannot contract away your negligence. The city would have to carry a large insurance policy. I would say let the city give (scooter rentals) a role; if it looks like it’s a problem or too dangerous, cut it off.”