Johnson City now sanctions bike sharing, but scooters raise safety concerns

David Floyd • Nov 22, 2019 at 10:00 PM

Johnson City has given the green light for bicycle-sharing businesses to make inroads in the city, but in light of safety concerns, city officials have stopped short of allowing scooter sharing.

To get ahead of the trend, commissioners on Thursday unanimously approved new rules for mobility sharing companies — like Bird and Lime — on third and final reading. The revisions establish guidelines for bike sharing but don’t permit scooter sharing as a business in Johnson City. They won’t prevent people from buying and riding their own scooters.

“Based on a lot of the safety issues we’re seeing in other cities, we decided at this time that we would restrict rental scooters,” said Johnson City Mayor Jenny Brock. “That doesn’t mean a private individual can’t ride their scooter downtown ... as long as they follow all other laws that we have.”

Brock said head trauma is one of the biggest safety issues surrounding electric scooters.

“Most of the people who ride the scooters don’t wear helmets and they’re going 20 to 25 miles an hour,” she said. “You might have one or two or three people on one of the scooters at night.”

But the city is leaving the door open to consider rules that would allow scooter sharing in the future.

“Over time, metro areas and other areas that have allowed these scooters to operate will figure out the right codes and the right policies and the right procedures to put in place to allow or bring symbiosis to the situation,” said Johnson City Development Services Director Preston Mitchell. “We’re going to watch and see how that all turns out.” He said he isn’t aware of any mobility sharing companies currently operating in Johnson City.

Mitchell told commissioners on Thursday that East Tennessee State University plans to apply the same shared-mobility policy on their campus.

“We’ve agreed that we need to communicate and work together because of our close proximity and it would be mutually beneficial,” said ETSU Chief Operating Officer Jeremy Ross on Friday.

Ross said the university already offers bike-sharing programs through its Center for Physical Activity.

He said ETSU is currently undertaking a significant amount of construction. The infrastructure isn’t in place to provide mobility sharing services in the way the university wants, Ross said, but that could change in the near future, particularly with the university’s plans to construct a pedestrian-friendly boulevard in the center of campus. He said that project will start in spring 2020.

Ross anticipates students would use scooters more frequently as a means of traveling between the university and downtown rather than between academic buildings.

“If you’re in Rogers Stout and you want to go the library, it’s going to take more time to unlock the scooter, get your helmet to go for a 30-second ride,” Ross said. “I believe the recreation, the need and the use is that corridor downtown to campus.”

Ross said safety is the primary concern the university has with scooters.

“There’s an inherent risk any time one rides a scooter, or bicycle for that matter,” he said. “However, if the infrastructure and pathways do not bring or separate people, pedestrians, cars, other types of traffic, then it enhances that safety issue and we’re keenly aware of that and would say that’s our greatest concern.”

Because the project will deal with multi-modal transportation, Mitchell anticipates the planned revitalization of the West Walnut Street corridor, which connects the downtown area to ETSU, would serve as an opportunity for the city to revisit the question of scooter sharing.

According to the ordinance, shared-mobility companies that want to expand to Johnson City will first have to obtain a business license and applicable development permits. Docking stations for bikes can only be installed on private property and only in the city’s “shared mobility zone” — the area between East Tennessee State University, the VA medical complex and the downtown area.

Any shared bike left in the public right-of-way for more than 12 hours will be removed and impounded by the city at the owner’s expense.

The ordinance also lays out situations and roadways where bicycles are permitted. No one can operate an electric-assisted bike on any sidewalk in the city unless the motor is disabled and the rider of the e-bike is supervising a child while riding, according to the ordinance. 

An April 2019 study published by the public health department in Austin, Texas, studied e-scooter injuries after the rentable devices began appearing in the city in April 2018. The authors found 160 people who suffered injuries between Sept. 5, 2018, through Nov. 30, 2018, after riding on a rented, dockless e-scooter. “Dockless” means the device isn’t stored in a specific location.

The authors of the study found 30 additional people who suffered an injury related to an electric scooter. It was unclear, however, if the injuries occurred on a rentable or dockless scooter. Of the 190 riders, 48% suffered injuries to their head, and 80 suffered a severe injury.

Representatives for Bird and Lime, two prominent mobility sharing companies, did not immediately respond Friday to a request for comment.

Earlier this year, Nashville Mayor David Briley called for a ban on e-scooters in the city, according to USA Today, but the Metro Council rejected his plan. His proposal, according the Tennessean, came after a 26-year-old rider was struck by a car and killed.