Photo by Ethan McLeod

With about a month left in the city’s extended pilot program for dockless transit, a committee of city lawmakers today approved broad rules and regulations for the thousands of rentable bikes and scooters that have been dropped around town by Bird, Lime, Spin and, soon, Jump.

The Land Use and Transportation Committee unanimously advanced legislation making the dockless program permanent and giving the Department of Transportation power to issue paid operating permits to bike and scooter companies. The bill would allow DOT to impose fines on users and providers, collect taxes on every ride, accumulate data from the private firms to track usage and more.

Under the amended bill, the city would issue permits, rather than field requests for proposals, to dockless rental companies to operate in the city, which Department of Transportation Chief of Policy Theo Ngongang-Ouandji said is a more “competitive approach” to getting vendors.

The city would tax every ride 10 cents, and keep a schedule of fines for users and the companies to follow.

The only charges inherited by riders would be those small excises and a $20 infraction for unlawful operation or parking of a scooter or bike.

What exactly does “unlawful operation” mean? More specific rules are forthcoming, but among the proposed ones: 15 mph speed limits for scooters and 20 mph limits for bikes and e-bikes; parking permitted on most sidewalks, and banned in driveways (without the owner’s permission), public streets, alleys and at most bus stops; no third-party advertising on vehicles; anyone younger than 16 must wear a helmet (most companies actually bar anyone younger than 18 from riding, but this rule would cover privately owned e-scooters and e-bikes); and riding is barred on sidewalks unless the adjacent road’s speed limit is at least 30 mph–and if they do opt for the sidewalk, the vehicle speed limit is 6 mph.

That last regulation presented a sticking point today. Councilman Ryan Dorsey, a Complete Streets booster who noted he personally uses bikes, scooters and public transit to get around town, said cars typically travel at “lethal” speeds for pedestrians. And drivers know not to travel more than 12 mph over the speed limit or risk a fine from a traffic camera, so they often go 10 or 11 mph over to continue speeding without penalty, he said.

“We are saying that you can ride on the sidewalk, but only on streets where cars are likely traveling 41 mph,” he said.

Dorsey proposed an amendment to let riders take to the sidewalk if the nearby road has a limit of at least 25 mph. Councilman Eric Costello opposed it, however, saying it would “create an unsafe situation” for pedestrians on the sidewalk, and the committee ultimately voted 5-2 against the change, with only Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke supporting Dorsey’s amendment.

The bill imposes steeper penalties on scooter and bike providers, with $1,000 fines for supplying more vehicles than permitted, failing to provide agreed-upon data to the city, not offering equitable access to vehicles and more, and $500 fines for not removing scooters and bikes from streets overnight—a task typically handled by often-competitive “juicers”—or failing to relocate scooters and bikes if DOT has notified the firm that they’re parked illegally.

The version advanced today had a couple major changes from the original text, drawn up by DOT with input from stakeholders around the city. For one, it removed a cap that said six companies at most could operate in Baltimore, with a total of 12,000 vehicles allowed. It also added language to open a 30-day public comment period on regulations before they become law, and laid out those aforementioned fines, among other changes.

Meg Young, shared mobility coordinator for DOT, said officials worked with DOT’s Dockless Vehicle Committee, council members, and scooter and bike companies to clarify language and follow national best practices.

Ngongang-Ouandji said they also relied on feedback from a non-scientific, voluntary survey of scooter and bike users, which he said reached more than 5,000 respondents. He said 74 percent of respondents identified as white, 14 percent as black, 4 percent as Hispanic and the rest as “other,” and around 80 percent of those groups expressed support for making dockless transit a “permanent fixture.” (Dorsey, for his part, criticized the makeup of the respondent pool and of the Dockless Vehicle Committee, arguing that young, black riders hadn’t played enough of a part in shaping the policy.)

Cycling advocacy group Bikemore, the Baltimore Development Corporation, the Law Department, Bird and more than a dozen city residents offered supportive testimony for the bill.

“This has been an incredible success, this pilot,” Bikemore policy director Jed Weeks told lawmakers, adding, “I think this is really good legislation that the committee should feel good about passing out of committee.”

The city has positioned itself to profit from its planned program. In a letter of support from the Department of Finance, officials anticipate between 1.38 million and 1.8 million rides annually. Finance estimated it would translate to $1,084,000 in revenue, split between permitting fees for the four companies (around $375,000), fines (around $550,000) and taxes on rides (another $159,000).

Under the pilot program, the companies have paid the city a flat fee of $15,000 each, plus $1 per day per scooter and $20 per day per bike. Total revenue at the end of 2018 was around $126,000, Young previously said.

Following today’s 7-0 committee vote, the bill is headed to a second reader vote from the full council at its next meeting on March 25.

Ethan McLeod is a freelance reporter in Baltimore. He previously worked as an editor for the Baltimore Business Journal and Baltimore Fishbowl. His work has appeared in Bloomberg CityLab, Next City and...