Alexandria, VA

It’s one thing to make rules for scooters, but on Alexandria’s City Council, there are concerns about how the city can enforce proposed new restrictions in Old Town.

During the City Council meeting last Tuesday (Nov. 26), the council worked to fine-tune the next phase of the city’s electric scooter pilot program and shape how that implementation looks when it’s applied on Alexandria streets.

The first phase of the program saw 230,000 scooters trips taken by 15,000 users, as WTOP reported, noting that the indiscriminate parking of scooters on sidewalks was a major concern among city residents. Another concern: the unsafe operation of scooters on sidewalks teeming with pedestrians.

The latest development for the second phase of the scooter pilot program is that scooters will be banned from sidewalks in a large square section of Old Town — from Montgomery Street in the north and Wilkes Street in the south, and from West Street at the western edge to the waterfront.

But Councilman John Chapman said he was concerned the specific boundaries could be confusing to those who don’t know the layout of city streets. Chapman compared the approach to San Antonio, where he visited the week before and which, he said, benefits from a simple citywide “no sidewalk” rule.

“As a tourist to Alexandria, they don’t know how far Wilkes Street to Montgomery street is,” Chapman said. “Some of the stops people will have to do will be people who don’t know the area. Setting that up as a potential conflict is also concerning.”

Staff said signs would have to be posted regularly throughout areas where the electronic scooters are banned. Council members were unconvinced, though, that the best use of police time was monitoring Old Town’s sidewalks for electric scooter riders.

“How realistic is enforcement?” asked Councilman Mo Seifeldein. “Is that something we really want to push to the Police Department? It’s nice to say ‘it’s not allowed here’ but is it worth having a police officer patrolling this square? Is that the most efficient way of utilizing our resources? I don’t know how realistic the enforcement is, to be honest with you.”

Seifeldein said enforcement would be a challenging and complex operation. He was uncertain that it merited the end result of adding the criminal offenses to people’s records.

In another comparison to San Antonio, Councilman Canek Aguirre said the city has time restrictions on scooters to limit the risk of them being operated by people coming home intoxicated. Aguirre urged staff to consider similar time restrictions near bars, but Mayor Justin Wilson cautioned that time restrictions are a double-edged sword.

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After years of relying on the Virginia’s SMART SCALE grant program to fund transportation projects, changes in the program’s scoring criteria could leave that well dry for Alexandria.

At a Transportation Commission meeting on Monday, Nov. 20, city staff warned that new criteria under consideration by the Commonwealth Transportation Board could shift transportation funding away from existing urban centers like Alexandria and instead favor less dense locales.

“Because road widening projects in other jurisdictions did not score well and were not funded, VDOT has been tasked with re-examining the scoring criteria,” staff said in a letter to the commission. “Many of the changes put transit, bicycle and pedestrian projects at a disadvantage, and projects in denser areas in general.”

The city received $57.2 million in funding in 2019 for the design and construction of bus rapid transit routes in the West End and $50 million for the enhancement of southwest access to the Potomac Yard Metro station. But changes would impact criteria used to prioritize which transportation projects should receive funding.

Staff told the commission at the meeting that the change they’re most concerned about is regarding land use in the scoring criteria. Currently, staff said the program scores existing land uses and densities as well as consideration of changes in density, while the new criteria would prioritize areas that are becoming denser rather than those where density currently exists.

“We feel that severely penalizes places like Alexandria that are already densely built,” staff said.

The criteria would also take into consideration traffic congestion on weekends, where currently projects are only assessed by rush hour congestion. That would hurt Alexandria, which has plenty of rush hour traffic but not as much congestion on the weekend.

“We feel that hurts areas suffering from regional congestion rather than local congestion,” staff said. “That makes it harder for projects in these areas to score well.”

Staff says the criteria changes would prioritize the number of crashes over the severity of crashes, so intersections that see more fender-benders would be ranked higher than intersections that have had multiple fatalities. This principle goes against the Vision Zero goals adopted by the city, staff said.

City staffers told the Transportation Commission that bus rapid transit projects and bicycle-pedestrian projects would be negatively impacted by the changes in criteria.

“The current list completely omits any mention of bicycles and bicycle safety, even as more people statewide are biking,” staff said. “[The Commonwealth Transportation Board] should include bicycle safety and infrastructure projects (such as striping for bicycle lanes, road diets, etc.) as eligible low-cost, high-benefit improvements.”

Staff encouraged the Transportation Commission to approve a drafted letter opposing the criteria changes. No action was taken at the meeting, so that commission members could make changes and sent the letter within the next week.

Staff photo by Jay Westcott

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The squeaky wheel on the bus may get the grease, as the Alexandria Transit Company Board of Directors has directed staff to find a way of restoring or replacing a bus line through Seminary Road cut from current plans to overhaul the bus network.

DASH, the city’s bus system, is preparing to shift its bus service from a model focused on widespread coverage of the city to one that focuses on high-frequency service in densely populated corridors.

One of the casualties of this change would be the AT2 bus line. The bus line starts in Lincolnia and works up through the West End to the Mark Center before running down through the heart of Seminary Hill and into Old Town.

Steve Sindiong, an urban planner for the City of Alexandria, said that the DASH Board of Directors told staff at an earlier meeting that they need to go back and restore service in that corridor.

“That’s what we’re working on right now,” Sindiong said. “We’re looking at different approaches to service on Seminary [Road] and Janneys [Lane].”

The removal of the lines caused outrage at a meeting at the Burke Branch Library in October, where a packed room of local residents said they were concerned that they would lose access to the city’s bus service.

DASH tweeted that AT2 riders would be able to reach Old Town through a transfer at Landmark Mall or Southern Towers, but plans for the bus routes by 2022 eliminate service east of Inova Alexandria Hospital (4320 Seminary Road).

Sindiong said the replacement bus line would have, at a minimum, some weekday service.

The city is also currently in discussions with the Department of Defense, which funds the AT2x route that runs directly from the King Street Metro station to the Mark Center. It is currently an express bus, meaning it makes no stops on Seminary Road, but staff said in the October meeting that they were cautiously hopeful that it could be opened up to local residents.

Staff photo by Jay Westcott

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A long-planned bus rapid transit network (BRT) that would run through Alexandria’s West End is moving forward early next year, though the dedicated bus lanes featured prominently in the conceptual stage might not make it into the initial designs.

The city’s vision for the West End Transitway is a series of transit improvements to create a reliable, accessible bus line that would run from the Van Dorn Metro station to the Pentagon, hitting West End destinations that aren’t accessible by Metro, like the Mark Center, Southern Towers, and the perhaps soon-to-be-redeveloped Landmark Mall.

The goal is to make mass transit more accessible and more appealing to the car-heavy West End. After years of studies and securing funding, Steve Sindiong, project manager for the West End Transitway, says the design phase for the project is scheduled to start in early 2020.

Sindiong said the designs will include new traffic signal priority, pedestrian and bicycle-friendly streetscaping, and queue jump lanes — a short stretch of bus lane that allows a bus to easily pass through intersections.

But dedicated bus lanes, like those on the Crystal City-Potomac Yard Transitway and one of the earliest identified goals for the West End Transitway, are unlikely to make the cut in the initial phase of improvements.

“The reason we’re not proceeding with dedicated lanes at this time is a lack of funding,” Sindiong said. “We don’t have funds to do the full improvements. It would require a lot of rights-of-way which we try to get as development occurs, which hasn’t been occurring on Van Dorn as early as was anticipated.”

Some redevelopment has been occurring in the Van Dorn area, however, like the Vulcan Materials site approved for redevelopment in October. The city has also been working to push industrial uses out of the area — as in the case of the Virginia Paving Company being told to clear out — to make room for more residential and commercial uses.

With $70 million collected for the design and construction of the transitway, Sindiong said staff is ready to start moving forward with initial improvements for the West End Transitway and incorporate dedicated bus lanes later.

“The dedicated lanes are important and we are planning to eventually do the full build,” Sindiong said. “We will have to continue seeking funding and acquiring right-of-way through development. Putting in other improvements, like queue jump lanes and new bus stations — will improve the transit speed and reliability [in the meantime].”

The new transit improvements will also coincide with DASH’s plans to shift to a bus network that with a smaller coverage are but improved bus frequency in high-density areas. As a sort of proof-of-concept, Sindiong said the city has been working on improving service on AT1, a bus route that hits roughly the same areas as the eventual West End Transitway.

“We’re improving that service so people can expect ten-minute frequency during peak hours, and twenty for off-peak,” Sindiong said. “We’ve extended the service hours and added real-time bus information. This is the first step towards the West End Transitway… we want to track that to make sure the route is being productive.”

The West End Transitway also features into the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission’s plans to build a new BRT line along Route 7. The Transitway overlaps with a planned bus route that would connect Alexandria to Tysons, Pimmit Hills, Seven Corners and Bailey’s Crossroads, according to WTOP.

“The design would tie in at the Mark Center Transit Center and would use part of the city’s West End Transitway improvements,” said Sindiong. “It would turn onto Beauregard [Street] and stop at the city stops. For a small portion, there would be two overlapping transitways.”

Images via City of Alexandria

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After a series of community meetings, a public hearing is scheduled next week for a plan that could radically reshape how the city’s DASH bus network operates.

The big selling point of the new plan is that it would increase the frequency of buses in the city’s current and planned high-density corridors, like Potomac Yard and the Landmark/Van Dorn Corridor. In many of these locations, buses would be running at least every 15 minutes all day, every day.

More buses in the higher-density corridors would also increase access to the frequent bus service in concentrations of low-income residents, giving nine out of every ten low-income residents in Alexandria access to frequent bus service, according to a press release.

But the other side of that shift towards rapid-service corridors is that the plan will reduce or, in some places, entirely eliminate bus routes through the residential neighborhoods in Alexandria’s core. Routes like AT2, which runs through the heart of Seminary Hill and connects to Old Town, would be removed from DASH service — though the bus service is still attempting to negotiate with the Department of Defense to open up an express line that connects the King Street Metro station to the Mark Center for nearby residents.

The Alexandria Transit Company Board is scheduled to meet next Wednesday, Nov. 13 at 5:30 in the Council workroom inside City Hall (301 King Street). The public is invited to the meeting to express their thoughts on the changes.

An online survey about the changes is also available for interested residents and riders to fill out.

Staff photo by Jay Westcott

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The Capital Bikeshare’s expansion in Alexandria has hit some serious snags that has resulted in at least a two-year delay in the arrival of new stations.

In 2017, the City of Alexandria approved 10 new Capital Bikeshare stations, which would have included a push into the West End and Potomac Yard. The plan was to install them in 2018, according to the Washington Post, but that didn’t happen. Then the city’s FY 2020-29 Capital Improvement Program cited summer 2019 as the proposed completion date, but that hasn’t happened either.

City staff say changes in regulations have resulted in the city being forced to secure new contracts and file more paperwork.

“The city did not install any new Capital Bikeshare stations this summer,” said Sarah Godfrey, public information officer for the Department of Transportation and Environmental Services. “In 2018, VDOT reinterpreted federal regulations governing bikeshare; as a result, every municipality with Capital Bikeshare in the state has been working to secure new contracts and comply with those requirements.”

Now, the city is trying to ride in tandem with Falls Church’s expansion plans.

“Falls Church was the first Northern Virginia municipality to get a new contract in place; we’re working on obtaining permission to ‘ride’ that contract and going through the normal grant processes to fulfill the federal and state requirements,” Godfrey said.

Whether that will be allowed is unclear. In emails between city staff and VDOT officials, obtained by ALXnow, VDOT staff called the proposed piggybacking “uncharted territory” and said that the timeline for that process was unknown.

VDOT staff also said earlier this year that the city still needed to submit documents showing the scope of work involved, a cost estimate for the project, and a document showing the locations of the new bikeshare stations.

“Once we’ve cleared those process and regulatory hurdles, staff will be working to get the… stations that were approved in 2017 installed as quickly as possible,” Godfrey said. “Staff will then begin planning and engagement for the next round of stations, pending approval for additional operating funds, which are considered annually by City Council during the budget process.”

Staff photo by Jay Westcott

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The World Series wasn’t just a win for the Nats — it was also a boon for Alexandria’s water taxis.

The aquatic commute route was hailed as a “super-secret” way to dodge World Series crowds, and company officials said hundreds did ferry their way to Navy Yard — capping a season of growth for the service.

“During the recent World Series weekend, we operated three special ‘Baseball Boats’ between Alexandria City Marina and Diamond Teague carrying around 450 people to each home game,” said Nicola McShane, a spokeswoman for the Potomac Riverboat Company’s parent company, Hornblower Cruises and Events.

Water taxi tickets for the home games from Alexandria sold out last Saturday, October 26, though the company was still selling some from the Wharf.

In March, the Potomac Riverboat Company, which runs the water taxis, announced it would run river trips during all home games for the Nats and D.C. United, reported Patch.

The company also added four new boats to its fleet, which helped add seven trips between 6:40-9:20 a.m. on weekdays in preparation for the Metro’s station repair projects that shuttered multiple stations this summer.

But in August after the shutdown ended, Mayor Justin Wilson announced the service was so popular the city was asking the Riverboat company to continue running extended service through the end of the year, and is due to vote on loosening regulations next year to make the new scheduled permanent.

“I am optimistic that this success will provide an opening to make the use of our water as a viable commuting option, a permanent feature for our community,” said the mayor.

The ridership bump may have been in part because the City of Alexandria offered to reimburse water taxi commuters for their fares. In total, the city spent $28,214 reimbursing the fares with $5,642  from the city’s budget, and the rest from a state transportation grant, according to Sarah Godfrey, spokesman for the Department of Transportation & Environmental Services.

But commuters also praised the taxis’ fresh air, food and drinks, and lack of crowds when traveling on the Potomac (though the river poses its own risks.)

Perhaps surprisingly in Old Town, where parking issues run rampant, Godfrey noted the city did not receive any parking complaints this summer as more people than ever boarded the water taxis.

“We do not collect parking data directly, but both [Potomac Riverboat Company] and our own survey of those seeking reimbursement suggests most users walk to the water taxi,” she told ALXnow. “In fact, 78 percent of those who sought our reimbursement either walked or biked to the water taxi.”

The total ridership for 2018 was “over 250,000”, according to the CEO Kenneth Svendsen, who previously told Patch it was the company’s “best-ever performance to date.”

McShane declined to share the company’s overall 2019 ridership numbers with ALXnow, but noted that “we have seen a significant increase in guests using our services to navigate and explore the wider metropolitan area when compared to last year. This demonstrates there is a real, and growing appetite for water taxi transport.”

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(Updated 12:05 p.m.) A few bus routes through Alexandria’s residential neighborhoods could be axed as the city shifts the transit service from a coverage focus to a ridership focus.

At a meeting at the Burke Branch Library last night (Thursday), representatives from DASH and the Department of Transportation and Environmental Services presented plans that would increase the frequency of service on the population-heavy periphery of Alexandria. The trade-off, however, is that certain areas currently served by bus routes in the residential core of the city could lose those routes.

Much of DASH’s new plans focus on establishing high-frequency bus lines. On these lines, buses would arrive every fifteen minutes at each stop. These high-frequency transit corridors are focused around areas of existing and projected population density, like in the Landmark/Van Dorn Metro corridor and Potomac Yard after the arrival of Amazon and the new Metro station.

The vast majority of those at the meeting were — to judge by a show of hands at the start of the meeting — Seminary Hill residents. One attendee commented that the entire ridership of the AT2 line, a route that runs through the heart of Seminary Hill and one of those proposed to be eliminated, was present at the meeting.

“I moved here for mass transit from Wisconsin,” said Vicki Carlson, an Alexandria resident, told ALXnow. “Now if they eliminate AT2, that’s the entire route to King Street on Janneys Lane.”

Carlson and other local residents said the elimination of the DASH bus route was the next kick to the gut after the recently-approved Complete Streets plan reduced the road from four car lanes to two and a center turn lane while adding in bicycle lanes.

Ken Notis, an avid ALXnow commenter and a member of the Alexandria Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee, told ALXnow he believed that making Seminary Road more accessible could actually wind up benefitting ridership to the AT2 line, and current models possibly didn’t account for the impact Complete Streets might have on non-car traffic along that road.

The AT2 isn’t the only route getting cut. Martin Barna, Director of Planning for DASH, warned that other routes through Park Fairfax, Russell Road near Del Ray, and through the North Ridge neighborhood could all lose their bus lines under the new plan. Barna said the current bus route coverage is a balance of 50 percent focused on frequency and 50 percent focus on coverage, but new plans skew more towards 85 percent focus on frequency and 15 percent on coverage.

In addition to changing residential patterns in Alexandria resulting in more people living in higher-density corridors, Barna said the changes are a result of declining transit ridership forcing bus operators to take a more business-minded approach.

“We’ll see frequent bus routes around the rim of the city, from Landmark up along the edge of the West End, through Beauregard and down West Glebe,” Barna said. “It’ll be every fifteen minutes, seven days a week. It’s going to be a big improvement.”

“Not for us,” someone in the audience shouted.

“Okay, I set myself up for that,” Barna admitted. “These maps show a gap in the middle. We want to put service where we believe most people will benefit. That does leave some gaps.”

The DASH Board of Directors is scheduled to meet for a public hearing on the new route changes on Wednesday, Nov. 13, at 5:30 p.m. in City Hall. Final approval of the plan is scheduled for Dec 11.

Josh Baker, CEO and General Manager of DASH, had been lurking in the back of the room for much of the meeting but told Seminary Road residents that he heard their concerns and would redouble his efforts to open up the express route from King Street to the Mark Center to other stops between the two sites. The route is paid for by the Department of Defense, but Baker said he would try to negotiate and find a way to have the route expanded.

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While geofencing for scooters generally means blocking them from scooting through an area, new geofencing measures in Alexandria are aimed at keeping scooters parking in certain places.

New scooter regulations have blocked scooters from parking in a multi-block stretch east of N. Union Street, between Oronoco Street and Prince Street. The result has been an 80 percent decrease in scooter parking on the waterfront, staff told the Waterfront Commission at its meeting last week.

When users try to end their ride in the restricted area, a message will appear on their phone telling them to move the scooter elsewhere.

Before geofencing, staff said there were approximately 1,500 scooters parked on the waterfront every month. In September, that fell to around 250.

The city also tried to incentivize legal scooter parking by adding two parking corrals to the area, which have had roughly 400 scooters parked there per month.

This hasn’t stopped scooters from riding through the areas, despite signs encouraging visitors not to do so, but there has been a 50-65 percent decline in scooters riding through the waterfront, staff said.

Geofencing isn’t a fix-all solution. Staff noted that the geofencing can only cover large areas, with accuracy up to only about 20-30 feet. Despite the decline, neglected scooters littering the waterfront are still a common sight.

“It’s bad behavior and it’s going to continue,” said Mark Michael Ludlow, a member of the Waterfront Commission.

The scooter corrals have also become something of a victim of their own success. Staff noted that corrals have frequently been overflowing and scooters have been left on nearby sidewalks.

Staff is currently collecting feedback from the city’s boards and commissions, with Phase II of the scooter program going to City Council for approval next month, for implementation in January.

Map via City of Alexandria

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When Alexandria officials said they hope to see birds return to the Four Mile Run wetlands, they weren’t referring to Bird scooters — but yet, there was at least one there, in the water.

Concerns about scooters on sidewalks have dominated the local debate about the personal mobility devices, but the issue of abandoned scooters is nonetheless something with which Alexandria policymakers will have to grapple.

City staff told ALXnow that the role Alexandria plays in the recovery of the scooters is relatively minimal. If scooters are found illegally parked, staff said those who find it should report the scooter to the respective scooter company. If illegally parked scooters are reported to the city, those reports are passed on to their respective company.

Streamlining the reporting process for abandoned scooters is part of the second phase of the scooter pilot program, currently being considered for implementation early next year.

“It’s on companies to retrieve the scooters, not the city,” staff said. “If the companies don’t retrieve the scooters, part of the second pilot program could include pulling that company’s permit, but so far they’ve been cooperative with us.”

Seven companies have been authorized to operate scooters and e-bikes in Alexandria. According to the mobility program’s website, the best way to identify and reporter the scooters is:

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As Alexandria readies updates for its city-wide transportation plan, the city opened up the floor to other local government experts for lessons learned.

During a community forum last night (Monday) about Alexandria’s new transportation plan, city staffers hosted transit leaders from D.C. to Columbus, Ohio for a discussion on what Alexandria should focus on.

“This is a really exciting time to be in transportation,” said Director of Transportation and Environmental Services (TES) head Yon Lambert, who referenced the projects to build a new Metro station entrance at Potomac Yard, as well as Amazon’s headquarters and the new Virginia Tech campus.

Scooters Are Here to Stay

One new feature of the upcoming master transit plan, renamed “Mobility Plan,” will be the e-scooter program City Council members are considering expanding.

“When they first started they were like big toys,” said Jordan Davis, who heads the Smart Columbus smart city program in Columbus, Ohio and who noted that nowadays many people are using scooters for practical, routine trips. “So I think they’re here to stay.”

When asked by the moderator, about half the 80-member audience indicated they had used e-scooters and e-bikes.

(Data) Sharing is Caring

TES Principal Planner Jennifer Slesinger said one part of the new master plan will focus on smart mobility. Panelists encouraged planners to make real-time data a part of that.

Davis said said if cities publish provide real-time road condition data, navigation apps like Waze or Google Maps can help cut down on cut-through traffic — like the kind experienced on Taylor Run Parkway, Duke Street, and Seminary Road.

Hillary Orr, Alexandria’s Deputy Director of Transportation, previously told WTOP that the city plans to redirect cars out of neighborhoods and back to “arterial” roadways, and use sensor technology to allow buses longer green light time to prioritize transit riders.

Linda Bailey, who leads D.C. Department of Transportation’s embattled Vision Zero initiative, said real-time data could also allow cities to set up systems where delivery trucks can reserve and pre-pay for curb parking, and drivers can also tap into information about local parking garages.

“I have seen a parking garage that is never full just around the corner here,” she said of the Carlyle Place parking garage, adding that “information gaps” are one of the things technology addresses well.

You Can’t “Build” Away Congestion, But You Can Build Safety

Several panelists echoed the famous phrase that planners can’t “build” their way out of congestion problems.

“The only way out of our congestion is to get out of our single-occupancy vehicles,” said Atherton.

When residents asked what role ride hailing companies play in this, considering some studies show they increase road congestion, ride sharing service Via’s Greater D.C. Area General Manager said he’s “in favor” of congestion taxes like New York City’s new cruising tax to encourage more shared rides rather than single-passenger trips.

But experts said safety could be built: Atherton noted some simple solutions like sidewalks are “pretty nuts and bolts.” Bailey said keeping roads narrow and building fixtures like poles in people’s peripheral vision encourages motorists to drive slower.

The D.C. officials said everyone needs to “remember physics.”

“We need to look at force and mass in order to avoid and mitigate crashes to keep people safe,” she said.

Alexandria released a public survey this summer to guide the plans, which will last another decade, as Alexandria Living reported. Posters shared during Monday night’s meeting indicate that the new plan is being designed around the survey responses, in which residents asked for “safety, accessibility, and ease” in their transit modes.

But don’t hold your breath to see the new document: planning discussions are expected to continue into Spring 2020.

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Over 200,000 trips have been made on e-scooters in Alexandria this year, but a sticking point with local officials is equitable access to scooters throughout the city.

Now the City Council is considering pushing scooter companies to ensure more scooters are available in parts of Alexandria outside of Old Town and Del Ray.

At an update on Alexandria’s dockless mobility pilot program — a fancy name for electric scooters — at Wednesday night’s City Council meeting, city officials noted the concentration of scooters in just a couple of areas.

“It seems more like we’re following a company’s model than focusing on equity across our community,” said Councilman John Chapman. “Our focus, for folks here on the Council, is to make sure all of our residents have the same opportunity. That’s not happening for docked and dockless mobility.”

With scooters becoming an increasingly prevalent transit option throughout the region, Chapman and Council Members Mohamed “Mo” Seifeldein, Canek Aguirre, and Redella “Del” Pepper pushed for requirements that scooter companies improve the equitability of access.

“If there’s a way to hold the companies accountable so that they are making sure to place scooters in different parts of the city, whether that’s by the Berg, Arlandria, the West End or the Beauregard corridor, I want to see that happen,” said Aguirre. “There’s no reason 99 percent of them should be in Del Ray and Old Town. It should be in other places because people have mobility needs across the entire city, not just in certain places. We, as a city, are looking to build out infrastructure to help that.”

There was recognition on the Council from Chapman that the business model incentivizes companies to concentrate most of their scooters in the busiest parts of town.

“I know that goes in the face of many of the business models for these companies, but as we experiment we need to focus on what the theme of our government is, which is equal access,” Chapman said. “I want to see us make a pretty significant change in what we’re willing to accept from these companies.”

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