(March 15, 2019) Hoping to stay ahead of rapidly advancing technology, Ocean City government will investigate potential regulations for dockless bicycles and electric scooters, which have created unwelcome clutter on streets in cities in the U.S. and worldwide.
Mayor Rick Meehan requested the topic be added for discussion during the Police Commission meeting on Monday.
“I’ve been following this, and Baltimore’s having a big problem with stacks of bikes,” he said.
OCPD Capt. Mike Colbert began researching the topic about nine months ago when the first requests for information were received.
“It was about scooters as much as bikes,” he said. “That’s how the industry refers to them is bike share and then this new dockless electric scooter share.”
Colbert said the District of Columbia, and more recently Baltimore, have become flooded with the newest wave of rentable ride options.
“We’re all familiar … where there’s a bunch of docks that bikes are locked into and you can swipe your credit card and use the bike … and drop if off at another dock,” he said. “What happens with dockless bikes is they use wireless and other technology so that you don’t have to dock it.”
Colbert said dockless bike/scooter companies typically make an effort to retrieve the two-wheelers that are randomly discarded by users.
“Periodically, they have runners that go out and grab the bikes because they’re all on GPS and they can find them,” he said. “They’ll bring them back to a central area where most people pick them up.”
Colbert said bike/scooter sharing services are largely marketed to professionals using public transportation to get near their workplace, but face challenges covering the “last mile,” of their commute.
“Then you can grab one of these bikes, ride it that last 10-15 blocks to work and then you just leave it out front,” he said.
Colbert said bike/scooter ride sharing companies have developed a negative reputation due to common business practices within the industry.
“If 200 bikes are about what’s needed, they’ll dump 300 in there and then another company will dump 300 and then another company will dump 300,” he said. “They quickly overload the area.”
Colbert said users have also, often inadvertently, contributed to the growing trend.
“People just stop riding them and just throw them up against a tree or a building,” he said. “Then they start to accumulate and there’s a lot of resistance to them because they become clutter.”
Councilman Matt James asked if the city had legal recourse to remove abandoned dockless rides.
Colbert said rides discarded on public property could be deemed abandoned.
Dockless ride sharing companies now have a trade association that has offered clarity for its member businesses in terms of negotiating with local jurisdictions.
“They’re whole concept is you have to go in with the municipality … and work … out an arrangement and maybe a contact,” he said.
Commenting on James’ question regarding city staff removing rides, Meehan balked at the added responsibility.
“That creates another job … that we really don’t’ need,” he said.
Meehan also noted dockless electric scooters could cause problems if driven on sidewalks.
“I can see where all of a sudden at the beginning of the season you get hundreds of these things dropped off in Ocean City,” he said. “My first question is can we prohibit these type of operations?”
Although deferring to City Solicitor Guy Ayres for legal parameters, Colbert said options exist to reign in the activity.
“You can regulate them, and you can regulate them heavily,” he said. “There’s nothing that says they have a right to do that, particularly the electric scooters, there’s not a good definition under Maryland law.”
Colbert said electric scooters would be restricted from use on sidewalks or the Boardwalk.
“Guy (Ayres) could tell you if we can say, ‘no, we won’t allow them,’ but certainly we can put rules and regulations in place,” he said.
Meehan suggested an outright ban on dockless ride share bikes or scooters.
“Maybe that will change in the future as these companies develop and become more regulated [but] this could be a real nightmare,” he said.
Although municipalities across Maryland are permitted to establish local regulations for dockless bikes/scooters, Colbert cautioned potential changes are brewing, as Uber finalizes negotiations to purchase an established dockless ride-sharing business
“Remember Uber’s whole idea in attacking the market is they go over and take the authority from local municipalities,” he said. “That would be our biggest fear that the state of Maryland passes something that allows these and restricts how we can regulate them on a local level.”
Councilwoman Mary Knight also suggested coordinating efforts with the Worcester County Commissioners after suggesting that numerous dockless bikes could be abandoned in West Ocean City during the peak summer months.
The Police Commission voted to send the issue to City Council to consider future action. with Meehan asking City Manager Doug Miller to consult with Ayres to obtain precise legal parameters.
“I’m really concerned … that we could become a dumping ground for these bikes,” he said. “I think we would be inundated … right at the beginning of the season.”