After two years of delays, Palo Alto is preparing to join the electric scooter era this spring, when the city plans to start inviting companies to roll out their motorized fleets on local streets.
The City Council approved on Monday night an extension of the pilot program that was initially approved in March 2018 but that never took off because of staffing shortages at City Hall. Now, with the new Office of Transportation in place and electric scooters emerging as an increasingly familiar presence on the streets of Santa Monica, Oakland and elsewhere in the state, Palo Alto is preparing to join the movement.
The city's Chief Transportation Official Philip Kamhi said staff is in the process of finalizing the permit guidelines for bike- and scooter-share companies, with the expectation that they can start applying for permits later this month. Kamhi said staff envisions a three-week application period, followed by four weeks of reviewing applications and then the issuance of permits.
Companies would then be expected to perform community outreach for four weeks after the permit issuance, after which time they would be able to deploy their bikes and scooters throughout the city.
While the council has been talking about bike- and scooter-share programs for years, the environment has evolved, Kamhi said. Bike share programs are going away, he said, as vendors are switching primarily to scooter sharing. And while the council has in the past considered a partnership with a single company for deploying dozens — or even hundreds — of bikes for a new program, the latest approach relies entirely on private vendors to provide the services.
"Although programs had previously been approved by the council, staff made adjustments to the program based on the rapidly changing micromobility landscape and lessons learned," Kamhi told the council.
Under the new program, instead of dictating to companies where to place their bikes, it will invite them to propose "incentivized parking areas" for their bikes and scooters. This can include popular shopping areas such as Stanford Shopping Center and Town & Country Village, as well as Caltrain stations, libraries, parks and other locations proposed by applicants. Vendors will also have to institute "geofencing" around these areas (which sets boundaries for where riders can take a scooter) and implement technologies to direct users to these locations, according to the proposed guidelines.
In another departure from the past, the city will no longer set a cap on how many bikes and scooters can be in the system. The city manager will, however, have the discretion to declare certain blocks as off-limits for bicycle and scooter parking.
And by requiring community outreach, the city is hoping to avoid the pitfall of past efforts: the extremely low usage of its former bike-share offerings.
The council voted 6-0, with Councilwoman Lydia Kou absent, to approve the latest extension of the pilot program, with the idea of letting it roll out for six to nine months and then re-evaluating the results.
While the enrollment process won't begin for several weeks, Kamhi said he has heard from multiple companies already and is confident that the city will see applicants.
"We will definitely have people applying," Kamhi said. "They were very interested in applying previously. We just hadn't finalized the guidelines and released the process for doing so."
One company that has expressed interest, Lime, already runs electric scooters in about 120 cities, including Oakland and San Jose. Sam Kang, Lime's director of government affairs in California and Arizona, told the council that the company has seen 2.5 million rides over its two years in Oakland, with about 80% of them coming to and from transit stations. He also noted that in San Jose, where the company has seen 2 million rides, about one-third of scooter trips displaced car commutes or ride-share companies.
"Outside of San Jose, the Valley has been conspicuously absent from this wave taking hold, in terms of multimodal transportation and micromobility," Kang told the council.
"We want to be the last-mile solution in Palo Alto," he added, alluding to the challenge some commuters have in getting from the train station to their final destination.
The council broadly supported the scooter experiment, which Councilman Greg Tanaka said takes the city in the "right direction" when it comes to solving its transportation challenges. Mayor Adrian Fine agreed, even as he acknowledged that the new program is not a panacea.
"It's one small strategy and one small part of the pie," Fine said.