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In May, the electric rental scooters that had already descended on streets and sidewalks across other U.S. cities landed in Honolulu, where they drew record ridership in their first four days of service.
Less than a week later, the so-called “e-scooters” were gone. Tech-company Lime opted to temporarily suspend its Honolulu operation after the city moved to shut it down, impounding Lime’s vehicles and threatening fines and jail time.
Now, the earliest those scooters could return, city officials say, would be sometime after the state legislative session ends next May.
That’s because state leaders would have to update Hawaii’s vehicle code, creating new classifications for the e-scooters and other emerging alternatives to cars, in order for them to legally operate here.
Currently, the state code is broad and lacks categories between a bicycle and a moped, explained Jon Nouchi, Honolulu’s deputy director for Transportation Services. “They don’t fit very nicely into any category,” he said Thursday of the e-scooters.
Earlier this year, however, the city laid out a detailed case for why Lime’s e-scooters could only be classified as mopeds in a lengthy letter to the company by Honolulu Corporation Counsel Donna Leong.
If the Lime e-scooters are actually mopeds then they require the same safety inspections, tags and license plates as any other moped — and they certainly can’t be left on the sidewalk, Leong’s May 17 letter said.
“The demands on the City’s sidewalks are increasing, and it is becoming more and more important to keep those sidewalks clear for their primary purpose — pedestrian passage — with limited exceptions,” she wrote.
Some riders — and the companies themselves — hail the devices as innovative, convenient and environmentally friendly alternatives for urban commuters looking to travel short distances. Others scorn them as a blight and nuisance that overtook city sidewalks in such overwhelming numbers that they created safety hazards.
City officials across the country have scrambled this year to catch up, enacting rules and pilot programs that generally limit the e-scooters’ numbers and speed to better control them.
But it’s not clear whether any other cities besides Honolulu consider the vehicles to be mopeds.
In Washington, D.C., for example, they are classified as nonmotorized “personal mobility devices” that can be used in the roadways and sidewalks outside of that city’s central business district, according to city representatives. The scooters’ speeds are capped at 10 mph.
In Denver, they’re considered “toy vehicles” that can only be used on the sidewalk. The city’s Public Works Department is looking to reclassify them so they might be used in bike lanes.
And in Los Angeles, the e-scooters are classified along the lines of a bike or some other nonmotorized or low-motorized vehicle, with speeds capped at 15 mph, so that Angelenos can ride the scooters in the city’s bike lanes, according to Mark Pampanin, a spokesman for Councilman David Ryu.
For the e-scooters to resume in Honolulu, they’ll at least have to shed the moped classification, Nouchi said.
“We’re not saying no can. We’re trying to figure out, if possible, how can,” he said Thursday. “This industry is so new that we’re not even a year old yet. I don’t think we’re behind the curve on this one — I think we’re right in the thick of things.”
Eight e-scooter companies, including Lime and one of its chief competitors, Bird, have so far reached out to city officials with interest in operating in Honolulu.
Bird said it has no expansion plans to announce but considers Honolulu a “great place” for its e-scooters. Lime still aims to provide “new mobility options in the near future” but currently doesn’t have an update, according to spokeswoman Mary Catherine Pruitt.
In the meantime, a new, city-led “Urban Mobility Working Group” aims to hash out the best way for e-scooters and various other emerging innovative “mobility devices” to use Honolulu’s streets and sidewalks.
“We’re looking at diversity,” said Nouchi, who launched the group with about 40 members so far. “We’re looking at anything that is not a car, that might be operated within our city. Our main point is where can they be stored, where can they be operated just so we can keep everyone safe.”
City and state agencies and nonprofits such as Ulupono Initiative, Blue Planet Foundation and Biki bike share are all part of the working group, according to Nouchi. Also participating are ride-hailing companies Uber and Lyft, as well as Bird and Lime.
There’s even a member looking to bring “tuk-tuks” to Honolulu — the auto rickshaws prevalent across Asia, Nouchi said.
So far, the group has only met once, on Oct. 24 at Blaisdell Center. Its next meeting is slated for January, around the time the legislative session begins, Nouchi said.
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