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Rules on Omaha scooters are set, but they won't appear on city streets just yet

Rules on Omaha scooters are set, but they won't appear on city streets just yet

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Rules of the road for riding electric scooters in Omaha are now mostly set, but City Council members on Tuesday weren’t ready to give companies the green light to put scooters back on the streets.

The council voted 4-2 to approve the basics of what people can and cannot do when riding a scooter. Scooters won’t be allowed on sidewalks. Nor will they be allowed on streets with speed limits greater than 35 mph. No one under 18 will be allowed to use them. And they can’t be parked in certain places, among other rules.

Riders would have been mandated to wear helmets under an amendment proposed by Council President Chris Jerram, but it failed on a 3-3 vote. Council members Brinker Harding, Aimee Melton and Pete Festersen voted it down.

“To me, having an (ordinance) that doesn’t ... require the use of helmets is just too dangerous a situation,” Jerram said.

Jerram and Councilman Rich Pahls voted against the ordinance that sets rules for scooters. Councilman Ben Gray was not present for either vote.

The council also approved a $100 fine for violating scooter rules.

Julie Harris, executive director of Bike Walk Nebraska, characterized that amount as unreasonable and out of line with similar violations.

Many parking violations for vehicles in Omaha are $16, Harris noted. Bikes aren’t allowed on downtown sidewalks, but Harris said she couldn’t find anything in the city code about a fine for riding on them.

“It’s just an inequitable fine,” said Harris, who leads a group that advocates for safe and accessible transportation in the state.

Harris said she does think another scooter pilot program is good for the city, and she welcomes reasonable regulation of the scooters.

After approving the rules, the council on Tuesday also was poised to vote on operating agreements with Spin and Bird, the two companies expected to participate in Omaha’s second pilot program this summer and fall. That would have allowed the companies to break out their scooter fleets Monday.

But those agreements weren’t added to the council’s agenda until this week, and some council members had concerns, including the companies’ ability to control where people ride scooters and keep the devices sanitized during the pandemic.

Harding said the public should have a chance to comment on those agreements, which will be discussed during a public hearing at the council’s June 16 meeting.

Festersen on Tuesday wanted to know more about how riders will be prevented from going to prohibited areas of the city, a concept known as geo-fencing. During last year’s scooter pilot program, riders were supposed to be limited to areas like downtown, Midtown and Benson.

Ken Smith, Omaha’s parking and mobility manager, said the city will be divided into color-coded sections that will be shown to riders on the apps. Parking a scooter in some areas could result in a fine for the rider or in other areas an accumulating credit card charge. It was unclear Tuesday if the scooters will be automatically brought to a stop or slowed if they enter a restricted area.

Blanca Laborde, a Bird representative, and Phuong Bui, a Spin employee, both said Tuesday that their companies offer free helmets to anyone who requests one, which can be done in the apps that riders use to unlock scooters. The companies also offer educational programs and promote social media events to encourage safe riding habits.

The scooters will be cleaned at the end of each day, Laborde and Bui said. Some will be cleaned throughout the day as they’re picked up and redistributed in the city.

One amendment to the regulation ordinance that did pass Tuesday requires people under the age of 18 who own their own scooters, electric or otherwise, to wear a helmet. But they can’t be prosecuted for riding on sidewalks or violating most of the other rules on electric scooters.

The rules won’t go into effect until 15 days after Tuesday. That would mean the rules go into effect June 24.

And if the council approves the contracts with the companies at its next meeting, scooters could once again roam Omaha’s streets by the end of June.

This article has been updated to reflect when the scooter rules will go into effect.

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Reece covers Sarpy County for The World-Herald. He's a born-and-raised Nebraskan and UNL grad who spent time in Oklahoma and Virginia before returning home. Follow him on Twitter @reecereports. Phone: 402-444-1127

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