in Futurist, Green, Politics, Raleigh

Jailbirds: Scooters and Sidewalks

Bird Scooter

As most residents are now aware, a few weeks ago the city of Raleigh become one of the few lucky (?) municipalities to get rentable electric scooters. These scooters (mostly of the Bird brand at this point) have been zipping merry residents from one end of town to the other for a small fee. While many are pleased that this new mobility choice has possibly decreased the number of car trips, others have pointed to the dockless nature of the scooters and how this inevitably leads to the scooters blocking sidewalks.

The City Council has not yet weighed in on the legality of scooters making their home on the sidewalks without having first been given official permission. Thus, they are operating in kind of a gray area. I decided to look into the Raleigh Municipal Code to see what laws we have on the books regarding sidewalks and motor vehicles.

It didn’t take long to find the relevant section in the Raleigh Municipal Code (and conveniently linked to from the links page of my EastRaleigh.Org website – I am awesome). Emphasis is mine:


(a) Obstructing traffic.

It shall be unlawful for any person to stop, stand or park any motor vehicle upon a street , or alley, in such manner or under such conditions as to obstruct the free movement of vehicular traffic, except that a driver may stop temporarily during the actual unloading of passengers or when necessary to obey traffic regulations or signs or signals, or signals of a police officer .

(b) Designated places.

No person shall stop, stand or park a motor vehicle (attended or unattended) except when necessary to avoid conflict with other traffic or in compliance with the directions of a police officer or traffic-control device in any of the following places:

(1) On a sidewalk, in the area between the roadway and the sidewalk, in the area between the right-of-way line and the roadway or in the median area of a divided roadway

So, city ordinances prohibit parking motor vehicles on the sidewalk. That seems pretty clear. But what is a motor vehicle? Part 11, Chapter 2, Sec 11-2001 provides transportation definitions:

Sec. 11-2001. – DEFINITIONS.

Whenever in this chapter the words hereinafter defined in this section are used they shall , unless the context requires otherwise, be deemed to have the following meanings:

Motor vehicle.
A motor vehicle is a vehicle which is self-propelled and designed to run upon the highways, and every vehicle which is pulled by a self propelled vehicle.

An electric scooter certainly is self-propelled but is it “designed to run upon the highways?” Let’s go back to the definition list to see what the city considers a highway:

Street or highway. A street or highway is the entire width between property or right-of-way lines of every way or place of whatever nature, when any part thereof is open to the use of the public as a matter of right for the purpose of vehicular traffic.

Boom, there you go. Electric scooters are designed to be used on either the street or the sidewalk, both of which are located between property or right of way lines. Therefore, it would seem electric scooters meet the motor vehicle definition of the city ordinances and therefore cannot be legally parked on the sidewalk.

So, does this mean that Raleigh Police will soon be arresting scooter scofflaws? Not likely! Scooters provide an interesting new mobility choice which could serve the city in the long run. A better response for the city would be to provide some sort of legal framework for electric scooter use on public sidewalks. Ideally, this would treat commercial scooters and personally-owned scooters equally. Even better, the city would provide designated spaces for scooter parking, either at existing bike racks or in new “parklets” carved out of auto parking spaces, so that parking on the sidewalk is not needed.

Interestingly, if the city chose the stick approach over the carrot approach, it could impound scooters left on the sidewalk, thanks to Sec. 12-7002:

Sec. 12-7002. – DEFINITIONS.

For purposes of this chapter, certain words and terms are defined as follows:

(a) Abandoned vehicle.

An abandoned motor vehicle is one that is:

(1) Left upon a public street or highway in violation of a law or ordinance prohibiting parking; or

(2) Left on a public street or highway for longer than seven (7) days; or

(3) Left on property owned or operated by the City for longer than twenty-four (24) hours; or

(4) Left on private property without the consent of the owner, occupant or lessee thereof, for longer than two (2) hours.

… because if a scooter isn’t allowed to park on a sidewalk it would thus be in violation of the ordinance prohibiting parking.

This is not a parking space.

While electric scooters left on sidewalks are annoying and could become a trip hazard for pedestrians, what I find more annoying is the automotive vehicles that routinely park on the sidewalk as if blocking the sidewalk is somehow less of a problem than blocking the street. Many, many construction trucks do this (and, for that matter, news media vehicles). A scooter may block a small portion of the sidewalk but these trucks routinely block all of the sidewalk. Before the city wastes too much time chasing Birds, I’d like to see it do a better job of keeping the larger vehicles off the sidewalks.

Update: The Raleigh City Council discussed electric scooters at today’s council meeting and are considering regulations that may permit them. I think this is the best way forward. I’ll provide more details on the session this evening.