Friday, December 8, 2023

Virginia Beach Police: Atlantic Ave. is safer for e-scooters than Pacific Ave.

A couple rides on a rented Bird scooter at Virginia Beach's boardwalk. (Southside Daily/Lucretia Cunningham)
A couple rides on a rented Bird scooter at Virginia Beach’s boardwalk. (Southside Daily/Lucretia Cunningham)

VIRGINIA BEACH — City Council here voted in their formal meeting Tuesday to allow electric scooters in the shared trolley-bike lane on Atlantic Avenue.

Council members voted 10-to-1, approving the ordinance with a “sunset clause,” — a six-month trial period stating the new law will automatically expire Jan. 9, 2020.

Currently, the scooters are allowed to be parked on Atlantic Avenue, they’re not allowed to be ridden anywhere on Atlantic Avenue.

Virginia Beach Police Capt. Shannon Witchendahl is the commanding officer of the second precinct and proposed the ordinance to the council in their earlier informal meeting.

Witchendahl said the police’s stance when it comes to scooter laws has been to “educate and enforce” as “the laws have not caught up with the technology.”

“It’s constant for officers to educate every person they stop as to why the scooters are here, how they got here, what the city’s stance is, and what the signs say,” she said. “We’ve been pretty generous with it because our signage is weak at best.”

Witchendahl cited there are about three officers patrolling on the Oceanfront at a time who’ve stopped 2,000 scooter riders on the prohibited boardwalk and bike path within a 10-day timeframe and another 1,500 on Atlantic Avenue during the nighttime hours, putting law enforcement officers “in a little bit of a spot.”

“Currently, I’m enforcing the law on Atlantic Avenue and pushing them off of the shared trolley use lane to go west which is dangerous to do because Pacific Avenue is 35 miles an hour,” she said.

Vice Mayor Jim Wood voted to reject the ordinance, saying he’s concerned about how the ordinance would affect Hampton Roads Transit and the scooter riders’ safety against “35-foot trolleys full of people.”

Witchendahl recommended other resolutions to e-scooter enforcement including banning them from the Oceanfront, or like Norfolk, open a request for proposal to further regulate the vehicle.

“They’re fun and great to have but unfortunately we need to rein them in,” she said. “”If the council does nothing, I’m left with the resources I have to enforce the law.”

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The problem, Witchendahl said, isn’t just scooters blocking driveways, sidewalks, and streets, but also reckless riders causing serious injuries like the 5-year-old who recently suffered a skull fracture after being hit by a scooter on the boardwalk.

Because electric scooters are not considered vehicles under the law, it’s difficult to track the number of incidents involving them.

However, according to the police’s computer-aided dispatch system (CAD), there have been 892 incidents that included the word “scooter” within the last two years, Witchendahl said.

She also said Bird, the company that owns the motorized scooters, has been working well with police through a local representative and have made advances by decreasing scooter speed from 17 to 15 mph and installing a “geofence” on the boardwalk.

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Witchendahl said the geofence’s ability to slow the scooters to about 3 mph when it’s breached has been her “saving grace,” dramatically decreasing the number of complaints she once received about riders on the boardwalk.

“We’re a tourist city down at the Oceanfront and that’s typically what we’re dealing with is finding the balance of holding people accountable for coming down here and riding a scooter,” she said.

When Bird scooters suddenly appeared here and in Norfolk last August, both cities initially started impounding and charging the company to recover them.

In the time since, Norfolk has purged the city of all Bird scooters and contracted with the e-scooter company, Lime, while Virginia Beach has attempted to adapt to life with Bird.

City Council will reevaluate their decision to allow e-scooters on Atlantic Avenue when the ordinance expires on January 2020.

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