Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

It’s a balancing act like nothing our thoroughfares have seen.

The proliferation of rentable scooters, e-bikes and dockless bicycles on county streets challenges riders to get where they’re going without tipping onto a hard surface. At the same time, Arlington’s transport and environmental regulators — dovetailing with an exploding list of high-tech companies pushing two-wheeled-product — must balance 21st-century travel efficiency against safety risks to all.

Explorers of this unmapped territory gathered April 10 at Arlington’s Committee of 100 for an update — halfway through the county’s nine-month study on how to civilize this transport revolution.

The challenges come as 100 cities have instituted some form of ban on “shared mobility devices,” and two months after state legislation gave localities authority to set standards. Arlington joined Capital Bikeshare in 2010, and last fall it began giving permits to seven scooter companies: Bird, Bolt, JUMP, Lime, Lyft, Skip and Spin.

The technology allows folks to use apps and credit cards on their smartphones to grab — spur of the moment — scooters or bikes stationed at “corrals” at key locations or just lying where the last users abandoned them.

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The average ride is 1.4 miles, $3-4 per, according to Reid Teschner, government partnership manager for Santa Monica, Calif.-based Bird scooter. He portrays scooters as an “affordable option” that promotes clean energy and allows users to conquer the “first and last mile problem” — transport to a destination too far for walking but too close for driving.

Since monitoring began in Arlington last year, there have been 27 “collisions,” reported Jim Larsen, bureau chief of Arlington County Commuter Services. Riders fell, got hit by cars or hit a parked car, while four pedestrians suffered “minor cuts and abrasions,” he said.

“They don’t track this kind of thing in the E.R.,” and “the insurance industry hasn’t really caught up,” Larsen said. Helmets are not required in Virginia, though “we encourage them.” Police have limited resources for nabbing violators who violate the 10 mph speed limit for scooters, the rule against riding on sidewalks or trails, or riding underage.

During the study being coordinated regionally, Larsen said, the county charges companies an $8,000 permit fee for staff time and a $5,000 surety bond. He encourages citizens to send in reactions, good and bad.

Shared mobility devices “give people options,” notably when Metro is down, said Alex Held, public engagement specialist at the Environmental Services Department. As his team updates the decade-old country transportation master plan, these modern conveyances that go beyond just painted bike lanes can be “integrated into the greater transportation system,” he said. Bad behavior (dumping a scooter where pedestrians trip over it) would decrease with education and an equitable approach that services all neighborhoods and “persons of all ages and abilities.”

Complaints from the audience described 40 discarded scooters bunched on Columbia Pike, which prevented one homeowner from backing out of her driveway.

Teschner, whose company has given away 6,500 helmets, said safety efforts include an app tutorial and 24/7 support. “It’s constantly evolving and we’re learning along the way,” he added. “In any transportation form, there will always be bad actors.”

Committee of 100 Chair Tamon Honda noted, “When cars were introduced, there were problems with horses and people not being aware of the dangers of speed and crossing not at the intersection.” I guess that worked out, mostly.

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Another old church building down. Nearly two years after demolition of Arlington Presbyterian on Columbia Pike, the 70-year-old sanctuary housing the Rivendell School at 5700 Lee Highway is meeting the wrecking ball.

The Christian private academy (150 students K-8) named for a valley in J.R.R. Tolkien novels will continue on the site, I’m told by staff.

Headmaster Byron List invited alums for a last visit to the building purchased in 1989 from Christ United Methodist Church.

“Rivendell School will no longer be a reconfigured church building, but a school building,” his newsletter said.

That same land “will retain its calling to be a place where the truth of the Gospel is declared boldly.”

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