The last time lawmakers updated Metro Nashville’s laws about scooters, they used phrases like “roller skates,” “tape player,” and “railroad gulch.”
Such terms may all be lost on the millennials riding around on Bird scooters in Nashville today.
The popularity of the scooter-sharing service has skyrocketed in Nashville since the rental scooters arrived in town less than three weeks ago. You can often see riders using them in downtown Nashville and adjoining neighborhoods.
But just as quickly as the scooters arrived along Nashville’s roads and sidewalks, so did controversy.
Just two days after the company’s Nashville launch, Metro’s legal department issued Bird a cease and desist order , saying the company had 15 days to keep their scooters from blocking sidewalks and other rights-of-way. Bird has insisted it’s operating legally in Nashville.
A few days later, two Bird scooter riders were critically injured by a hit-and-run driver .
Metro councilman Dave Rosenberg is now pledging to update the city’s ordinances by removing requirements that scooter riders wear kneepads, elbow pads and wrist guards in addition to helmets when riding – the same restrictions that apply to those who use “in-line skates” or “roller skates” in Nashville.
But with the rapid growth of scooter use in Nashville, council members now say an even deeper look at Metro’s scooter laws is needed; the most recent changes took place in 2001.
One Metro ordinance currently on the books defines an area of downtown where riding scooters on sidewalks is prohibited. The area doesn’t include parts of downtown Nashville that have experienced significant growth since 2001 when the laws were last changed, including the Germantown neighborhood and the SoBro area, where First Tennessee Park, the Music City Center and several towering hotels now claim parts of the “It” city’s new skyline.
In a sign of the times from the turn of the century, the Metro codes dealing with scooters refer to one of the boundaries of the sidewalk scooter ban as “the railroad gulch” – an area that has since lent its name to the current-day Gulch neighborhood, where trendy shops and condos have inundated the area.
The southern boundary of the area where scooters can’t use sidewalks currently runs along “the center line of Broadway,” meaning that one side of the tourist-packed street is covered by the ban, while the other side – just as packed – is not.
The code also says riders cannot operate scooters “while listening to a portable radio, compact disc (CD) or tape player.” It’s unclear whether modern-day smartphones and mp3 players would qualify under the current law.
All this, in a city code that Rosenberg says isn’t clear about how a Bird scooter should be classified under Metro’s ordinances; the scooters are propelled by a small motor that is powered by a rechargeable battery.
“There doesn't appear to be a delineation between unmotorized scooters, an electric scooter and a motorcycle,” Rosenberg said. “It’s difficult to figure out where those lines are.”
Under current Metro laws, those who ride scooters must ride in bike lanes if they are available, but they are otherwise banned from riding scooters in the roadway. Riders can use sidewalks if it’s outside of the banned downtown area.
In addition to the helmet, kneepads, elbow pads and wrist guards required, Metro code says scooter riders need to have other safety equipment like a headlight and rear reflector when riding at night.
Councilman Rosenberg says laws concerning scooters need to be changed to reflect current-day standards, and to potentially allow services like Bird to continue.
“Clearly we need to develop a framework where they can operate and offer this service, which could be a big help as a city, as we figure out the mix of options to get people around,” Rosenberg said. “But we also need to ensure that entrances to buildings aren't being impeded, or pedestrians aren't being run over on the sidewalks.”
Other Metro laws require scooter riders to yield the right-of-way to pedestrians , and to give an audible signal before overtaking and passing them. Like those on roller skates or roller blades, scooter riders are required to ride single file , and are not allowed to ride in a reckless or destructive manner .
The laws concerning scooters change hands inside the nearby Bicentennial Capitol Mall State Park, where the state has jurisdiction. Under a Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation rule last updated in 2010, the use of scooters is prohibited in all state parks, along with roller skates, skateboards, roller blades and segways, unless the Park Manager specifically posts signs saying they are allowed.
But overall, Rosenberg says the outdated scooter laws are simply a function of a growing, changing city. He says it’s now up to the Metro Council to change ordinances to adapt to today’s Nashville -- a place hundreds of thousands of people now call home.
“A lot of times, it’s finding out that some laws that really hadn’t affected a particular segment of the economy or our lives, are suddenly becoming more applicable,” Rosenberg said. “We need to address them in a different way.”