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Santa Rosa takes tentative step toward electric scooter system

Santa Rosa by next year may join the ranks of cities that have made fleets of electric scooters available for rent to residents and tourists looking for another way to get around town.

The City Council on Tuesday told staff to craft a pilot program that if approved next year would clear the way for the type of scooters that became ubiquitous in big cities across the U.S. in recent years.

Supporters on the council see the scooters as another way to enliven downtown and add a transportation option that does not need bulky infrastructure or fossil fuel.

But city staff acknowledge that developing a permit process for private operators to offer scooters locally could take nearly a year. And the council’s support was tinged with skepticism about whether a city the size of Santa Rosa, even when buzzing with tourists, could support such a scooter network.

Councilman John Sawyer, a former downtown business owner, said cruising around on a scooter could be a cool way to explore the city. But the scooters, which have been known to clutter sidewalks in other cities, could present issues for disabled visitors and other obstacles associated with scooter networks could prove burdensome, he said.

“I’m more than happy to entertain that, and I’ll remain skeptical until I have good reasons not to be,” Sawyer said.

The coronavirus pandemic would seem to present an even clearer barrier to a scooter rollout, with high-touch public equipment either on the outs these days or subject to deep, daily cleaning. In contrast, the scooter networks are designed to operate with little oversight or intervention between different users.

But scooter operators such as San Francisco-based Lime have maintained their networks during the pandemic by regularly sanitizing scooters. Operators also stress that riders, by traveling outdoors, have more social distance and are less exposed to the coronavirus than in traditional transit or vehicle travel.

The scooters generally top out at 15 mph and rely on hand-operated throttles and brakes.

Any conflict with the pandemic may be a moot issue, given that the city is in no hurry to hop on the scooter bandwagon.

Santa Rosa’s scooter dreams are aligned with a separate, long-delayed regional effort to add electric bikes near several Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit stations, including those in Railroad Square and near the Coddingtown Mall.

That effort is helmed by the Sonoma County Transportation Authority, which is hoping to kick off “detailed planning efforts” with cities soon before starting its electric bike program when temperatures warm up next year, pandemic permitting, said Suzanne Smith, the authority’s executive director.

“Our schedule would roll out bikes in the summer when we hope the impacts of the pandemic will have been lessened,” Smith said. “But it is challenging to assess how it will impact the program.”

If all goes well, Santa Rosa could roll out an electric scooter program in the wake of the pandemic, said Councilman Chris Rogers. A member of the SMART board, Rogers mentioned scooters as a possible solution to the so-called “first and last mile problem” in public transit — the idea that more people would use trains and buses if they had better opportunities to arrive at or depart from transit hubs.

Timing of any launch will be key to winning over commuters, Rogers said, in order to “grab them as quickly as we can before they go back to commuting in their car.”

You can reach Staff Writer Will Schmitt at 707-521-5207 or will.schmitt@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @wsreports.

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