LAS CRUCES – Rental scooters made their debut on New Mexico State University’s main campus in January, and after a 60-day trial period it appears they are here to stay.
The university’s police chief questioned the scooters’ legality in an email to administration, but the concerns are not enough to dissuade officials from going forward with a request for proposals.
San Francisco-based scooter company Spin, owned by the Ford Motor Company, introduced 100 battery-operated kick scooters onto campus on Jan. 18. The scooters are rented through Spin’s mobile phone app and do not work off campus.
Except for a brief interruption immediately after the launch, arising from a dispute with a local contractor, the scooters have been a familiar sight on campus.
In February, Spin reported 7,323 trips and 3,119 registered users in the first month of service to NMSU administrators and the student government.
Emerson Morrow, who was president of the Associated Students of NMSU until he stepped down on April 12, told the Sun-News the scooters are a win for students, staff and visitors to campus.
“We have a large campus that’s spread out, and nice weather most of the year,” Morrow said. “This is an ideal opportunity to explore the different ways to get around.”
Morrow said working with Spin preempted the possibility of another company simply launching scooters on campus without talking to administration, a practice called “rogue launching” in the scooter industry.
Embracing scooters on campus
In March, NMSU and Spin extended the company’s exclusive service agreement for an additional 60 days while the university gathers proposals from scooter providers for service beginning in August.
The request for proposals closes at 2 p.m. on April 30 and is accessible through NMSU’s online bidding system.
The Sun-News examined 275 pages of emails obtained through a public records request. The communications indicate the administration was planning for scooters to remain as early as the January launch.
In a group email distributed to Chancellor Dan Arvizu and President John Floros among other university officials, NMSU’s former associate vice president for facilities and services Glen Haubold wrote, “The President asked us to review the proposals for scooters, we need to complete this before the 60 days are up, and we are assuming that the trial will lead to scooters remaining on campus, since we want an agreement in place as opposed to removing scooters until we work one out.”
Haubold retired from NMSU at the end of March.
Although NMSU is not spending money to procure scooter service, Haubold wrote in February that selecting a single vendor allows the university to negotiate and enforce terms.
According to the proposed scope of work, NMSU wants a contractor to provide “a turnkey solution” for managing and equipping scooter service, without the university purchasing scooters.
The RFP also requests that the contractor provide safety training, signage, a point of contact, and to allow NMSU personnel access to distribute and redistribute the scooters.
A spokeswoman for Spin confirmed that the company is submitting a bid, but the company did not respond to interview requests.
Scooters and the law
During the 60-day trial, emails among administrators discussed accidents and reports of risky behavior with scooters, as well as potential conflicts with New Mexico law, which treats electric scooters as motor vehicles.
During New Mexico’s 2019 legislative session, state Rep. Nathan Small, D-Las Cruces, sponsored a bill excluding electric foot scooters from the Motor Vehicle Code. The bill did not get a floor vote.
On March 7, after an ambulance responded to a scooter-related accident near Milton Hall, campus police chief Stephen Lopez wrote an email to administrators and NMSU’s general counsel office pointing out that under current laws, scooters do not properly belong on sidewalks or on streets.
“The scooters deployed by Spin do not comply with requirements for a vehicle to operate on a roadway (such as having reflectors to the front, sides, and rear),” Lopez wrote. “Spin also has a placard affixed to the scooters that specifically says they are not allowed on sidewalks (suggesting Spin knows they are not legal on sidewalks, though that is where they are deploying them and encouraging students to ride and park them).”
What about helmets?
Under New Mexico law, safety helmets are required for bicycle and scooter riders under the age of 18 , and anyone “renting bicycles, skates, scooters or skateboards” must provide helmets for minors.
Spin states on its website that riders are required to be 18 years of age and hold a valid driver’s license, and recommends helmet use.
Yet the scooters are available to the general public on NMSU’s campus: anyone with a mobile phone containing the app and payment information may unlock a scooter.
Moreover, Spin’s user agreement permits a parent or legal guardian to allow minors as young as 13 to operate a scooter.
Lopez alerted the administration in a March 13 email that allowing a minor to ride without a helmet is a criminal offense:
“Officers will have to hold the minor until parents arrive to pick them up, and then criminally charge the parents (and anyone who provided the bicycle, scooter, or skateboard). It is a small fine ($10), but it is a criminal offense, not a ticket. Based on feedback, we have heard of some companies operating in some locals across the country providing helmets on every rental scooter. This might be something to consider if NMSU does enter into any further agreements with companies.”
Responding to an inquiry from the Sun-News, the Spin company wrote that it had distributed complimentary helmets at a campus safety event, and Morrow confirmed Spin had given out “a dozen or so.”
Spin said it planned to distribute more helmets at an unspecified future date.
“We encourage university enforcement and education, and want to keep people safe without stunting ridership,” Spin’s statement concluded.
An email following a February meeting of the university safety committee detailed staff concerns including scooters blocking doorways and wheelchair access, injuries during the first month of service, and scooters traveling at unsafe speeds.
Support from students
The majority of students who wrote to the email@example.com email address for feedback expressed support and gratitude for the scooters.
Morrow said, “It contributed very positively to student morale this semester.”
“We have a lot of students on campus who don’t have a car, especially international students,” Morrow said, adding he would like to see scooters move beyond campus, as they provide “a mode of transportation to go off campus, pick up groceries, to buy stuff and whatever they need to do within a reasonable distance.”
As for legal and safety issues, Morrow conceded, “I feel like there is still a lot to be figured out.”
In March, Lopez presented Arvizu and Floros with some proposed regulations and a conceptual map of authorized pathways for scooters combining existing bicycle and multiuse paths with some newly designated paths navigating the horseshoe.
“It shouldn’t be difficult to create a robust network that gets people around, without the need to ride on narrow sidewalks,” Lopez wrote.
On a conference call with the Sun-News Friday, university architect Heather Watenpaugh said, “We have pathways that get you from point A to point B, but we don’t have a loop and a network path for the scooters around campus.” She said further study would be necessary, possibly with the involvement of the selected provider.
“Right now, we’ve asked for general information on the respondents’ programs and the committee will evaluate prior to awards,” Jack Kirby, assistant director of New Mexico State University’s Environmental Health and Safety office, said.
Terms for a final contract might include a mechanical speed limit. “They can digitally set the speed limit as part of their software package,” he said, noting that during the trial period this semester, Spin reduced its scooters’ maximum speed.
With finalist interviews scheduled for May, there will be time during the summer to negotiate regulations and procedures before students return to a campus whose walkways are shared by feet, wheelchairs, bicycles, skateboards, and a fleet of electric scooters.
Algernon D’Ammassa can be reached at 575-541-5451, firstname.lastname@example.org or @AlgernonActor on Twitter.
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