Streets for People / Averting E-Bike Mayhem and Making Key West Sidewalks Safer

By Chris Hamilton; This story was written for and published by KONK Life on February 12, 2021 and is reprinted here with permission.

Thanks to Mayor Teri Johnston and Commissioner Sam Kaufman’s persistence, at its February 17 meeting, the City Commission will take up an ordinance to ban e-bikes and electric standup scooters from our sidewalks, to limit these e-vehicles and micromobility devices to 15 mph on multi-use paths and lift the year-old moratorium on new companies renting these vehicles. This is good news, especially as we’re big proponents of electric bikes and scooters as part of the bicycle, walk and transit options mix for the island.

Fear of Deluge of E-Rentals Begets Moratorium

A year ago, in February of 2020, the City Commission put a 180-day moratorium on new companies coming in and renting motorized or non-motorized vehicles. The impetus was the fear of rental electric bikes and electric standup scooters overrunning the town, specifically overrunning our sidewalks and making them unsafe for pedestrians. The moratorium was said to be needed to review data on traffic safety and capacity as leaders figured out what to do. 

New Florida Law Regulates E-Vehicles

On July 1, a new Florida law provided for three classifications of e-bikes or pedal assist and throttle bikes and gave them all the rights, privileges and duties of human powered bikes, meaning they could operate anywhere a regular bike could operate, including a sidewalk. However, the new law also gives counties and municipalities the ability to regulate their use on sidewalks. 

Mayor Doesn’t Like First Draft of Ordinance

At the Commissioner’s October 6 meeting they extended the moratorium by another 180-days or longer in order to complete the tasks needed to get an ordinance in place, citing the Coronavirus as a reason for the delay. At the City Commission’s final meeting of the year on December 2, City Attorney Shawn Smith let everyone know that since a draft ordinance was part of his annual goals for the year, he was presenting them a draft, codifying the new State rules in the City’s ordinance, thereby meeting his goal. However, this draft did nothing to address safety on the sidewalks or streets, in fact it simply permitted e-bikes and e-scooters on sidewalks, like bicycles. The Mayor’s response:

“The ordinance essentially says open the city’s streets and sidewalks to e-vehicles and let them come in. I had great concern about that because we have no data on sidewalk safety, on where these vehicles go, how we control them, how we monitor them. Because of our lack of bicycles lanes, we have shoved everything onto our sidewalks which, I think we can all agree that they’ve become very dangerous…. We’ve got small sidewalks. We’ve got busy sidewalks. And we’re trying to put one more form of transportation on them. We need to know how to do that safely.”

Mayor Teri Johnston

The Mayor rightfully wasn’t satisfied. She asked for some data on potential conflicts between e-vehicles and pedestrians and wanted safety recommendations, including how to ban these vehicles from sidewalks, as part of a package. Commissioner Sam Kaufman suggested that the City’s Transportation Coordinator, Tim Staub, be given more sway in final recommendations.

New Draft of Ordinance Comes Together

Mr. Staub got some quick pedestrian and bicycle counts on local paths and researched options for regulating different classes of vehicles on the sidewalks. The Mayor reached out to some local bicycle advocates, including Ryan Stachurski, Roger McVeigh and me and discussed Mr. Stuab’s ideas. 

It was easy enough to use the new State law and simply insert language in the City ordinance banning e-bikes and e-scooters from sidewalks that aren’t part of a multi-use path. Multi-use paths include the Promenades on North and South Roosevelt, and the designated paths on Bertha Street, Atlantic Boulevard and Palm Avenue. The e-vehicles, by State statute, can’t be banned from the multi-use paths. However, e-vehicles can be limited to a certain speed, and that’s exactly what the new ordinance does, setting the speed limit at 15 mph, when these vehicles typically travel at 20 mph and above.

E-Bikes and E-Scooters will be banned on all sidewalks except on multi-use paths designated by the dotted green line shown here. E-bikes and e-scooters will be limited to 15 mph on these paths.

The City Attorney’s Office worked with Mr. Staub to address the Mayor’s and Commissioner Kaufman’s ideas and concerns and got something positive done. At Mr. Kaufman’s urging the new ordinance provides exceptions to e-vehicles on sidewalks for children and persons with disabilities.

“We all want our sidewalks to remain safe for our residents and visitors alike. The increased use of electric bicycles and other electric motorized devices on sidewalks has created increased safety concerns. We also want to promote the safe operation with alternative means of transportation to reduce automobile traffic and parking congestion. We need policies that achieve a balanced approach on our island especially for areas with more narrow streets and sidewalks.

These amendments promote the public’s health, safety, and welfare by conforming commercial rental vehicle regulations with Florida Statutes and providing additional safety precautions with the use and rental of electric bicycles and electric motorized devices.” 

Commissioner Sam Kaufman

Ordinance + Signage + Education + Safer Streets = Success

The new ordinance, which also lifts the ban on and sets permit fees for the rental of these kinds of vehicles, is a positive advancement for safety on our streets. It even instructs those renting these vehicles to notify their customers of the rules of the road for their use so hopefully, tourists won’t use these on our sidewalks unknowingly. 

We’d also add that the City should do three things to ensure compliance with the new ordinance:

1. Install signage on the multi-use paths regarding the speed limit.
2. Engage citizens and visitors with education about where e-vehicles can and cannot be used, and
3. Embark on a broader project at making our streets safer for bicycles and e-vehicles by following up on the success of the Crosstown Greenway and implementing more elements of the Bike Master Plan. If people are using the sidewalks, it is because they feel unsafe in the streets. Making our streets safer for everyone will ensure pedestrians can use our sidewalks and not worry about getting run down. 

Mayor Johnston, Commissioner Kaufman, the Transportation Coordinator and Attorney’s Office should be applauded for their diligent work and a job well done. Everyone should ask their respective Commissioners to support the new ordinance and the follow-up it deserves.

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Chris Hamilton
Chris Hamilton

A native of the District of Columbia, where for a couple decades+ he led the nationally renown Commuter Services unit for Arlington County, VA’s DOT, Chris has lived in Key West since 2015. He lives downtown and works and volunteers for a couple non-profits.

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