Bird electric scooters by Tim Evanson licensed under Creative Commons.

Hand-wringing over “historic character” is common when people oppose new development, but it happens with transportation changes too. A recent scuffle over dockless e-scooters in Alexandria highlights this phenomenon.

In January 2019, Alexandria City began a nine-month scooter pilot program, and now Lime, Byrd, Jump, Bolt, Skip, Spin, and Lyft all operate in the city. Dockless scooters are a ubiquitous sight in Old Town and in surrounding neighborhoods, as are riders cruising down King Street and heading to and from the Potomac River waterfront.

Some residents have called scooters “a tragedy waiting to happen,” while others complain there are too many of them and that they’re being scattered chaotically on sidewalks. Other residents like the scooters, and point out they help people get to far-flung parts of Old Town and also provide an alternative to driving.

There’s ample proof that scooters are a hit in Alexandria. On July 23, the local Transportation & Environmental Services (T&ES) department presented its findings from the first five months of the program. From January to May, riders took 101,515 trips for a total of 91,644 miles. Sixty-five percent of these trips were in Old Town, with the next largest share being in adjacent neighborhoods like Eisenhower, Carlyle, and Del Ray.

Luxury SUVs are “historic,” scooters are not?

This past weekend, Alexandria City resident Andrew Heining spotted a row of Bird scooters with “Save Historic Alexandria” stickers on them. His wife approached the woman putting the stickers on the scooters and asked what she meant by them. She allegedly responded, “Just to preserve the historic nature of Alexandria, basically,” before driving off in an SUV.

These stickers are another salvo in the ongoing battle of historic preservation and progress inside Old Town. Though there’s no consensus on what Alexandria City’s “historical nature” looks like, that hasn’t stopped residents from using their own criteria to impede change.

In 2010, one resident objected to a restaurant’s application for outdoor seating in an alleyway because it was important to “preserve Alexandria’s seaport history.” The resident did not go into details on what that meant.

There are also contradictions in what residents consider to be a nuisance or not; the latter tend to be their own vehicles. Parking and driving are consistent topics of discussion at public meetings. In 2014, residents opposed a single proposed bike lane on King Street. In 2017, Alexandria had fewer food trucks than Arlington and DC in part because residents complained about their parking being taken away.

Residents who reject scooters because they don’t fit with their perception of the correct look and feel for Old Town, but clamor for parking rights for their cars, are not engaging in a conversation about what is good for the public. Using “historic nature” as a blanket excuse to oppose new things is arguing in bad faith.

Scooters can help the city meet its goals

The city’s master plan and waterfront plans encourage a mix of retail and restaurants to promote walking and tourism. Scooters can help. They enable people to get around Old Town quickly and easily without cars, which congest the road and harm the environment more than any other transit mode. They allow younger people to ride, take up relatively little space, and are safer for people walking and bicycling than cars are.

Many issues (like scooters impeding sidewalk users) have simple fixes (like corrals). Riders can be taught best practices and rules of the road for scooters, just like with Capital Bikeshare or dockless bikes.

Residents and advocates should hold the Alexandria City Council accountable for making sure its ideas—like geofencing and scooter corrals—actually work. The city should ensure that corrals are placed in good spots, and hold companies accountable for upholding agreed-upon regulations. But until there are “Save Historic Alexandria” for the cars and SUVs in Old Town, it doesn’t make sense to single out scooters as being anathema to Old Town’s historic charm.

What’s next?

T&ES will provide another update on the pilot program in the fall, and the city will then decide whether to permanently adopt scooters. It will also evaluate potential options for continuing the pilot program into 2020.

Right now Alexandria is soliciting feedback on the pilot program. You can weigh in at the city’s “Dockless Education” outreach events. The next one is August 20 on King and Union streets.

Joanne Tang is a Northern Virginia native and a graduate student in public administration and policy, focusing on resiliency and emergency response. She lives in Alexandria and enjoys learning about pretty much everything, including the history of pencils.