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Pedestrian safety on sidewalks prompts discussion about e-scooters in B.C.

Electric devices aren't permitted on roads – less clear if they’re allowed on sidewalks
New West council has asked staff to look into the issue of electric devices on sidewalks.

A New Westminster city councillor wants the city to see what can be done to prevent sidewalks from being “super highways” for electric scooters.

Coun. Daniel Fontaine said he’s heard from a number of seniors who are concerned about the increasing numbers of e-scooters, e-skateboards and other electric mobility devices that are on sidewalks.

“I've seen these e-scooters and other electric vehicles just whizzing by, weaving in and out of pedestrian traffic, and coming very close to what could be a serious accident,” he said.

While sitting in a coffee shop on Columbia Street, Fontaine said he saw a collision, after a person travelling “very fast” on an electric device collided with a pedestrian. He said the pedestrian was “quite startled” but, luckily, was not seriously injured.

“I've worked with seniors for almost a decade, and I know if they fall and they break a hip, it could be a death sentence,” he said.

Fontaine said many of the seniors he’s spoken to about the issue would like an “outright ban” on electric devices on sidewalks, but his motion is only to look at imposing speed limits on sidewalks.

At Monday’s meeting, council considered a motion from Fontaine to have staff report back to council regarding the operational and budget considerations pertaining to the implementation of a bylaw that imposes speed limits on sidewalks to help reduce the risk of pedestrian injuries.

“It's not looking to ban e-scooters on sidewalks but it's trying to lower their speed limit and send a clear message that these are not super highways for e-scooters where you can just ride at will, that pedestrian are our number 1 priority, in particular on places like sidewalks, and we have to do everything we can to make sure that they're safe,” he said. “I think that if these e-scooters slowed down, and they weren't going 20, 25, 30 kilometres an hour on the sidewalks, that we would be able to reduce the amount of injuries and also allow for their use on sidewalks.”

Lisa Leblanc, the city’s director of engineering, said the city’s not at a point where it can prohibit these devices or implement a bylaw that restricts their use in any way because they're not permitted to be used on B.C. roads under the Motor Vehicle Act.

Leblanc said several B.C. communities are participating in the provincial electric kick scooter pilot project, which allows participating municipalities to enact bylaws regulating the use of these devices in their communities.

“We are not part of that pilot, so they remain prohibited in the city,” she said.

Coun. Ruby Campbell suggested the city wait until it gets the results of the pilot project before taking action, so it can base any decisions and conversations around best practices.

Coun. Tasha Henderson said it “seems redundant” to create a bylaw for something that's already illegal. She suggested the issue be explored within the context of the city’s e-mobility strategy and the active transportation plan.

Henderson said it’s definitely an issue worth reviewing.

“In doing the walk-around with members from CNIB, they did raise a concern about sharing sidewalks with anyone on wheels, because those with visual impairments have a hard time hearing them coming and obviously can't see them coming from behind them,” she said.

Speaking as a pedestrian, Coun. Jaimie McEvoy said he doesn’t support motorized vehicles being on the sidewalks – at any speed.

Mayor Patrick Johnstone said the city’s street and traffic bylaw says people can operate devices such as rollerblades, skateboards, longboards and similar means of transportation on sidewalks, provided it’s done in way that does not interfere with the pedestrians. He said the bylaw seems to be unclear about the use of electric devices on sidewalks.

Johnstone said the city’s e-mobility strategy specifically talks about developing an education campaign for safe use of e-mobility devices. He supported the motion.

“I think there's some questions that we might have here that we'll be able to answer quickly and there's some questions we won't be able to answer quickly because the situation is evolving in a quick way,” he said. “I'm happy with us asking staff to take us back and come back to us with some idea of how this will fit into their existing work plan and when they can provide us more guidance on potential bylaws or programs that we can do to make this safer.”

Following a discussion about the issue, council unanimously approved Fontaine’s motion.

Council also unanimously approved an amendment from McEvoy that a public education campaign be undertaken.

“I think the public education piece is important,” McEvoy said.

Electric kick start pilot project

A number of B.C. communities are taking part in a provincial pilot project aimed at testing and evaluating the safety and efficiency of electric kick scooters.

Launched in 2021, the pilot project is part of the province’s efforts to support expanded active transportation networks in B.C.

According to the province, these devices currently aren’t allowed on public roads or sidewalks yet, so it has changed the Motor Vehicle Act to enable testing ways of introducing them safely,  starting with e-scooters.

“Pilot projects in several B.C. communities will let us explore the potential of e-scooters,” said the province’s website. “We’ll learn what’s needed to keep everyone safe on these, and similar devices, so we can update our plans and regulations.”

According to the province’s website, the cities of Coquitlam, Kelowna, North Vancouver, Richmond, Vancouver and Vernon, as well as the District of North Vancouver and the Town of Oliver, are participating pilot project communities that have adopted bylaws to allow the use of electric kick scooters on roads in their communities:

In addition, the City of Nanaimo, the District of West Vancouver, the Township of Langley and the Town of Osoyoos are participating in the pilot project but haven’t enacted bylaws.

“The pilot exists for a really good reason,” said Mayor Patrick Johnstone. “There's lots of anxiety about these types of devices.”

But Johnstone said there’s also lots of interest in enabling them and encouraging them because it does shift some trips from single-occupant motor vehicles to more sustainable mobility devices.

“The pilot project with the participating municipalities is really intended to get at understanding how to introduce these, how to recognize them, and enable them to operate in a way that keeps everybody feeling safe and comfortable,” he said. “Because the last thing anybody wants is to discourage pedestrians. And the last thing anybody wants is for an unsafe condition to exist as a result of these.”

According to Leblanc, the province’s pilot project runs until the end of April 2024, and participating municipalities are required to provide reports on the outcome of that pilot within six months. She said it will be about a year from now before City of New Westminster staff are able to report back to council about the results of that pilot project.