Transportation

Can Cities Catch Up with Fast-Moving Electric Scooters?

Experts say local governments need to incorporate the self-propelled devices into their overall mobility plans, but there's no blueprint on how best to regulate them.

by / June 14, 2018
An abandoned scooter lies in the middle of a busy pedestrian walkway on the Embarcadero in San Francisco. Shutterstock

If electric scooter companies descended on cities with the goal of “disrupting” urban transportation, they appear to have succeeded. 

App-based companies with names like Spin, Lime and Bird have flocked to cities, big and small, in the hopes of cornering a segment of the transportation market that calls for quick jaunts around town via a small electric scooter that can be quickly rented through an app. Rates are fairly cheap, generally $1 to start, and then about 15 cents a minute.

Very quickly, however, the scooters appear to have become a public nuisance, as riders leave them on sidewalks or other areas of the public right-of-way, creating not only street clutter, but tripping hazards.

In March 2018, city officials in Santa Monica, Calif., had to step in and draft an emergency ordinance to establish temporary regulations for electric scooters, including the establishment of an impoundment fee, in the event the city was forced to remove the devices from public areas.

About the same time, Bird, Lime and Spin “unloaded hundreds of motorized scooters across San Francisco,” according to Street Talk, a blog published by the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA). And again, scooter street clutter ensued.

The city has since created its new Powered Scooter Share Permit Program, a one-year pilot where up to five e-scooter operator permits will be issued. In the first six months, as many as 1,250 scooters may be permitted. If that works out, the city could allow up to 2,500 scooters to zip up and down San Francisco’s hilly streets. Until the city awards the permits, however, scooter companies are required to remove their devices, or have them impounded by the city. 

Efforts like the Powered Scooter Share Permit Program and Santa Monica’s ordinance to regulate and control the scooter proliferation should have been considered as part of a city’s overall transportation and mobility plan, say observers who advise cities in risk management.

“I think one of the things that’s occurred is — and this happened with bike-share, this happened with ride-share — that the companies showed up one day, offering their services, and most cities and towns weren’t prepared with regulations,” said Thom Rickert, an emerging risk specialist with Trident Public Risk Solutions. “There’d been no impact study. They just weren’t ready for it. Now, when you get to this third or fourth iteration of the sharing economy, and as it relates specifically to mobility and transportation, it’s time that we begin to look a little over the horizon.”

The question cities should be asking themselves is, “do the current regulations and our current definitions fit that new circumstance?” said Rickert.

“So specifically with e-scooters, one of the problems is this type of vehicle had some regulation, but it’s a crazy patchwork, depending on the state and the locality,” he added.

The growing pains associated with e-scooters are not unique to California cities. Austin, Texas, adopted emergency administrative rules on May 7, 2018, to address “dockless mobility” technologies. As part of these rules, companies must apply for permits to operate e-scooters or dockless bike-shares. The license only covers six-month intervals and limits the distribution to 500 units, which must be used at least twice a day, according to city documents.

“Should this demand not be met, the director may require a portion of the units to be relocated or removed,” according to the rules. Scooter and bike companies will also be required to share use data with local government, a common requirement as cities increasingly lean on data collected by technology companies to help inform transit and transportation decisions. 

“Emerging mobility options, specifically those pertaining to personal mobility, are an important component to a sustainable smart mobility ecosystem,” said Jen Samp, a spokeswoman for the Austin Transportation Department, in an email. “These solutions offer the capability to reduce single occupant vehicle trips, especially short trips. 

“While these solutions are an excellent option, how and where the user places the device after their first-last mile trip is extremely important,” she added. “Irresponsibly placing these devices could create accessibility and safety issues in the right-of-way.”

For their part, scooter operators have taken a mostly conciliatory tone, saying they have every intention to work with cities as they develop a regulatory framework for these new forms of mobility. 

“Our message to cities is, we want to work with you. We want to make sure that Birds become a meaningful and responsible part of your transportation landscape,” said Kenneth Baer, a spokesman for Bird, which has been active in Santa Monica; Los Angeles; San Diego; San Francisco, San Jose, Calif.; Austin, Tempe and Scottsdale, Ariz.; Charlotte, N.C.; Nashville, Tenn.; Atlanta and Washington D.C.

“We only launch in places where it’s legal to do so,” Baer added. However, it should be noted that many cities have no regulations either limiting or encouraging the scooters. In some cities, there are regulations that would have applied, “and they were ignored by the providers,” said Rickert.

“Once we launch, cities start saying, ‘we should do something about that.’ And we say, ‘great. We’re happy to help you,’” said Baer.

Companies like Bird have each committed to the Save Our Sidewalks Pledge, which calls for the daily retrieval of the scooters, a willingness to remove scooters that are not being used regularly and an offer to hand over $1 per scooter, per day, to local municipalities to help fund bike-lane developments or safety programs.

In some cities, Bird has deployed “safety ambassadors” who advise riders about where to park the scooters or answer other questions.

The e-scooter business does not appear to be going away. City-dwellers seem to love them. During Bird’s first month in San Francisco, more than 32,200 riders took more than 95,400 scooter trips, covering nearly 143,000 miles, which averaged out to 1.5 miles per ride, said Baer.

“Bikes have their place. But you can work up a sweat. And it’s also like a different type of balance. You could fall off (of a bike,)” said Baer. “You’re more likely to see someone in a suit ‘Birding,’ than you are to see someone in a suit biking,” he added.

In San Francisco, a dozen companies are competing for one of the city’s five permits to operate scooters. They include companies like Bird. But news reports show Uber and Lyft also applying for a spot at the scooter-share table.

Lyft confirmed it has applied for one of the SFMTA e-scooter permits, "but we aren’t sharing any further details at this time," said Alex Rafter, a Lyft spokesman.

Uber has already shown a willingness to offer mobility options beyond car-trips. It is the parent company for JUMP Bikes, an electric-assist bike-share firm operating in Washington, D.C., San Francisco, along with Santa Cruz and Sacramento, Calif.

Like bike and car rentals that are as effortless as launching an app, electric scooters can and should become a part of the urban mobility options list, say promoters. But this means cities should be proactive in their planning, and putting in place the public policy needed to ensure safety, competition, access and other concerns. Otherwise, a “wild west” mentality will prevail, leaving city leaders to play catch up, said Rickert.

“In order to integrate e-scooters, or any of these devices, into the mobility plan of a community, there has to be a plan,” said Rickert, adding “there has to be input from all the concerned parties. And have it before these things are sitting on the street.”

Ultimately, cities should weave scooters, cars, bikes, trains and other transportation modes into an overall strategy for urban mobility, according to Rickert. “All of these things need to be tied together, like your streets and road department,” he said.

Cities are becoming a platform and are going to be the place where people go for the services that need to be delivered in a more user-friendly way, said Rickert.

“By adopting some of this technology that other people in the sharing economy have developed, these platforms that they’ve developed, cities are the ultimate sharing-economy,” he added.

Skip Descant Staff Writer

Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Sacramento.