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As Cities Push Back Against E-Scooters, One Company Launches "GovTech Platform"

The e-scooter company Bird's offering is tailored toward some of the exact complaints of cities like San Francisco and San Jose.

First, the companies came in and deployed fleets of electric scooters on the street for anybody to ride with the touch of a button.

Next, the complaints started to bubble to the surface: Riders were being unsafe. They were leaving scooters in the way of pedestrians on the sidewalk. The companies weren’t asking permission from city governments to operate.

Then the cities started pushing back. Some created a new permit for scooters and made the companies promise to follow rules and encourage safe riding. Some enacted temporary bans.

Some, like Homewood, Ala., simply picked up the scooters off the streets.

Now, one of the major e-scooter companies, Bird, has launched a dedicated effort to placate the concerns of local governments. It’s a package called the “GovTech Platform,” which local governments will be able to access for free via application programming interface (API), and it offers four elements:

  • Geo-fencing: Public officials will be able to designate no-ride and no-parking areas for the scooters, as well as adjust the maximum speed based on where the rider is.
  • “Flight Control Dashboard”: A data-sharing component that will allow local government to pull anonymized, aggregated information on vehicle status and trips.
  • Rider education: At the beginning of every ride, the Bird app will tell users how to ride safely and let them know about rules specific to their local government. Local governments will also be able to request specific messages.
  • “Community Mode”: Users will be able to report incidents of unsafe rider behavior and rule-breaking, and the company will have the ability to get in touch with — or take action against — the offenders.
The launch of the platform came just before San Francisco issued permits to two e-scooter companies, denying permits to Bird and a host of others. As part of the city’s announcement, it also released the scoring rubric it used to assess the permit applications, and Bird received some of the lowest marks of any of the 12 companies involved.

The GovTech Platform’s functionality specifically addresses some of the areas on San Francisco’s permit application; the city assessed whether companies had strategies in place to promote wearing helmets, for example.

And San Francisco’s areas of assessment aren’t too far off from what other cities and local governments are considering. Just south of San Francisco, in San Jose, the city is gearing up to release its own guidelines for e-scooter companies by the end of the month.

Colin Heyne, a public information manager in the San Jose Department of Transportation, said he can see how the platform would address several areas of concern his department has outlined. For example, when the city held a public hearing in June, one concern it heard from residents was that they didn’t feel like the companies were very responsive to them.

Community Mode sounds like a potential answer to that, Heyne said.

The city also specifically talked about wanting companies to share data; the Flight Control Dashboard could help with that; and it was interested in safety promotion, which the education component addresses; plus it wanted the companies to encourage unobtrusive parking, which is what the geo-fencing component is for.

When Heyne spoke with Government Technology on Sept. 5, the city hadn’t had an opportunity to get its hands on the tool yet, so it’s not entirely clear how well the GovTech Platform will meet San Jose’s needs.

But Heyne likes the ideas.

“These elements of the GovTech Platform are a good step toward addressing those concerns,” he said.

The geofencing component will work in two ways. The company is rolling out the ability to dynamically adjust the top speed of the scooters based on where they are. When the rider is done, the app will tell them where they should park it.

"These geo-fenced parking zones can be set up to alert riders, either with a push notification or in-app message, that they should park in the designated parking zone," Bird spokesperson Michelle Neumayr wrote in an email. "Physical signage at these locations will also clearly showcase where riders should park."

San Jose is one of several cities that have asked e-scooter companies for a geo-fencing feature.

Bird responded to a request for clarification but did not say how its geo-fencing component would work.

As for Heyne, he said San Jose is effectively pro-scooter, in the sense that it sees value in them as a piece of the transportation system and doesn’t want to drive them out. But of course, as a government, the city has to balance that against public needs like safety and equity.

“Things like scooters we see as a great opportunity for mobility in that distance that’s too far to walk, and (they) can keep people out of their vehicles for short trips or mid-length trips,” he said. “So we definitely did not want to overreact and ban these things from our streets.”

Editor's note: This story was updated from the original version to add input from a Bird spokesperson. The identity of the spokesperson has been corrected as well.

Ben Miller is the associate editor of data and business for Government Technology. His reporting experience includes breaking news, business, community features and technical subjects. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in journalism from the Reynolds School of Journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno, and lives in Sacramento, Calif.