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Is Geofencing the Answer to Cities' Electric Scooter Challenges?

Major cities like San Jose are talking to folks involved in geofencing, while Denver is already using geofencing for dockless scooters.

Earlier this year, a wave of electronic scooter firms descended upon San Francisco Bay Area cities without the blessing of the municipalities, prompting the city of San Jose to consider fighting technology with technology to contain these dockless scooters as they zip around the city.

“We are talking to a few folks who are working on geofencing, figuring out how you can get the scooters to de-activate on sidewalks but turn on when they are actually in bike lanes,” San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo, said at the recent Nextdoor Mayor Summit. “The magic of GPS may help us. Hopefully, we will get to that technological solution.”

Liccardo is not alone in considering geofencing as a possible solution to situations where people riding dockless scooters, as well as dockless bicycles, are zipping through areas where pedestrians travel, or when riders deposit them in doorways of businesses — or even in city lakes.

Austin, Texas, for example, has already ordered dockless scooters and bicycle companies to build in the capability to let users know when they've parked in a geofenced, city-approved parking area. As city leaders start holding planning meetings for the Austin City Limits festival, they might consider requiring companies to start using that feature, according to Austin Department of Transportation spokesperson Marissa Monroy.

And in the city of Denver, geofencing is already use.

Denver’s Electronic Roundup

“The city has requested that operators employ geofencing to emphasize specific areas where parking and riding is prohibited or where parking is encouraged,” said Heather Burke, public information specialist for Denver Public Works.

In addition to its no-ride and no-parking geofencing zones, Denver also encourages dockless operators to incentivize riders to return the scooters and bikes to transit and bus stops, she added.

Denver introduced its Dockless Mobility Pilot Permit Program on June 29 and a month later began notifying dockless companies that they had approved permits. Lime and Bird were the first to receive permits.

“As we progress further into the pilot, learn more about operators' actual capabilities and review required data reports, we’ll have a better understanding of each vendor's specific capability and willingness to meaningfully employ geofencing,” Burke said. 

The goal of the city’s pilot program is to minimize the negative impact of dockless scooters and bicycles in the right of way, as well as provide citizens traveling through the city with some predictability of where they will encounter dockless devices.

Currently, the city ordinance and Colorado state law classify electronic scooters as “toy vehicles,” which prohibits them from operating in designated bike lanes or roadways. However, the Denver Public Works department is reviewing the current city ordinance language to explore whether changes in the regulations should be proposed, said Burke.

Dockless scooter riders, as a result, use the sidewalks and are asked to watch their speeds and yield to pedestrians, she noted.

Meanwhile, dockless parking is also under review. The city plans to evaluate transit and bus stops by the end of this month to record which locations have the highest level of parking activity and to soon designate painted dockless parking zones.

“Most vendors have developed or are developing geofencing capabilities to help manage their fleets and user behavior,” Burke said. “However, the accuracy of geofencing continues to evolve.”

Geofencing Not for Everyone

Over the last four to five months, the city of Los Angeles has been developing a permitting process for dockless scooters and bicycles, said Oliver Hou, spokesman for the city’s department of transportation.

And although the city once talked about geofencing, it no longer plans to consider it because of safety issues. The concern centered on how to stop an electronic motor when it is in a safe location and mode of operation, Hou explained.

“What would happen if you stop the motor just as it’s in front of a vehicle, or turning on an incline?” he asked. “If it can be shown it’s a good idea and it will work, then maybe we will look at it again.”

He added that Los Angeles wants the dockless scooters and bicycles to be available throughout all parts of the city and the goal is to work with the dockless operators to achieve this in an unclutterd fashion.

Under the current draft of the regulations, dockless operators will be required to be available 24-hours a day and pick up and move dockless scooters and bikes within two hours after receiving a call they are blocking sidewalks, entrances to buildings, driveways or other areas that pose a safety risk, Hou said.

"If they are not removed, then the city will move to enforce the regulation and impound the device," he said.