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New Policies Move Scooters from Nuisance to Necessary

Cities across the country are moving to ensure e-scooters fill key goals around safety, mobility and equity before granting permits to operate.

When one of the batteries powering electric scooters operated by the company Scoot in San Francisco needs to be recharged, a worker simply swaps the dead battery with a charged one, eliminating a need to haul off the entire device to a charging center.

This simple procedure could help to reduce the number of vehicle miles traveled on San Francisco streets, an aim of the city’s sustainability efforts.

This was but one of the criteria the city considered as it evaluated 12 applications from scooter operators, vying for a chance to be one of five companies to operate the small battery-powered electric scooters as part of the Powered Scooter Pilot Program.

In the end, the city selected only two companies — Scoot and Skip — to operate up to 625 scooters each in the city. The program goes into effect Oct. 15, 2018.

“While no application was flawless, we selected only the applicants with the strongest proposals for this one-year pilot program. Scoot and Skip demonstrated a high level of commitment to our city’s values of prioritizing public safety, promoting equity, ensuring accountability and safeguarding our shared, public spaces,” said Ed Reiskin, director of transportation at the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA), in a statement.

The move to use the regulation and operation of scooters to advance its own priorities around areas like sustainability, safety and equity is an approach also being taken in other cities as they strive to encourage a number of transportation options for residents and visitors, while also curtailing some of the less desirable effects of the nascent app-based shared-mobility industry.

“Taken as a whole, Scoot and Skip’s applications demonstrated not only a commitment to meet the terms of the permit, but a high level of capability to operate a safe, equitable and accountable scooter-share service,” said Ben Jose, a spokesman for SFMTA, in an email. “Both companies submitted strong proposals with detailed, unique and innovative approaches that demonstrated the highest level of commitment to solving known challenges and concerns, ranging from public safety and user education, to equitable access and collaboration with the city and its diverse communities.”

San Francisco, like many cities, was caught off guard when scooter companies dumped dozens of the devices on city streets. With little or no oversight, the devices were soon found blocking public rights-of-way and creating a general nuisance on sidewalks and other areas.

Since then, cities have been quick to respond with new regulations spelling out how and where the devices are to be operated, placing limits on the number of scooters introduced into a city, and using the opportunity to address other needs.

In Columbus, Ohio, applicants must distribute the devices in a range of districts, including areas where residents may have limited access to cars, what the city calls “opportunity neighborhoods.”

“These are neighborhoods that have some challenging issues,” said Jeff Ortega, assistant director of public service in Columbus.

“If these are the kind of devices that are going to open up transportation options to people, I think there’s a feeling that those devices should be available in all areas,” said Ortega. “Not just the central business district, but in areas throughout the city.”

In San Francisco, the company Skip aims to deploy 20 percent of its scooters “in San Francisco’s underserved southeastern communities,” according to an SFMTA press release. The company will also offer a 50 percent discount to low-income users.

Both Scoot and Skip expressed a strong willingness to place a premium on public safety. Skip plans to deploy “ambassadors” to offer helmets and advise users how to operate the devices and where to place them when the ride is complete.

In Columbus, where scooter companies Bird and Lime already operate, the city has outlined clear regulations regarding the use and placement of the devices. The companies will be required to apply for one of eight permits to operate up to 500 scooters in the city. The companies will be required to share certain pieces of user data with the city as well as ensure the devices are not blocking doorways, parking spaces, fire escapes and other areas. The regulations also require riders under the age of 18 to wear helmets.

“The public’s right-of-way is a finite resource and we have to make sure that the city is not stifling innovation, but also, that the public’s right-of-way is managed in a safe and effective manner,” said Ortega.

In June, Denver launched its Dockless Mobility Vehicle Pilot Permit Program to issue one-year permits to operators of scooters and bikes in an effort to expand transportation options and reduce single occupancy vehicle trips from 73 percent to 50 percent by 2030.

“We received eight permit applications for scooters, and four permit applications for dockless bikes,” said Heather Burke-Bellile, a spokesperson for the Denver Department of Public Works

Lime and Bird have already deployed 350 scooters each, while the ride-hailing company Lyft is set to deploy 50 scooters in the next few weeks, said Burke-Bellile. Other scooter companies like Spin and Razor are also set to deploy up to 350 scooters each.

Lyft also plans to introduce 500 e-bikes. Jump, a company owned by Uber, will also introduce from 250 to 500 e-bikes by the first quarter of 2019. At least 100 of the bikes offered by both Lyft and Jump must be deployed in “opportunity areas.”

“These are areas Denver Public Works has found to have low-vehicle ownership and high bus ridership,” Burke-Bellile explained. “We’d like to see if the scooters and dockless bikes can help provide these residents with that extra lift to the bus stop.”

Growing public transit use is a core mission of the Dockless Mobility Vehicle Pilot Program. Ridership on the Denver region’s network of buses and trains fell 6.5 percent in 2017, according to the American Public Transportation Association statistics. Ridership on the Denver region’s light rail network was up 15.8 percent in the first quarter of 2018.

“Denver is excited to test these new mobility options and see if our Dockless Mobility Vehicle Pilot Permit Program can help meet the city’s goals of enhancing the use of transit and bus service throughout the city, providing people with more choices to get around, and reducing single-occupancy vehicle trips,” Burke-Bellile said in an email.

Electric scooters, bikes and other devices may also end up being revenue sources for cities. In Denver the permit fee is set at $15,000 annually with a $150 application fee along with $20 per bike and $30 per scooter. Columbus charges a $500 application fee and $75 per scooter. The annual e-scooter permit fee in San Francisco is $25,000 along with a $5,000 application fee.

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 Yreka, Calif.

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