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E-Scooter Bans Show Cities Are Hesitant to Embrace Innovation

As scooters from companies like Bird and Lime become regular fixtures in U.S. cities, local governments should adopt regulatory sandboxes to determine how to best handle the new technology rather than ban it altogether.

Among many technology milestones last year, one of them was certainly that 2018 was the first year that e-scooters became a fixture in many major U.S. cities. Adoption has grown quickly, with e-scooter rider growth exceeding similar first-year adoption rates of other mobility services, such as bike-sharing, car-sharing and ride-hailing apps. Unfortunately, this rapid growth could run head-first into a brick wall as a number of state and local governments start passing laws and regulations that either ban or undermine the viability of e-scooters.

One reason e-scooters have gained many converts is because they are so easy to ride. But while motorized electric scooters have existed as a product for a few years, the costs and practicalities of owning one did not make sense for most people. To address these hurdles, a flood of startups have begun offering app-enabled e-scooter rental services. 

Scooters offer many benefits to city dwellers. On foot, pedestrians have a limited range — many people are not willing to walk further than a quarter-mile because of various factors including health, climate and available time. But with scooters, a person’s range increases substantially. In Santa Monica, Calif., the first city where e-scooter company Bird launched its operations, the average ride length was 1.6 miles. This expanded range not only makes it possible for individuals to live, work and play in more areas, but it also makes parts of the city that can only be reached by car, such as because of a lack of crosswalks or sidewalks, more accessible to those without vehicles.

Unfortunately, while some have given this new mobility option an enthusiastic reception, others have bemoaned incidents of scooters blocking sidewalks, breaking traffic ordinances and causing accidents. In response, a number of cities, from West Hollywood, Calif., to Winston-Salem, N.C., are simply banning the scooters once they arrive. Others have proactively blocked scooter companies from introducing the service, such as Columbia, S.C., which enacted a one-year ban on the vehicles in January. And still others have started enacting a hodge-podge of regulations that put these vehicles at a relative disadvantage, such as allowing 16-year-olds to drive cars, but not scooters, or allowing scooter owners to ride at night, but not those using a scooter-sharing app. 

There likely is a need for some new laws to address legitimate concerns, but it is unclear what those are. Rather than creating new rules unsupported by any evidence, a better approach is to establish a regulatory sandbox for e-scooters, an idea that has grown in popularity for addressing emerging technologies in other industries, such as financial services. Much like parents allow children to safely learn and explore in a controlled environment, the idea of a regulatory sandbox is to create a testing ground for businesses to experiment with new technologies or business models where existing regulations may be inappropriate or incomplete. This environment allows businesses to learn quickly and solve problems as they arise without responding to artificial constraints. It also allows regulators to collect data so that they can make more informed decisions about what problems need to be addressed and which interventions are most useful.

Using a regulatory sandbox would not mean that states could not set safety rules for the scooters, such as braking distance requirements, or the riders, such as helmet and licensing requirements, but it would seek to minimize those rules and only create ones backed by solid evidence. Neither would it prohibit local governments from enforcing traffic laws and fining those who violate them, such as riding without helmets where required by law. And local governments that want to be proactive, rather than banning scooters, can work cooperatively with companies to address problems unique to scooters as a service, such as the issue of where riders should leave them once they are done riding. Scooter companies can also work together to come up with common rules for riders, like penalizing within the app those who block bike paths or wheelchair ramps. 

Given the many benefits of e-scooters, it is unfortunate that the trend in many cities seems to be banning or overregulating them. However, it is not surprising. When automobiles were first invented, many reacted with similar outrage at the seemingly “noisier, dirtier and more dangerous” vehicles, with Vermont even passing a law requiring someone to walk in front of a car waving a red flag at all times, and many cities banning the vehicles altogether. 

More than a century later, it’s time we do better. 

Daniel Castro is the vice president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) and director of the Center for Data Innovation. Before joining ITIF, he worked at the Government Accountability Office where he audited IT security and management controls.