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California, Other States Take on E-Scooter Regulations

Two California bills aimed at enabling and regulating new forms of urban mobility have been put on hold at least until early next year. Like other states, it is grappling with how to address emerging mobility solutions.

Pushback from a number of large cities in California is shaping a proposed state law meant to regulate bike-share and e-scooter operations.

The latest version of Assembly Bill 1112 would allow cities to ban the e-scooter operations if they can justify the move is based on the California Environmental Quality Act. That’s a significant move from the bill’s earlier versions just two months ago, which would have not only enabled the businesses to operate, but prohibited cities from adopting regulations so stringent as to function as a de facto ban. 

“The micro-mobility industry is so new that best practices are still being established for regulation. Cities should be allowed to continue testing locally-appropriate measures for managing the devices operating on their streets,” said Alex Engel, a spokesperson for the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) in June. NACTO is representing the California City Transportation Initiative, (CaCTI) made up of Los Angeles, Long Beach, San Francisco, Oakland, San Jose, Sacramento and Fresno.

AB 1112 and similar legislation AB 1286, which largely says micro-mobility providers must be permitted by the cities they are operating in, have both been put in “a holding pattern until January,” said Jim Metropulos, a spokesman for Assemblymember Laura Friedman, a representative from Southern California, and one of the lead authors of AB 1112.

The California Senate Government and Finance Committee has asked that both bills be held “to have two informational hearings in the fall to discuss the issues around shared mobility, data collection, liability, etc.,” said Metropulos. 

The most recent writing of AB 1112 would generally allow cities to oversee and manage scooter operations by determining the maximum fleet size, charging fees and even requiring that some of the devices be equitably placed across neighborhoods. Removed from the June 19 version of the bill is language saying cities are prohibited from “imposing any unduly restrictive requirements on mobility device providers that have the effect of prohibiting the operation of all shared mobility providers in its jurisdiction.”

“The language about ‘unduly restrictive requirements’ has been removed and the amended bill allows local governments to enact ‘reasonable regulations,’ which is better for the viability of existing programs,” said Engel, who added NACTO is “still opposed” to the bill. However, this position could change since “the bill continues to change,” he added. 

The steps by the California Legislature are not unlike those taken by a number of other states hoping to address the rapid proliferation of “micro-mobility” operations — the popular app-based e-scooter and bike rent-to-ride operations like JUMP, Lime, Spin, Bird and others.

At least 17 states have passed laws related to micro-mobility this year, according to The Micromobility Coalition, which advocates for e-scooters and other similar providers.

Since the devices began appearing on city streets in the last couple of years, cities have scrambled to write enabling ordinances that would allow the companies to operate while still preserving public welfare and effectively managing the right-of-way space. That regulation has taken many forms, with cities often putting a cap on the number of devices permitted, requiring that a portion of them be placed in economically disadvantaged neighborhoods and requiring operators to share de-identified user data.

The issue of user data is often at the center of the conversations between city officials and the scooter companies, with cities often requiring some data sharing related to the real-time location of the scooters or bikes, maintenance reports and other information. However, the California bill would prohibit cities from requiring individual trip data from each device, which NACTO has advocated for.

“It is imperative for any state legislative proposal that includes data sharing provisions to strike the right balance between providing necessary data to local authorities while respecting riders' rights to privacy,” said Ryan McConaghy, executive director of The Micromobility Coalition.

The California bill would require that all user data be aggregated, which means individual start points, stop points and times of individual trips have been removed. 

What’s left unspecified are any safeguards that would ensure the data being handed over to the municipalities is accurate and true.

“What it [AB 1112] really seeks to do is move data aggregation into the hands of the operators. And I can understand why the operators would want that,” said William Henderson, CEO of Ride Report, an Oregon-based company that works with cities to aggregate and audit mobility data, in an interview with Government Technology in May.

“I don’t think that was the main intention of this bill. But I can tell you, our cities don’t trust operators to do that job by themselves, without any oversight,” he added.

Third-party aggregators — who are essentially performing the function of auditor — are a workable solution to ensuring the data cities are receiving is accurate and scrubbed of personal identifiable information (PII), say other observers.

“It’s the way that you verify anything else, by doing an audit,” said Thom Rickert, vice president and emerging risks specialist for Trident Public Risk Solutions, which consults with a number of public-sector organizations.

Some cities have teamed up with quasi-public-private groups like universities to assist at this level, said Rickert.

The recently formed SAE Industry Technologies Consortia, made up of public and private partners, aims to develop standards and best practices along with data definitions and metrics to regulate micro-mobility devices. Some of the initial partner members of the consortium include Miami-Dade County, Spin, JUMP, and Populus, a shared mobility data platform.

“How to effectively share data while protecting consumer privacy is one of the issues that we'll be looking into as part of the consortium,” said Regina Clewlow, CEO of Populus.

One of the best ways to accomplish the dual aim of protecting consumer privacy and the delivery of accurate data, is having a third party validate the information coming from the scooter operators, she added.

“We agree with aggregators that privacy is an important consideration and that we agree more can be done to protect this data,” said Henderson of Ride Report. “But we do not think that putting aggregation solely in the hands of the operator is something that cities are going to trust. And if they can’t trust it, they can’t work with it. And if they can’t work with it, then it’s not serving the goal of the bill, which is to advance zero-emission micro-mobility.”

Editor's note: A comment by Alex Engel, a spokesperson for NACTO, was clarified for accuracy.

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.