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Scooter companies, seeking to shape regulations, hire transit advocates

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As micromobility services expand, startups seek public sector transit experience

Carly Mask

Former U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx, who helped spearhead federal autonomous vehicle regulations and the Smart City Challenge, would be a good get for any aspiring transit startup.

In a recent Medium post announcing his new job as chief policy officer at Lyft, Foxx demonstrated why, as he discussed technology’s potential to transform how we get around, as well as the power of transit to change the lives of everyday Americans.

“How much more discretionary money might my family have had if we never owned a car—if there had been a way to pay for the trips they needed instead of the car itself?” he wrote, explaining how his own family could have benefitted from a more affordable way to get around their hometown of Charlotte, North Carolina.

Foxx’s move comes at an important junction for Lyft, which is making a big push to promote more sustainable and multimodal transit, having recently purchased the nation’s biggest bike share operator and expanded its fleet to include scooters and e-bikes.

Lyft’s shift comes during an equally transformative moment for micromobility in general. As scooter startups like Bird and Lime, valued in the billions, continue to expand, and established ridehailing firms like Uber and Lyft introduce their own scooter options, the growth imperatives of venture capital will continue to butt up against local governments. So, transit startups are looking for employees with government and nonprofit experience to help work with cities and shape policy.

Turns out regulations need to be followed

This strategy of hiring former public policy experts to help a private firm shape legislation and regulation is, of course, not a new one. This new generation of transit companies is poaching employees from Uber and Lyft. But with cities becoming more experienced with transit technology after Uber and Lyft’s early and unfettered growth, and local governments pushing back against the proliferation of dockless electric scooters with bans and regulations, especially in places such as Santa Monica and San Francisco, there’s a larger incentive for startups to hire talent with government experience.

With companies like Airbnb and Uber consistently engaged in battles with local regulators, the tide may have turned for Big Tech. As transit analyst and Populus.AI founder Regina Clewlow wrote, “many companies, big and small, are starting to learn that cities could play a huge role in determining who the winners and losers will be in the race for the future of mobility.”

In addition to Foxx, other recent high-profile hires include Paul Steely White, former executive director of New York’s Transportation Alternatives, who was recently hired by Bird. He sees the rise in micromobility as a means to build a bigger coalition behind transit reform, shared streets, and pedestrian safety.

“The common cause that cyclists, walkers, and new forms of small mobility have [means] there’s clearly a big-tent moment,” White told Curbed New York, “where there’s an opportunity to organize all these smart alternatives to cars into a more unified political force for change.”

As these companies continue to market themselves as sustainable, it’s an encouraging sign they’re hiring experts who have been fighting for car-free transit for years. Many of these companies have made proposals suggesting they want to put some of their significant bankroll behind car-free transit. Uber announced that they plan to spend $10 million over three years as part of a Fund for Sustainable Mobility to support campaigns for safety and improved transit, and Bird announced plans to fund protected bike lanes, announcing it would set aside $1 a day per scooter to repair and expanded infrastructure.

But, at the end of the day, will companies ever truly place the public good, and public control of shared transit infrastructure, above private gains? As Streetsblog notes, there are many goals, such as safety, speed reduction, and equity, where advocates need to stand firm against backsliding or wavering by corporations trying to mix a progressive message with the profit motive.