A year ago, a warehouse filled with rows of electric scooters might have seemed a little dorky, maybe home to a company trying to show fanny pack-wearing tourists local landmarks. But today, in Santa Monica, California, an old industrial space filled with hundreds of electric scooters with purple and pink stripes represents one of the hottest innovations in urban transportation.
Lyft set up this operations center as part of its bet that the future of the company involves replacing lots of car trips with rides on electric scooters and electric bikes. Eventually, a Lyft spokesperson told me, the idea is to create a “Netflix of transportation,” offering scooter, e-bike, and car rides with a single subscription, as well as guidance to link trips to public transit.
A late entrant into the dockless scooter craze, Lyft is doing its best to catch up. This facility is the first of what the company, valued at $15 billion, expects will be a string of scooter depots, repair and recovery operations for the company’s foray into micromobility. As a participant in Santa Monica’s electric scooter pilot, the company is allowed to place 250 scooters on the street at any one time. Everything else happens under this roof. (The company provided an exclusive tour on the condition the warehouse location wasn’t revealed.)
Inside empty offices on the second floor, piles of scooters sit in different states of disarray or disrepair, ready to be refurbished by a team of mechanics. On the main floor, nearly a dozen operations managers monitor the fleet 24 hours a day, staring at two large monitors that track the location of every vehicle in service.
A data team crunches usage and trip data to find the best locations to place scooters throughout the day, and contract workers fan out multiple times a day to keep everything humming along. Rows and rows of hundreds of extra scooters, lined up across the warehouse floor, quietly power up, chargers blinking.
Why Santa Monica is scooter city
While San Francisco, thrust into the media spotlight early during “scooter-geddon,” has become more of a sidenote, no other city has been more central to the rise of the dockless electric scooter craze than Santa Monica.
It’s the birthplace of Bird, a startup that hit a billion-dollar valuation in a little over a year, three times faster than Airbnb. It’s also currently operating a scooter pilot program, pitting the four biggest players in the game—Bird, Lime, Lyft, and Uber, under the Jump brand—against each other in a battle for the right to operate within city limits.
“Santa Monica is important because it’s popular, congested, and has all the problems our scooters attack,” says Thomas Lord, the general manager of Lime’s Los Angeles-area operations. “It also had a progressive view of scooters. A couple operations managers have told me that if the first scooter didn’t go out in Santa Monica, the industry maybe would have died last year.”
The luck of being Bird’s home, paired with receptive local leaders, means the rise and regulation of dockless electric scooters in this wealthy, seaside Southern California city of 93,000 helped set the tone for a potential transportation revolution. That may seem overwrought, since these are electric scooters we’re talking about. But this is an industry that, in the space of a year, has sponged up hundreds of millions in venture-capital funding and spread to hundreds of cities across the globe. Lime and Bird are valued at more than a billion dollars.
When you talk to transit experts, planners, and transit companies—Curbed spoke to representatives of all four operators in Santa Monica, as well as city officials—they see nothing less than a chance to break the country of its car addiction, reduce carbon emissions, reshape our streets, and change how people get around cities. Turns out those small scooters make a hell of a soapbox.
“Are cities going to choose to help solve the climate crisis and get people out of cars?” says David Estrada, Bird’s chief legal officer and head of public policy. “If you look at the IPCC report, there’s some serious language about cutting out the use of fossil fuels. Are cities currently treating the climate as a crisis?”
Estrada’s response is typical of the industry’s communications strategy. Focus on solutions. Bird, for example, tries to highlight the fact that cities need to invest more in bike lanes, not that a private company is crowding public streets with vehicles earning the company money.
Rick Cole, Santa Monica’s city manager, says the City Council has taken the long view, looking to be a seedbed for experimentation. “We don’t want to be the city that squelched a promising mobility innovation, we want to be the city that found a way to domesticate it,” he says. But that has come with significant growing pains, and what Cole calls “white-hot political opposition.”
Santa Monica’s experience with scooters offers insight into the key conflicts driving the popularity and continued growth of these companies: cars versus pedestrians, regulations versus technological revolution, and hype versus helping people better navigate the places they live and work. Do scooter companies—and the micromobility revolution their success could usher in—represent a real chance to create a human-scale transit network?
The appeal of electric scooters
According to the rules outlined in Santa Monica’s Shared Mobility Pilot Program, 2,500 scooters and e-bikes, split between the four operators, can be found on city streets at any one time. A quick trip through Santa Monica today shows scooters have taken root. Take a walk down Main Street, a strip of shops and restaurants that runs parallel to the Pacific; stroll through downtown near the city’s Promenade; or stop by Metro light-rail stops on the Expo Line during rush hour, and you’ll see clusters of scooters and electric bikes on sidewalks, or streaming down the street.
Wake up early enough, before the sun rises, and you’ll see teams of contract workers setting up scooters at busy intersections, unloading them out of vans or pickup trucks and lining them up in perfect rows, all tilted in the same direction, like actors taking a bow at curtain call.
Scooters became popular in Santa Monica due to a combination of factors: downtown density, the fun of riding on beachfront paths, a great climate, a growing network of protected bike lanes, as well as the presence of Bird founder Travis VanderZanden—a former executive at both Uber and Lyft who, disillusioned with the ride-hailing industry, left Uber and moved to Southern California in 2016.
But, in many ways, the rise of scooters boils down to two facts about U.S. transportation: Car-dependent Americans really, truly hate traffic, and 40 percent of car trips in the United States are under two miles. Commute times and congestion are increasing, and ride-hailing, initially promoted as a solution, is consistently proven, in study after study, to be making the problem worse. Or, as Lyft’s head of bike, scooter, and pedestrian policy Caroline Samponaro says, “There’s far more demand for mobility in a city than there’s mobility in a city.”
Deploying drivers for these short trips and navigating congested streets for little return is making less and less financial sense for Uber and Lyft. Dockless electric scooters offer an energy-efficient way to tackle these short trips without getting into a car.
Of course, there’s already a widely available vehicle that excels at short, car-free trips: the bicycle. But bikes aren’t nearly as seamless as a portable scooter. They take effort, can leave riders sweaty and tired upon arrival, and offer challenges to older riders or those with physical disabilities. There’s no special gear or effort, no lycra shorts, and no virtue signaling with electric scooters; nobody calls themselves a Scooterist.
“Based on our data, dockless bikes were not seeing utilization rates that were as high as dockless scooters, once scooters were introduced in late 2017 and early 2018,” says Regina Clewlow, co-founder of Populus, a mobility data platform for cities. “Utilization rates for scooters range from four trips to as high as 12 trips per day, depending on how many competitors are in a city. The average appears to fall closer to five trips a day in most major markets.”
That ease of use had made electric scooters, as well as electric pedal-assist bikes, take off. A Populous study found that scooters have “unprecedented” and “remarkably high adoption rates given their recent arrival.” Bird and Lime hit 10 million rides in less than a year; Uber took three years to hit that milestone. And, while they’ve been tagged as dangerous vehicles irresponsibly ridden—a class-action lawsuit accuses scooter operators of gross negligence, and two riders in the U.S. have died in accidents—a study conducted in Austin found scooter riders there were injured at half the rate of bike riders.
Evidence also suggests scooters can help increase ridership of other forms of shared mobility. Data from Portland, Oregon, which has dockless scooters as well as the docked Biketown bike-share service, found that between late July and late November, a period during which 700,000 scooter rides were taken, bike-share usage actually increased 6 percent year over year.
Ideally, scooters can serve as a low-cost, last-mile solution and connect riders to public transit; in Santa Monica, usage is already clustered around light-rail stops.
“It’s changing people’s perspectives on how they can get around,” says Cynthia Rose, the leader of Santa Monica Spoke, the city’s bike advocacy group. “It’s moving people to look beyond getting around by car.”
Even if scooter usage cannibalizes some existing transit trips, it’s a numbers game, argues Carter Rubin, a mobility and climate advocate for the Natural Resources Defense Council and a Santa Monica resident.
“If, within a group of 50 scooter trips, just a few of those eliminate a car trips, based on the energy used for both, it’s a net positive in terms of emissions,” he says.
How the scooter craze started in Santa Monica
When the idea for a dockless scooter system arrived at City Hall in the summer of 2017, the request to start the company was unorthodox. VanderZanden launched his startup by ordering 10 scooters off the Chinese e-commerce site Alibaba, having a skeleton crew of coders put together an app, and leaving the scooters around Santa Monica with tags attached, explaining how they worked.
Early communications with the city were slightly improvisational. At one point, VanderZanden sent the city’s Mayor Ted Winterer a message via Linkedin as a way to communicate his intentions. When he first applied for licenses for the scooter, VanderZanden was told the only city permits that even remotely fit his needs were permits for vending machines.
Francie Stefan, the city’s acting chief mobility officer, wasn’t surprised by the technology. Santa Monica has its own Breeze bike-share network, and had been tracking changes in transit tech, watching the rise and fall of dockless bike-share systems, such as Ofo and Mobike. Stefan also felt a scooter network was worth trying because she already had the data that showed it might work.
Santa Monica had started conducting its own resident travel survey the previous year, a relatively expensive process for a city of its size. The city found the same data point that so intrigued scooter companies and their investors: More than 40 percent of the city’s trips were two miles or less, most of which were solo drivers in a car.
Stefan saw scooters as a way to turn these short car trips into something less energy-intensive, freeing up road space and helping the city meet its climate goals. The transit network is an ecosystem, Stefan often says, and, like any ecosystem, when a single species dominates, it isn’t healthy.
“We’ve spent decades widening roads and accommodating cars, and now is the moment where we’re reflecting and thinking, ‘Is that really working for everyone?’” she says.
Bird’s scooters arrived in Santa Monica to little fanfare last fall, but over time, especially after Lime arrived last April, they became ubiquitous, for better or worse. Residents complained about scooters blocking sidewalks—which is still the most common complaint—users joyriding down city streets and on the beach path, and riders leaving stray scooters in front of building entrances. Lime’s manager, Thomas Lord, remembers the team finding a scooter hanging over a bluff in Palisades Park, which required a grappling hook to recover. (“We Batman-ed that scooter,” he says.)
Stefan says the past summer’s rush,“having thousands of people from LA County trying scooters for the first time on our streets every week,” was a learning experience for the city and scooter companies.
Cole, the city manager, called it a “punishing experiment,” as a wave of first-time riders, and their behaviors, created a response unlike anything he’s seen working in government.
He jokes that during that period he spent a third of his time running the city, a third of his time answering emails from those who thought scooters represented the end of Western civilization, and a third of his time responding to Twitter posts that he was clamping down on the best invention since the iPhone—and one that would save the planet.
The staff members in charge of regulations were often left scratching their heads trying to figure out fining and enforcement structures around driver’s license verification, helmet usage, parking scooters safely, and restrictions around riding on sidewalks. These issues also became tech and education challenges for the startups.
The public backlash—and the reaction of other city leaders to the arrival of scooters—has shown the “beg for forgiveness instead of asking for permission” policy won’t work in the long run. Scooter companies tried to rebrand, seeking to be better partners with governments (including hiring away many transit advocates and public policy experts, and creating tech tools to help cities manage scooters). Stefan said operators worked fast to find technical fixes when the city decided to ban scooter usage on the beachfront path.
Spoke’s Rose, the bike advocate, feels the initial rollout was a wasted opportunity. The scooter companies could have capitalized on better planning and safety, working with the bike and pedestrian advocates who have been at it for years. Instead, the operators have continually worked to gain public trust around safety issues. In February, Bird paid more than $300,000 to settle safety complaints and permitting issues with the city, and other operators have continually invested in safety-education programs, notably Lime’s recent $3 million Respect the Ride campaign.
“I understand this mentality: Ask for forgiveness, not permission,” she says. “Disrupting is not new. When the car came, it was a disruption, it was hated and vilified. But it seems like nobody thought about what’s going to happen after they disrupt.”
An attempt to regulate in the age of disruption
In June, as summer tourist traffic—and scooter rides—peaked, the city decided to take more formal control of scooter operations by introducing rules for a flexible scooter pilot program. Over a 16-month period beginning in September, companies would compete for the right to operate vehicles within city limits, judged on criteria including maintenance, education, safety, customer service, and data sharing. Stefan says the program was set up to be flexible and adjustable as the city sees fit, using a similar administrative framework previously utilized to test out medical marijuana.
After the city released preliminary rankings of the dozen startups that had applied for a spot, ranking Uber and Lyft above long-time scooter operators, Bird and Lime felt slighted, and would later stage a “day without scooters,” when the two companies removed their fleet from operation and persuaded dozens of supporters to protest at City Hall.
“No one has operated scooter and bike sharing on the scale Lime and Bird have,” said Sam Dreiman, Lime’s director of strategic development, recalling the frustration over the low ranking. “The city didn’t fully understand what it took to run a scooter-sharing operation. This isn’t something you can throw money and a team of engineers at. This takes real people to implement and fix problems, to make it an effective and reliable transit service, as opposed to some joyride thing.”
Eventually, Santa Monica announced all four companies would be part of the trial. Bird and Lime would have 750 scooters each, and Uber and Lyft would each be given 250 scooters and 500 e-bikes (Lyft has yet to roll out its e-bikes). Each startup would pay $20,000 for the right to operate, $130 per device, and $1 per device per day for the privilege of parking on the public sidewalk, money that the city would invest in infrastructure and safety improvements. Over time, as the companies proved their vehicles were being utilized at a high enough rate, they’d be given permission to operate more vehicles.
The template of this deal—companies play by the rules and help fund the infrastructure they benefit from, while the city lets new technology prove itself—has been influential for other cities looking to introduce their own pilots. It’s also an attempt to establish regulations for an age of disruption, or as Cole says, not merely an attempt to regulate micromobility, but an effort to figure out how to protect public safety and make rules in an era of rapid change.
“Our goal is to create a level playing field and see what the different operator responses are,” says Stefan. “It’s not a trial period, it’s a learning period.”
Since the program officially started in September, city staff and the four operators have kept in close contact, with regular emails and check-in meetings, including a Shared Mobility Pilot Community Advisory Meeting that held its first meeting late last month. The city’s bike-share coordinator is monitoring the program full time.
Stefan says the program has started to find its rhythm. Last month, when the American Film Market, a big industry event that annually generates more than $1 billion in deals, came to town, the scooter operators, in concert with event organizers, set up scooter-free zones along the event’s shuttle bus route.
The scooter caps have emerged as the most contested part of the program. As Santa Monica has acted proactively to try to establish better riding and parking conditions for scooter riders—adding scooter signage and even removing parking spaces to provide on-street scooter parking—the unwillingness to allow more scooters has frustrated operators. Before the trial, Bird had 3,000 vehicles in the city. Now, capped at 750, it’s had to pull back, losing some of the network effect.
“When you’re in Starbucks and see a scooter, and can rely on its availability, people begin to use scooters regularly,” says Estrada. “We had reached closer to a level of ubiquity where people were relying on them. Due to market dynamics, we’ve had to shrink the service area to focus on a roughly two-mile rectangle around downtown. We’re not servicing the outer areas as much, which would help us convert more car trips to scooter trips.”
Those caps may soon be changing. Recently, Santa Monica adopted the Mobility Data Specification (MDS), a micromobility data standard created by Los Angeles’s Department of Transportation, and will begin monitoring usage and utilization. As of mid-November, Stefan says most scooter companies average three to four rides per device per day, with a cyclical pattern of usage, rising from Monday throughout the week and dropping on Sunday. More than 500 individuals have ridden more than 30 times.
Santa Monica’s pilot program welcomed disruption, albeit a slow, steady, and well-monitored kind.
Racing climate change, at 15 miles per hour
Two months into the pilot, Cole says that he’s seen a real difference on the streets, as more first-time riders become regular scooter users. Amid the shock of the new, there are more users with helmets, more obeying stop signs, more acting as responsibly as any everyday driver, biker, or pedestrian.
As the operators begin designing their own vehicles, they’re counting on technology to help fix the problems of profitability and operations. Lime just introduced a Gen 3 scooter, with GPS capabilities that’ll eventually be used to more accurately park vehicles (an LED display will light up when the vehicle is in the right place to park).
“It’s important that we design the scooters, because the manufacturer doesn’t know what you’re doing,” says Lime’s Lord. “We understand the full picture of what’s being used.”
Bird, which is also designing its own scooters, is developing beacon technology to keep scooters off sidewalks (it’s currently looking for a test market). Small Bluetooth beacons, the size of poker chips, which can be embedded in the road, will detect when a scooter is close to the curb, warning it to stay away, and to set up beacon parking spots. In addition to its new Community Mode, which basically allows users to rat out scooters left outside of approved parking spaces, it’s a high-tech solution to the long-term problem of parking.
But even as it provides a model for how cities can balance innovation while supporting their own self-interest, has Santa Monica truly shown what scooters can do? More scooters, companies argue, mean more opportunities to replace car trips. Bird has even introduced a commuter program, which delivers a scooter to a rider’s front door. “The very first vehicle you need to see in the morning should be a scooter, not your car,” says Estrada.
Over and over, advocates and scooter companies point out that the real value here is deploying at a scale that the city isn’t yet comfortable with. Scooters, some argue, are being asked to navigate a lot more red tape compared to vehicles that have a much higher social cost. In their hometown, are scooters still being held back?
“There’s a lot of things Santa Monica is leading on,” says Bird’s Estrada. “But it’s a program that’s very much taking its time.”
To reshape transportation, and cut down on emissions from cars, rapid and radical change—even if it comes on two small wheels—is required.
“We don’t have a year to wait,” says Estrada.