Major U.S. cities need to prepare themselves for a new front in the startup scramble to change urban transportation: the rapid expansion of electric scooter systems.
Like the rapid spread of dockless bikes in cities such as Dallas, Washington, D.C., and Seattle, electric scooters appear poised to hit the streets of metro areas across the country. Bird, a scooter startup based in Santa Monica, California, and led by a former Uber and Lyft executive, launched in September has quickly expanded across the westside of Los Angeles. Last Friday, the company announced a new $100 million funding round and plans to expand into 50 new cities by the end of the year. Limebike, the Bay Area dockless bike startup, recently launched its own electric scooter option, the Lime-S, and has incorporated hundreds of the small vehicles into their San Diego service. They also plan to expand to other cities.
“If you’ve ever witnessed someone with a scooter in San Diego, it’s something that’s here to stay” says Zack Bartlett, LimeBike’s general manager in San Diego. “It’s something people want. There’s nothing like seeing someone get on a scooter for the first time.”
But these app-driven transit options, which let users pick up and drop off scooters anywhere, seem poised to follow the path of ride-sharing and dockless bike firms, moving much faster than local governments and letting regulators and city officials play catch up.
These vehicles seem likely to run into the same legal and logistics issues that have plagued the speedy roll-out of dockless bikes, including nuisance claims when bikes are dropped off and even discarded in inconvenient or out-of-the-way locations. Earlier this year Dallas officials, frustrated at the way dockless bikes had turned street corners into “bike-rental graveyards,” told the startups to clean up their acts, or the bikes would be removed.
Bird has already run into issues with the Santa Monica government. In December, the city of filed a criminal case against the company, accusing it of operating without proper permits and owing more than $6,000 in fines. Last month, Bird agreed to pay more than $300,000 as part of a settlement with the city.
Just last week, Santa Monica passed an emergency ordinance that would allow law enforcement officials to impound any Bird scooters or other “shared mobility devices” that pose an immediate hazard or obstruct access to public rights-of-way.
“It is reasonable that the city would want to recoup its costs for impounding vehicles,” said Kenneth Baer, a Bird spokesman. “We are concerned that private contractors tasked with doing so may have a monetary incentive to indiscriminately impound Birds. We will be monitoring the situation closely and continue to work with the Council.”
San Diego officials haven’t been as aggressive, according to a recent report about public safety concerns over the new scooters. The city’s Police Department told the Union-Tribune that it’s enforcing laws around the scooters, but wouldn’t provide stats on citations.
Executive from both startups praise the electric vehicles’s low emissions and their role in a more multimodal transit system, promoting them as a great alternative for last-mile transit. An outgrowth of dockless cycling, which grew rapidly in China and has become a huge part of the country’s urban mobility system, these scooter systems, according to advocates, can encourage safer and more sustainable transportation patterns.
“Our goal is to replace as many of those trips as possible so we can to get cars off the road and curb traffic and greenhouse gas emissions,” said Travis VanderZanden, founder and CEO of Bird, in a statement. “With this funding, we can move quickly to bring this vision to communities all across the country.”
Both scooter systems claims safety first, with app-based warnings about wearing helmets, obeying traffic laws, and staying off sidewalks. California law requires helmets for riders of motorized scooters. But in Venice, where Bird scooters have become prevalent, casual observation suggests many riders aren’t wearing helmets when riding (the company has offered to send free helmets to users).
According to Bartlett, the biggest battle for them is educating the public on how the system works, and getting everyone to follow safety rules (LimeBike has had similar issues, and launched Matrix-themed educational videos, to quell the problem in D.C). The company invests in proactive media pushed and user education, he says, and “the more people we can get them to follow the rules, the better it’ll be.”