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How cities should regulate the scooter surge

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A new report comes to the reasonable conclusion that cities should be more forceful in controlling their own streets.

New dockless transit options, such as Lime scooters, have proven a vexing problem for cities trying to keep pace with regulations and oversight.
Carly Mask

When the history of the great micromobility wars of 2018 is written, readers will quickly notice a cycle repeating itself. Companies, unbeknownst to city officials, add dockless bikes or scooters to streets and sidewalks. Residents attempt to figure out how to coexist with the flocks of new vehicles cropping up on roadways and right-of-ways. Local officials, responding to public pressure, then ban the vehicles or enact pilot programs to rein in the proliferation of cycles and scooters.

The underlying promise of these vehicles—an accessible, car-free, and more sustainable way to get around the city—can seem a bit utopian when contrasted with the reality that these companies should be vetted, regulated, and evaluated by the cities in which they operate.

That’s why “Guidelines for the Regulation and Management of Shared Active Transportation,” a new report by the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) shared with Curbed, comes along at such an interesting time.

Bird scooter users on Venice Beach in Los Angeles.
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The guidelines lay out potential rules and regulations for the nascent—and fast-growing— world of electric scooters and dockless bikeshare, collating current examples from more than a dozen cities with existing policies, permitting fees, and ideas for equity programming.

In many respects, the NACTO report offers common-sense recommendations, beginning with the not-so-radical idea that cities—which have the financial and legal responsibility to build, maintain, and protect the local transit system—should have a say in deciding what vehicles are allowed to use said streets.

The obviousness of the report’s considered and sober point of view only underlines how transit tech startups, in their rush to secure market share and increase valuations, may be rushing to scale, but, in the process, become their own worst enemies.

It also comes not a moment too soon. Both Bird and Lime, leaders in dockless scooters, have valuations over $1 billion, making the startups so-called unicorns. This means each has added pressure to rapidly expand and justify those eye-popping financials.

With Lyft purchasing the nation’s largest bikeshare operator and Uber just announcing plans to make Lime scooters available via its app, there’s even more reason for these services to proliferate. The fast pace of developments in the micromobility space only underlines the need for cities to enact rules as soon as possible.

The NACTO report comes down hard on the common practices of tech transit companies, that tend to beg for forgiveness as opposed to asking for permission. Ever since this new breed of what the authors call “shared active transportation rentals” began entering U.S. cities in 2017, they’ve operated “absent contracts, permits, or business licenses, often completely independent of municipal knowledge, policy-making, or existing partnerships and community programs.”

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Due to differing and sometimes incomplete regulations, ebikes, scooters, and electric scooters “exist in a regulatory grey area, regulated in a limited fashion on an individual or recreational level but not envisioned en masse or in an automated rental scenario.”

The NACTO report offers a few starting points for cities that want to design pilot programs to help these companies expand. These proposed rules of the road offer a pretty easy template for cities to adopt. Most importantly, they should take control of the street and the curb. New startups also should require legal permission, which can cap the number of vehicles in operation, and be subject to fines or expulsion if rules or regulations are flagrantly or repeatedly violated.

Cities must should push for data-sharing, transparency, and safety. Agreed-upon rules to clear disabled or downed vehicles from right-of-ways should be strictly enforced, cities should be aware of staffing and operations plans, protocols for extreme weather or natural disasters should be clearly laid out.

Additionally, companies should be rewarded for pushing equity and access to underserved neighborhoods. For example, in St. Louis, dockless bike companies will be allowed to expand past an initial 2,500 vehicle cap, but only if they present and implement a social equity plan and meet other ridership requirements.

Some cities have already introduced such regulations. Santa Monica—which is not included in the NACTO report—was one of the first cities to regulate dockless scooters, and has taken a more proactive approach to find startups willing to be partners in finding mobility solutions. In San Francisco, the city has taken all scooters off the streets while it figures out a regulatory structure, a move some have criticized, but the city sees it in its best interests to control how tech companies make money off its public infrastructure.

Make no mistake, transportation issues can be helped by technology—and these new dockless options hold great promise to solve issues. But tech alone can’t solve an issue, especially by barging into a space filled with existing rules, stakeholders, regulations, and community considerations.

Policy, compliance, and human behavior will need to adjust, since technology can’t solve all of these problems. The various in-app prompts asking dockless scooter riders to wear helmets clearly isn’t working, but helmet laws have shown to deter riders from using certain modes altogether. Leaving scooters on sidewalks is a problem which could be fixed with better GPS technology, but the typical fidelity of existing systems—which can determine location within five to ten feet—isn’t precise enough to create and enforce geofenced parking areas.

Most attempts at regulation so far have been met by strong pushback by transit technology companies. The NACTO report is a cry for common-sense regulations in the hope that collaboration, rather than cities ceding control or oversight, can truly increase transit options for all.