Let the people scoot


So far it doesn’t look like City Council is heading towards another Uber-style debacle when it comes to electric scooters. That’s a good thing.

As satisfying as it was to see Uber and Lyft get their asses handed to them by voters after throwing a multi-million dollar temper tantrum, it’s highly unlikely that Council’s attempt to regulate the two ride-hailing companies made anybody any safer. If anything, the several weeks of nonexistent to unreliable ridesharing that followed Uber and Lyft’s departure in May 2016 probably made people less safe.

At first glance, electric scooters seem like a pretty good idea. They can go up to 15 mph, about as fast as average bike speed. They would likely be an attractive option for a mile or two-mile journey on a hot summer day.

There’s not a lot of evidence about their use yet. It was only two months ago that electric scooter-sharing was profiled in TechCrunch, so the idea is still pretty new. Oddly, Tech Crunch reported at the time that the scooters only cost $1 to rent plus 10¢ for every ten minutes. Whether or not that was ever true, the deal LimeBike is offering now is $1 to rent plus 15¢ per minute.

The only examples o I’m seeing are from San Francisco and Santa Monica, where scooter-sharing companies are pursuing the same scoot-first, apologize later approach that they’re taking in Austin.

San Francisco City Atty. Dennis Herrera sent cease and desist letters to the firms saying they ignored previous warnings and continue “to operate an unpermitted motorized scooter rental program” that is “creating a public nuisance on the city’s streets and sidewalks and endangering public health and safety.”

In Santa Monica, home to e-scooter company Bird, the city attorney’s office in December filed a criminal complaint against Bird and its founder alleging the company began operating without approval and ignored required licensing and orders to remove the scooters from sidewalks. Bird pleaded no contest and agreed to pay more than $300,000 in fines and secure proper licenses.

While LimeBike and Bird are operating in Austin without any kind of licenses, the city appears to be taking a far more conciliatory approach.

The sudden incursion of the scooters — low, two-wheeled platforms with waist-high handlebars — has forced the Austin Transportation Department to accelerate plans to regulate dockless bikes and scooters. The city had expected to begin a pilot program this summer, and several companies renting two-wheeled vehicles had delayed entering the Austin market while the city crafted rules.

“The city code is outdated and does not specifically cite dockless mobility options … pertaining to right of way use,” Transportation Department Director Robert Spillar said in a memo Monday to the City Council. “In order to forestall a predictable and unmanageable swamping of our streets with thousands of vehicles, (the department) recommends a more nimble response than our previously expressed pilot time frame.”

So it’s hard to say what problems, if any, will accompany the obvious benefits. But I can take a few educated guesses:

Some scooterists will be careless, barreling down sidewalks and expecting pedestrians to get out of their way.

Some scooterists will be careless and leave the vehicles in the middle of sidewalks.

Alcohol will enhance the carelessness, leading to a certain number of crashes downtown, some serious and some less so, between scooterists and bikers/walkers/cars.

These things will happen. It’s inevitable. What is also inevitable is that the scale of the problem will be exaggerated because it involves a new technology. Just as a fatality from a driverless car generates exponentially more attention than the daily deaths due to Detroit deathmobiles, a couple accounts of scooter accidents will likely lead to proposed restrictions that would never be considered for the many other modes of transportation that lead to carnage everyday, notably the automobile but also bikes, buses and, of course, our own two feet. The fact that the scooters come from California-based companies will only amplify the resentment.

The fact that the scooter companies have openly defied municipal governments across the country is an interesting case study on the limits of government regulation. From the companies’ perspective, any risk they run by breaking the law is clearly worth the advantage they gain by entering the market as soon as possible and gaining a customer base. A strong customer base can also become a strong political base that will pressure City Hall to not respond too harshly to the companies’ disregard for the law.

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