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Scooter, scat? 

Some see nuisance and infrastructure pressures, but dockless electric scooters and other small rideshare vehicles probably are too useful to be regulated away. 

The widening concept of Shared Active Transportation (SAT) encompasses a variety of configurations of small vehicles rented for short distances or brief durations to facilitate urban mobility and includes docked and dockless bikes, scooters and other “last-mile” transportation options.  According to the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NATCO), SAT now is a common site on urban streets: some 100,000-plus rented bicycles have accounted for more than 35 million bike-share trips.   

Maybe the moment’s most-infamous SATs are 2-wheel electric scooters that can buzz along streets and sidewalks at speeds up to roughly 15 miles per hour. The scooters seemingly have been self-reproducing in progressive urban areas—with their presence fueling often intense controversy. As of September 2018, the bike and scooter company Lime reported more than 11.5 million rides and deployment in over 100 markets in the United States and Europe. Bird, another well-known scooter-sharing service, also is present in more than 100 cities and claims to have delivered 10 million rides.

Bird and Lime have raised investments in excess of $415 million and $467 million, respectively and Bird recently became the fastest startup to be valued at $2 billion while Pitchbook placed a value of $1.1 billion on Lime. It doesn’t stop there: Uber and Lyft also are eying last-mile SAT, having raised billions of dollars to apply to scooter mobility. Other once lesser-known participants are becoming household names: Skip, Scoot and Spin.

Tripping over fruit and foul: cities push back on Lime and Bird

But as anyone who’s seen scooters littering city sidewalks knows, all is not perfect in the SAT universe. San Francisco initiated a crackdown in April 2018 as 66 scooters were confiscated for impeding public sidewalks. The city also pumped up its permitting program, increasing the barriers for scooter deployment. 

Similarly, Cambridge, Massachusetts collected more than 60 scooters in August 2018 when Birds appeared across the city without notice to the local government. Ann Arbor, Michigan confiscated Bird scooters when they recently showed up in the city, stating the ride-share scooters are “not licensed and riders may not legally ride them in the right-of-way at this time.”   

Beyond sidewalk eyesore and congestion, emergency-room doctors in seven cities reported spikes in severe accidents following the launch of dockless scooters according to a Washington Post report. The Chief of Medicine at Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital said the hospital sees five to 10 scooter-related injuries each week. In August 2018, a 21-year-old woman died after being hit by a car as she rode an electric scooter.   

In response, many cities have defaulted to banning scooters until regulations can be enacted to finalize applicable SAT rules, especially those dealing with dockless mobility vehicles. In assessing risks, city planners and governments caution that SAT solutions must comport with existing local laws, challenging each of the companies to research the individual markets they intend to enter. Moreover, cities are moving to enact new policies that address: 

  • Running a business in a public right-of-way: Each of these companies is operating a business by renting commercial equipment that operates on public sidewalks. Local governments are working to manage the use, handling and contractual relationship of scooters and customers. 
  • Zoning regulations: City governments have an interest in addressing where local businesses may operate and how they are used within the city. This would include where vehicles may be parked or whether they can operate during certain hours and at specific speeds in various locations.
  • Existing contracts with service providers: Many municipalities already have relationships with rideshare programs. Exclusivity is often an issue that local governments must address.
Moving from policy considerations to new regulation

Permits - Each city’s permitting process is unique and often covers a wide range of requirements.  Some areas require compliance with current bike-share provisions, while others create individual performance standards. As municipalities have rolled out the processes, however, issues remain. Following San Francisco’s confiscation of scooters, the city created a permitting process to which all scooter companies needed to apply before deployment.

The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency denied the permit application submitted by Lime—while accepting two competitors. This rejection resulted in Lime’s September 2018 appeal which requested an “unbiased hearing officer” reassess the company’s application.      

Safety and operational standards - Unlike the preemptive federal power of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), cities can create operational standards for electric scooters and other SAT vehicles. Some of these standards focus on: 

  • Maximum speed 

  • Front and rear light presence and specified brightness 

  • Global Positionings Sysstem connectivity and frequency of connection with the company’s platform 

  • Remote lockdown 

  • Maintenance checks, including alignment and tire pressure 

  • Brake function and brake-lever wear 

Geofencing - Geofencing, particularly geo-speed limiting, has been applied in many municipalities to address traffic-specific problems. In Santa Monica, California, Bird added a geofencing feature that slows scooters from 15 mph to 8 mph when a scooter enters the bike trail along the beach.     

Data access by cities - Some SAT options may present nuisance aspects, but cities also are plenty interested in the data generated by SAT users. Information such as the number of active scooters active, trip starting and end points and selected routes may help a city integrate these mobility solutions into the greater urban plan. Considerable other SAT data are prized by municipalities and other potential stakeholders.

The future of Shared Active Transportation

At this point, it appears clear that scooters have demonstrated elements of success. Many of the companies report a higher volume of rides than either Uber or Lyft in their initial years.  

As adoption continues, cities will continue to wrestle with issues of safety and resource-management that likely will lead to new requirements and stricter regulations. It is a fair bet to suggest that for many years we’ll see more scooters, bikes and other types of last-mile rideshare in urban areas as part of our growing mobility economy. 

A self-described "recovering engineer," with 15 years of experience in automotive design and quality, Jennifer Dukarski is a Shareholder in Butzel Long, where she focuses her legal practice at the intersection of consumer technology and communications, what an emphasis on emerging and disruptive issues that include cybersecurity and privacy, infotainment, vehicle safety and connected and autonomous vehicles.

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