Scooters Are Suddenly Everywhere. What Should Cities Be Doing About It?

Seemingly overnight, e-scooter companies have set up shop in more than 100 cities.
by | November 27, 2018
Bird e-scooter riders in Los Angeles. (Shutterstock)

There's been an explosion of new urban transportation options in recent years. With car-sharing companies like Zipcar and Maven, public bike-share programs, and privately owned dockless bicycles -- not to mention emerging options like electric-assist bikes and even moped-sharing -- it can be hard to keep up. 

Perhaps there’s no better example of the rapid proliferation of these options than electric scooters. Companies offering short-term dockless rentals of e-scooters have barely been around for a year, but they've already become a fixture in some cities.

Without much warning, city officials have been confronted with a flurry of questions about what amounts to a new mode of transportation. Should people ride scooters on the street or the sidewalk? How fast should they be able to go? What companies can operate the services, and under what circumstances? Are scooters even safe?

Those questions have been particularly hard for public officials to answer because the scooter industry basically materialized overnight.

To get a better idea of where the industry might be heading, Governing sat down with David Estrada, a top policy expert from Bird, the company that started the scooter craze, to see how cities can better respond to the sudden scooter influx. Estrada has also worked as a top lobbyist for Lyft and, before that, helped shape the regulatory framework for driverless cars while at Google.

The following interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Who is Bird trying to serve with its scooters? 

You need to start in the densest areas where the traffic is, where you’re going to solve the problem and where there is the most need. So you’re going to start in the city center. You’re serving everyone who is working in the city center. So we see the biggest plurality is people in their 30s. Then you make your way out from there.

So then how are you deploying the scooters to make sure they’re not just available to people who already have plenty of transportation options?

We just started our first beta trial on a new product where we will deliver one to your door, so people who live outside the city center can take a Bird a couple of miles in. A lot of those people have no real good alternative. They’re not close enough to a transit stop. They’re not going to take a Lyft or an Uber for a couple of miles.

We can get them a much more affordable ride, and we can get them decent transportation that doesn’t clog up the city or release CO2.

We would have somebody who would drop them off. Let’s say you have a truck that can fit 20 of these inside. It would be just like a paperboy. You’re driving down the street and delivering scooters.

If it were up to you, how would cities regulate scooters?

A city should start from the perspective of, ‘Let’s use these to replace cars.’ That’s where we align.

Secondly, let’s address the safety problems that are real, like if the scooters are not parked well enough, or people are riding on sidewalks. Those cities that focus on solving those problems with the right kinds of regulations are the ones we align with.

The cities we think are taking the best approach are the ones that created some rules but said they weren’t going to limit the number of [scooters on the streets].

The bottleneck for adoption is infrastructure. The [biggest] safety issue usually is that people don’t feel safe enough riding a scooter in the streets, and the bike lanes don’t feel like they’re protected well enough or marked well enough.

So we are working with those cities to give them data, so they can understand how the scooters are solving their transportation problems. We will give a data dashboard to the city of Dallas, and they can see where all the scooters are, how many of them there are today and where they’re most concentrated. By understanding where they are actually solving transportation problems and where they are most concentrated, Dallas can look at it and ask, ‘Where should we have more bike lanes?’ And we have the proof we need to go ask for more funding.

What about helmets? Should they be required for scooter riders?

We think helmets are helpful. We’re pro-helmet. I would wear a helmet. But should they be mandated? No. In most states and cities, there is no requirement for bikers to wear helmets if you’re an adult. There’s no evidence at all to say that riding a scooter poses a different risk profile than riding a bike.

It’s interesting that you compared scooters to bicycles. When dock-based bikeshares launched, one thing that stood out was their incredible safety record. They went years without a fatality. Yet after less than a year, there have been many scooter crashes and at least one fatality. Are there more safety problems with scooters?

There are not more safety problems with scooters. People die very frequently on bikes, especially where they don’t have good bike lanes. So it’s definitely clear that the danger to pedestrians -- to scooters, to bicyclists -- is cars. When there is a death, it’s because a car hit you. It’s not because you fell over.

There are causes of death every year that we don’t pay attention to, but when new things come along, they gather all of the attention. Scooters have come along and they’ve gathered all of the attention. There are lots of stories about people getting hurt on scooters, but there aren’t a lot of stories about the 100 people who are going to die in car accidents today.

Uber has gotten into the electric bikeshare business with its Jump bikes; Lyft recently launched its own e-scooters. What do you think about these different modes of transportation converging? It seems like sometimes they cannabilize themselves.

It’s exciting because of the credibility it brings. They wouldn’t be doing it if it weren’t a huge opportunity. Ford has announced it is getting behind a new scooter sharing service called Jelly at the University of Purdue. So everybody wants to run a scooter sharing company.

But a year ago, everybody wanted to run a dockless bike-sharing company too, and now some of those companies have scaled back.

There’s a gigantic difference between scooters and bikes. In bikes, there was not adoption. With scooters, there’s massive adoption. Lime Bike named themselves Lime Bike because they wanted to get into bikes. Now they’re totally pivoting to scooters, because they’ve seen that scooters are far more successful.

Are you worried about consolidation, that people will start taking their Uber trip to a Jump bike and so on?

Consolidation happens in every industry. There won’t be 15 companies that do this over the long haul. There’s always a few winners. We think that this business will be about who can provide the best service and who can partner with cities best.

The companies that can put safety first and can innovate on safety -- who take it seriously and work with cities on it -- I think are going to be the winners.

How do city officials differentiate between all the different scooter companies out there?

You should think about who is going to be your best partner in offering a good, reliable service, one that provides the most access and the most affordability and the most safety.

We’ve done it the longest, and, because we were the first to do it, we worked out a lot of kinks with the city of Santa Monica before we started spreading elsewhere.

We decided we wanted to do our best to prevent kids from riding. So we require a driver’s license scan, and we only allow people over the age of 18 to ride. We were the first to do that, and in some cities, we’re still the only ones to do that.

We voluntarily lowered our speed to 15 mph. Again, in most cities, we’re the only ones to do that. We give away free helmets through our app. And we work with cities to give them data so they can understand where the scooters are being used, and they can work with us on geo-zones. So, for instance, in the City of Santa Monica, we put red polygons around certain areas where they think it is unsafe to ride. With them, we’ve created a speed zone along the beach bike path, so when you hit the bike path, it geo-speeds down to 8 mph.

We’ve created a new mode in the app, which we are going to be trying, where you as a member of community can report bad parking and bad riding right in the app, and it gets back to us. We can do things like have a repeat-infringer policy. If you’ve been tagged a number of times for riding on the sidewalk, we can take action on that.

Can you use geo-fencing to limit where people can park their scooters?

The geo-fencing can be tough if you’re just using GPS, but what we can do – and we are doing this – is to create parking zones: If you park within 15 feet of this, we’ll [mark you as] having parked there. If you try to park 100 feet away, we may not let you end the ride.

We’re also partnering with cities in actual infrastructure that they put in. There are these little Bluetooth beacons. They’re small and they interact with the vehicle, and they can tell much more detail where the vehicle is, whether it’s six inches or a foot away. We can create parking zones by putting these beacons in cities. We can even put them along sidewalks to determine if people are riding on sidewalks.

This is all to show that, the closer we can work with the city, the more we can help provide they’re looking for. We agree with them that we want people off the sidewalks. So here’s some technology that we can provide if we work closely with you.

This appears in the Infrastructure newsletter. Subscribe for free.