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Making Electric Scooters Work for Cities

They have a lot to offer for urban transportation. Partnerships are the best way to manage them.

An electric scooter rider passes a cyclist on the Venice Beach Boardwalk.
An electric scooter rider passes a cyclist on the Venice Beach Boardwalk.
(TNS/Gabriel S. Scarlett)
Across the urban transit spectrum, electric scooters have arrived with a big splash. The small, dockless vehicles, a product of the tech startup scene that carry riders at around 15 mph, have helped to upend the old transit paradigm and sharpen a "micro-mobility" focus. But for scooters to be a viable transit solution that can thrive and grow, they need to be integrated into a city's transportation infrastructure and managed through partnerships that maximize their benefits and minimize their negative impacts.

Scooters have enormous potential as an inclusive, efficient system in the model of bikesharing systems that have already taken off across the country. With a low barrier to entry -- rides generally cost a couple dollars -- electric scooters offer residents in car-focused cities such as Los Angeles and Austin an alternative way to travel short distances. A new study from Populus, a transportation-focused data-analysis company, found that scooters have already had an impressive 3.6 percent average adoption rate (by comparison, over 12 years carsharing systems like Zipcar came in at 2 to 3 percent), while 70 percent of the Populus survey's respondents supported them.

Unlike traditional bikeshare programs in cities such as Los Angeles, where the Metro transportation agency formally introduced 1,400 bikes in neighborhoods including downtown and Venice, scooters have come via the private sector with startups leading the way. With a haphazard roll-out in many areas (the CEO of Bird reportedly announced his scooter company's arrival in Santa Monica with a LinkedIn message to the mayor), residents and officials worry about a series of operational issues.

First, scooters have no home dock, meaning they are often left strewn in random locations. Their batteries are charged by contract workers who, seeking to ensure the biggest payout, sometimes gather as many as possible in a single location, or even hold them until they are reported stolen and a $20 reward is issued. Then there are insurance questions, as well as helmet and general safety concerns. New York City, where sidewalks are narrow and bike lanes are already cluttered, has simply banned scooters.

For most cities, though, outlawing a promising and appealing transportation alternative isn't viable. Just as cities partner with industry in other sectors, calculated, careful, regulated partnerships for scooters hold the most promise.

For scooters to integrate into a city's existing transportation system - and to ensure they are safe for riders from teenagers to professionals to the elderly - each company needs to work with local government, following the model of New York City's Citi Bike. That might get easier with industry mergers and consolidations: In July, the ridesharing company Lyft acquired Motivate, which owns Citi Bike and which, Lyft says, is responsible for 80 percent of bike-sharing in the United States (for instance, it manages bike-sharing programs including metropolitan Washington, D.C.'s Capital Bikeshare and Minneapolis' Nice Ride). Lyft has also started to roll out its own scooters in select cities.

In one example of an evolving partnership, San Francisco first banned scooters, but then implemented a formal proposal process to review permit applications. Using metrics including operational experience, equitable community outreach and labor plans, the city recently decided to issue permits to two companies, Scoot and Skip. While not a full partnership, this model is a step in the right direction. ensuring that the city is involved in the groundwork for these companies to operate and hopefully thrive.

Thoughtfully constructed partnerships for scooters can ensure that both residents and government have the chance to welcome this sustainability-focused alternative and that scooters can co-exist alongside pedestrians, bikes and cars. As an alternative to car usage and a supplement to bikesharing, scooter companies working in concert with government have the potential to transform the way people participate with the transportation framework around them -- and how we think about getting around.

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