Cities are finding themselves in a Catch-22: reducing the number of cars on the road, while safely managing the booming scooter rental business.
Dockless scooter rental companies are asking city officials across the U.S. to not regulate the industry out of existence. Bird, by far the largest of the booming scooter rental companies, recently asked Washington D.C. officials to work with the District Department of Transportation to lighten the city’s new proposed rules.
In a letter to the mayor of D.C., Bird’s new Chief Legal Officer David Estrada, expresses his disappointment with the 600 scooter cap that will make it impossible fulfill the goals of the program.
“The Department of Transportation’s proposed cap on the number of e-scooters available to the people of D.C. eliminates any chance of this program being equitable, of solving issues related to transportation deserts in the city, and ultimately of getting more cars off the road,” Estrada wrote.
Estrada said that the cap will actually force the companies to put the scooters in higher-density areas instead of the transportation “deserts” that need the low-cost transportation. He also charged that the cap will deprive the city of meeting its goal of getting more cars off the streets and reducing carbon emissions. These aren’t his only concerns, and like any company, he is concerned with the bottom line which is governed by market share.
Each customer downloads an app similar to those used by Uber and Lyft, and then pays for an unlock code to use the scooter and then gets charged 15 cents a minute. The scooters are charged at night by independent contractors who pick up the scooters and spread them around the city before the morning commute.
So it would seem like the more scooters there are, the better it is for everyone. However, Bird is flush with start-up capital and believes that by making large numbers of scooters available to riders, it solves everyone’s problems.
However, not all scooter companies have the cash Bird does, so they don’t have a problem with the cap as it actually enables them to compete for market share, but do have problems with other regulations. Smaller companies like Skip, Lime and Jump say that the 10-mph speed limit is too restrictive. Faced already with complaints by riders that the scooters don’t go fast enough, they feel that reducing the limit from 15 to 10 will turn off some of their customers.
Like D.C., other cities are proposing regulations that are being met with resistance by the same scooter companies. The City of Raleigh, North Carolina, recently announced their restrictions for 2019:
- Each company will be capped at 500 scooters.
- Twenty percent of scooters must be in neighborhoods with high numbers of low or under-employed people. Scooters can be put out starting at 5 a.m.
- More options so low-income people can rent them, even if they don’t have a smartphone or credit card.
- Educate customers about how to park scooters properly
- Have information on a website and mobile app in languages determined by the City
- Fee of $150 to $300 for each scooter.
According to city officials, the fee is to offset the cost by the city in enforcement and in responding to accidents involving scooters. The main complaint with these restrictions is the cost. According to officials at Bird, just as in other cities, the cap will prevent the program from adequately addressing the goals such as income-equality and lowering the number of cars on the city streets.
In fairness to the cities, they are in a tough spot. The need for inner-city transportation coupled with the desire to promote their goals on fossil fuel dependency and carbon emissions, puts pressure on cities to accept the program.
However, not everyone is happy with the scooters, and in some cases there is such rage and vitriol, local citizens have turned to a form of vigilante vandalism against the scooters themselves and began posting their deeds online for all to see. The site’s administrator says that they have over 24,000 postings already and they get deluged daily with new postings.
In cities like Los Angeles, many residents are so fed up with the proliferation of dockless scooters being left all over the city that they have set them on fire, buried them in the sand and left city workers with a 10-foot high mound of damaged scooters to deal with.
So citizens are turning to their city council for relief. At best, many would like to see them gone, and at the least, they would like them to be heavily regulated—especially finding ways to keep them corralled.
In Santa Monica, the home of Bird, the city has announced that it will begin a pilot program to keep the scooters around for the next year and a half, at least. Under this program, there would be a cap on the number of scooters for each company, (1,500-2,250), pay a $20,000 annual fee and a fee of $130 for each scooter.
The companies will have to show real-time data to the city that they are distributing them evenly across the city, and will have to pay an impound fee of $60 for each scooter removed from certain areas deemed unsightly or unsafe. They will also be required to make a user-interactive safety education program to address safe operations and storage of scooters.
It would be unfair to say that everyone wants to flip the bird to Bird and other dockless scooter programs as they are popular with many of the locals. According to Bird’s own statistics, each scooter averages around 5-6 uses a day and generates $15-$20 a day in revenue. Multiply that by the amount of scooters per city and the number of cities and that translates into the hundreds of millions in revenue per year. That a lot of scooting.
Some of these riders came out to support Bird at a rally hosted by Estrada, who called on his supporters to get the word out. Many seemed to heed his call as they adorned shirts and held up signs that said, “Cap the Cars, not the Birds!” and “Free the Birds!”