The ‘arrive first, ask later’ tactics of scooter hire companies has riled cities around the world – but the tech bros seem to be learning a lesson
Just four days after dockless electric scooters hit the streets of Omaha, Nebraska, last month, police started to threaten users with tickets for riding on the sidewalk. Instead of zipping along, riders were shown on a local news channel wheeling the Lime hire scooters along the wide pavements of Old Market.
The streets in this part of town are paved with small red cobbles – problematic for the tiny wheels of the scooters. “You can’t bring something like that to an area like this and think people aren’t going to be on the sidewalks,” one passerby told 3 News Now.
“They’re not safe enough to be on the roads,” added another, who opted for the city’s hire bikes instead. “I feel like they change direction really quickly [on the cobbles]. They belong on the pavements.”
In London and other British cities the 1835 Highways Act currently makes their use illegal anyway – an example of cutting-edge technology butting heads with 19th-century legislation – but almost two years since the first appearance of dockless e-scooters, hundreds of cities around the world are still grappling with the same issue as Omaha.
Should they welcome them with open arms like Antwerp? Introduce a permit system like San Francisco? Make use of their data like Portland, Oregon? Or ban them completely?
Arrive first, ask later
E-scooters first appeared in Santa Monica, California, in September 2017 almost overnight – and neither legislation nor city officials were ready. Within two months the city had filed a criminal complaint against the company behind them, Bird, for operating without a business licence, and for blocking sidewalks. The city was awarded $300,000 (£235,000) in fines and licence fees.
The pattern was repeated in San Francisco, where chaos ensued as hundreds of e-scooters from several different operators appeared simultaneously in March 2018. There were complaints of users riding on sidewalks, scooters blocking pedestrian space, and broken scooters left abandoned. To tackle these issues, and stem numbers, city leaders introduced a permit system without which scooter companies could not operate.
In June 2018 San Francisco refused permits to the biggest players. A city attorney sent a cease and desist letter, forcing them to withdraw, and accused the companies of ignoring warnings and operating in a way that created a public nuisance.
The city did realise the transportation potential for e-scooters, though, and granted permits to two smaller companies, Skip and Scoot, for up to 625 scooters each as part of a 24-month pilot. During this time, the two firms will provide the city with trip data, and operate in communities underserved by public transport. The invitation wasn’t extended to Bird and Lime, but in August both were given permits to operate in Santa Monica.
The early “arrive first, ask later” tactics of scooter companies had perhaps riled cities, and they wanted to show they were in charge. Aaron Peskin, who co-wrote San Francisco’s e-scooter permit bill, was quoted by Wired as saying: “It would be very nice if the tech bros could come in and ask in a collaborative fashion for permission rather than after-the-fact forgiveness.”
This remains a common complaint, says Nicole Payne of Nacto, the city transportation officials association: “Companies may come in before the permit process is formalised … [or] undermine city authorities by passing laws at the state level. Cities must keep their authority over their streets.”
City officials are having to learn fast. St Louis, Missouri, removed Bird e-scooters from its streets the day after their overnight appearance in July 2018, Bird apparently having submitted the necessary paperwork without waiting for the permit. Companies can now only expand past 2,500 bikes in St Louis if they develop and implement a social equity plan.
E-scooter companies, though, may be unwilling to go quietly. Bird filed a lawsuit against Beverly Hills in November over a six-month ban imposed because the city said their e-scooters appeared with “a lack of any advanced planning and outreach”.
Richard Corbett, head of Bird UK, is unapologetic for the company’s earlier shock and awe tactics. “I think when you’re innovating and you’re disrupting, for better or worse, there’s going to be that clash between the way things happened in the past and the way they will happen in the future,” he says.
“There’s going to be that evolutionary phase where we’re like, ‘OK, this is how we used to do things for the last 100 years, this is how cars have become the centre of our world, and this is why we need to move on.’”
Learning to collaborate
By August last year, when Bird launched in Paris, the company had drawn up a charter of good practice and clarified usage rules. It found 70% of journeys made on Birds were for work, school or personal errands.
Bird continued that more collaborative approach in the Belgian city of Antwerp – although only after scooters from rival Lime appeared overnight.
Antwerp’s vice-mayor Koen Kennis describes Lime’s move as “cheeky”. “We saw the scooters in the street and we said, ‘There is a problem, you will have to take them away,’” he says.
After Lime’s incursion, the city introduced a permit system, granting three companies access on a first come, first served basis. Trotti, Poppi and Bird now have scooters spread between the city centre and less well-served areas outside the ring road.
Kennis believes e-scooters can work, especially in a city with a decade of bike share under its belt and where he says residents “get” shared mobility: “We have a lot of streets where it’s easy to go.”
But he believes a successful bike share is not a prerequisite. “I believe in most cities this can work,” he adds. “Perhaps it’s more difficult when you’re a city that’s still very strong on cars, because people need the place to ride around a scooter … [but] it helps us to create modal shift.”
E-scooters have also been hailed a success in Tel Aviv, where residents use them en masse to escape the city’s chronic traffic congestion – using existing bike lanes. Lime and Bird operate in Tel Aviv, and according to one source there were 25,000 unique Bird users in the quarter to October.
There are opportunities – early data shows dockless scooters’ potential is perhaps strongest in moving short leisure and recreation trips out of cars – but for cities to benefit, Nacto recommends officials draw up permits and specify operation zones, control numbers and enforce operational standards. If companies don’t comply, cities need the power to revoke licences.
Cities can also request trip data from scooter operators. This can be a valuable commodity in city planning, so long as users aren’t required to share personal information with providers.
Portland, Oregon, allowed e-scooters access to the city on a trial basis between July and November 2018, on the condition they shared their data and operated in underserved parts of the city – not just downtown.
They also surveyed 3,444 users and found 83% were scootering for fun, with just 18% commuting – and the proportion of trips for commutes fell by the second usage and beyond. A positive finding was that 38% of respondents said they drove less, 44% used taxis less and 31% used car share less. A second pilot will launch soon, lasting roughly a year.
Britain ‘fails to keep pace’
For British cities, introducing e-scooters means first changing centuries-old national legislation. E-scooters are illegal on the UK’s roads and pavements, though they are legal to buy, and they are increasingly regular features on city streets and bike lanes.
“Saying the legislation is failing to keep pace is perhaps an understatement,” says Transport for London’s director of transport innovation, Michael Hurwitz. “We are still talking about the 1835 Highways Act.”
The only place where it is currently possible to hire one in Britain is the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in east London. Opened for the 2012 Olympics, the park is effectively private land, and touts itself as the UK’s “sandbox” for micromobility and innovative transport.
That could be about to change after the Department for Transport announced a review of archaic legislation, the Highways Act included, but there is no guarantee.
Corbett says Bird is playing a long game in London – and perhaps the company has learned its lesson from North America.
“London and the UK is one of the biggest markets globally for any business,” he says, “and it’s very attractive, but you’re not going to succeed unless you work in partnership and that’s fundamental to sustainability of the service. If you can make it here you can make it anywhere, because the standards are so high.”