Electric scooter rental apps are a new trend — but many see a road hazard

Dockless scooters in San Diego.
(Eduardo Contreras / San Diego Union-Tribune)

As Southern California continues to embrace “dockless” bike sharing, a new player in the app-based mobility market has picked up considerable momentum — electric scooters.

These motorized scooters have created a challenge for local authorities as riders of all ages from beach communities to urban centers have in recent weeks and months been riding illegally on sidewalks and without helmets.

Like dockless rental bikes, users can unlock the scooters using a smartphone and then drop them anywhere. The business comes in contrast to the docked model, where users must pick up and return bikes to a fixed station.

Most recently, the city of San Diego seems to have been caught flatfooted enforcing state laws on the increasingly popular motorized scooters. Santa Monica has also been grappling with the proliferation of the scooters in recent months.


While the police department has said it’s cracking down on such illegal behavior, riders from downtown to Pacific Beach can be found on any given day careening on and off busy sidewalks, often without helmets.

Riding in traffic can feel “unsafe,” said Tony Cai, 23, who was running errands on an electric scooter in downtown San Diego on Monday. “It depends on if there’s a designated bike lane. If it’s not really clear, I’d rather ride a little bit slower on the sidewalks.”

While the city has plans to dramatically expand bike lanes in downtown, the vision has yet to be realized.

Residents have now started to express frustration at the potentially dangerous situation as motorized scooters join the thousands of freestanding rental bikes strewn about the city.

“I’m a fan of the bicycles, but these people on the scooters are an accident waiting to happen,” said Dave Gapp, 62, who said he and his wife almost crashed into three people zipping down the sidewalk on scooters in front of Petco Park.

“We were afraid we were going to be hit,” he added. “If a 200-pound person going even 10 MPH runs into someone, that’s going to cause considerable damage.”

In response to questions about public safety, Mayor Kevin Faulconer’s office provided few details on what if anything the city plans to do to address the situation.

“People should follow the laws and take appropriate safety precautions,” Greg Block, senior press secretary for Faulconer, said in an email.

The Santa Monica-based company Bird pioneered the electric scooter business model in Southern California, launching in September to much fanfare and quickly expanding to Venice and now San Diego.

Bay Area startup LimeBike took notice and recently launched its own electric scooter option, currently available only in San Diego.

“We’ve been blown away by the number of rides we’ve gotten in the first few weeks,” Zack Bartlett, general manager in San Diego for LimeBike, said of the electric scooters.

However, Bird has had something of a bumpy start, with the city of Santa Monica cracking down on the local startup last month following a number of accidents, including a severe head injury and a broken arm.

After the city sued Bird for operating without a business license, the company agreed to pay $300,000 in fines and other fees, as well as roll out a public safety campaign.

As a result, the company also reduced the speed of its scooters from 22 to 15 MPH and started giving away free helmets to consumers that request one through the app, which now takes users through the rules of the road upon installation.

“Ideally we want to educate people,” said Kenneth Baer, spokesperson for Bird. “But we can’t monitor everything people do once they get a Bird.”

To that end, the Santa Monica police department started aggressively ticketing those riding on the sidewalk, said city spokeswoman Constance Farrell.

“We’ve seen a lot of behavior that’s very unsafe, and so they are in fact enforcing rules through citations,” she said. “Our biggest concern is that a lot of young people, children, preteens, see these as toys.”

The San Diego Police Department said it has been enforcing the laws around motorized scooters but would not provide statistics on the number of citations it’s issued in the last year to people illegally riding bicycles or scooters on the side walk.

“We are aware of the safety issues they are causing and have been enforcing the laws related to these,” police spokesman Billy Hernandez said in an email.

In Pacific Beach — where Bird first launched in San Diego — tensions over the electric scooters have been running high.

“I live in Pacific Beach and they’re everywhere running red lights,” said Hayden Noel, 58, who drives for Lyft. “The police aren’t ticketing anyone.

“They’re such a nuisance,” he added. “I’m assuming there’s going to be a fatality in the next 10 days.”

While numerous people could be seen riding the scooters up and down Garnet Avenue this week, Sara Berns, executive director at Discover Pacific Beach, said that police officers have recently started citing people for riding on the sidewalk.

“I think partly people don’t know the rules,” she said. “We hear all the time that people don’t know they’re not allowed to be on the sidewalk.”

Electric scooter and dockless bike sharing companies typically carry liability insurance and often have contracts that indemnify local governments from legal responsibility in case of accidents.

Smith writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.