Motorized scooters are not an urban scourge, and shared bikes are not a blight on society.
They’re convenient, affordable ways to travel short distances without getting in a car and driving. If cities are serious about creating alternative modes of transportation that don’t involve polluting cars or bumper-to-bumper traffic, then they ought to develop rules that allow the expansion of shared scooters and “dockless” bikes.
The quicker they do so, the better.
Here’s how these so-called private mobility services work: Riders download an app on a phone, enter a credit card and then “unlock” an electric scooter or bicycle (electric-powered or not) for use. When the ride is over, the user parks the scooter or bike on the edge of the sidewalk and walks away.
In typical Silicon Valley better-to-ask-forgiveness-than-permission fashion, companies have come into cities and dropped hundreds of electric scooters and bike shares on public streets with little regard for rules or permits.
Further complicating matters, there is fierce competition among nearly a dozen well-funded startups, each offering its own fleet of shared bikes or scooters, and they all want to be the first and the biggest to capture the market. As result, selected neighborhoods in some cities have suddenly been inundated with scooters and bikes dumped at curbside. (In Dallas, city officials estimated there were 20,000 dockless bikes.)
Just as they were caught unprepared for the arrival of Uber, Lyft and other ridesharing services, cities are struggling to figure out how to allow a car-free transportation option that is proving popular with riders while minimizing the problems, such as bikes blocking sidewalks and careless riders buzzing pedestrians. So far, cities are having trouble finding the regulatory sweet spot.
Austin, Denver and San Francisco, to name a few, all ordered the vehicles off the streets until the companies apply for permits to operate. Some cities have imposed tight caps on the numbers of bikes or scooters allowed, at least during the initial, legal rollout. San Francisco, for example, will limit the total number of scooters allowed in the city to 1,250 for the first six months — down from an estimated 4,000 that were on the street in recent months.
In Los Angeles, the Department of Transportation has proposed prohibiting dockless bikes from operating within three miles of an existing or planned Metro bike share station. Scooters would not be allowed within three miles of downtown. The idea is to prevent the upstarts from competing with the publicly funded bikes, which have struggled to attract riders. (Metro recently voted to lower the price of rides and expand to dockless bikes.)
But carving out a monopoly for Metro’s bike share would ban the privately operated services from some of the city’s most dense, walkable and transit-friendly neighborhoods. These are communities that need good first-mile, last-mile options, and that are ideal launching points for new mobility services. L.A.’s goal should be to make it easier for people to get around without a car, not to protect publicly funded bike shares from competition.
Sure, it’s easier for cities to manage small fleets in select neighborhoods. And there are real safety issues posed by the profusion of bike and scooter services, including the availability of helmets for riders and the navigability of sidewalks and curbs.
But cities’ desire to control and contain these new services threatens to stymie their growth and value, while also preventing the market — that is, consumers — from determining where the services should be deployed. Scooters and dockless bikes are popular precisely because they are ubiquitous, which makes them convenient. You don’t have to hunt around. You grab, pay and go. Capping the number of scooters or barring the bikes from certain neighborhoods limits their utility, makes them less convenient for riders and potentially consigns them to the wrong territories.
Yes, there will be growing pains as companies — and riders — stop acting like disrupters and become responsible users of the public space. Cities have every right to fine and, if necessary, ban bad operators that fail to manage their fleets in a safe manner or that litter public rights-of-way with their bikes and scooters enough to become a public nuisance. And transportation officials, like those in L.A., are right to prod companies to ensure their services are not just clustered in tony neighborhoods, but spread to poorer communities that would both embrace and benefit from low-cost, first-mile, last-mile mobility options.