Amid enforcement crackdowns and calls for an outright ban, the future of electric scooters will be a bumpy ride
By Gary Walker and Joe Piasecki
A family of four, a teenager without a driver’s license and a tourist from Connecticut — it’s not just a random sampling of electric scooter riders in downtown Santa Monica, but of those who’ve received tickets or warnings amid a crackdown on the illegal and sometimes dangerous rider behavior that’s divided public sentiment over the tech industry’s increasingly ubiquitous Next Big Thing.
Last Thursday, Santa Monica police — fresh off of impounding thousands of scooters from the bike path — staged several enforcement details along Second Street, stopping 105 riders and issues 59 citations over a three-hour period, said Lt. Saul Rodriguez. Police wrote tickets for riding on the sidewalk, riding without a license, and 42 for riding without a helmet. Each carries a fine expected to exceed $100.
“I don’t think it’s fair that you’re giving me a ticket. You should just warn me. A lot of people are riding without a helmet,” a woman told police last week. “This kind of seems like a trap, doesn’t it?” said that tourist, surprised by the bust. “I think most people are uninformed about wearing helmets or if you can ride on the sidewalk,” commented a local rider also caught up in the sting.
But Rodriguez cites a pressing imperative for public safety education. So far this year, Santa Monica police have responded to about 35 traffic accidents involving electric scooters, and in about 25 cases found the scooter operator at fault. “There have been several involving significant injury, typically from head trauma due to the rider not wearing a helmet,” he said.
With thousands of scooters being left just about anywhere on the streets and sidewalks of Santa Monica on any given day, “We’re trying to fast-forward and get people to understand as quickly as possible that these are not toys,” said Santa Monica City Manager Rick Cole.
“We’ve issued 700 tickets this year,” said Santa Monica Police Chief Cynthia Renaud, “but we know that we’re not going to ticket our way out of this problem; it’s going to require repeated education and enforcement. … There’s no DMV handbook for this new mobility device, so we have to educate on the fly, coupled with enforcement to back up
As ground zero for the launch of “dockless” grab-and-go electric scooter fleets in Southern California, the success of Santa Monica’s efforts to regulate their proliferation and use may also determine the fate of the scooters themselves.
This week two Los Angeles City Council members called for joining West Hollywood and Beverly Hills in banning electric scooters in Los Angeles until they can enact a regulatory framework — proposals for which include hard caps on the number of scooters allowed to operate in the city, corralling scooters into designated areas, or launching competing public bike share hubs that would exclude scooters from some areas.
In Santa Monica, Venice-based scooter company Bird and Northern California-based competitor Lime have opted to work with city officials by sharing ridership data, setting up a complaint hotline to quickly address illegally parked scooters, and passing out free helmets to riders (as both companies did as part of the police enforcement effort last Thursday. They hope to do the same in Los Angeles and other cities — without sacrificing the ease of use that makes scooters a popular alternative to automobiles for short trips or filling the “last-mile” gap between light rail stations and passenger destinations.
“Santa Monica is a very forward-thinking city. They understand that scooter-share companies can play an important role in helping the city reach its clean transportation and carbon reduction goals,” said Thomas Lord, Lime’s general manager for Los Angeles, in an email statement to The Argonaut.
Scooter operators have praised Santa Monica for rejecting an arbitrary limit on scooters (instead adopting a dynamic cap based on usage), participating in joint rider-education campaigns, and launching a pilot program tracking shared data about where and how people are using scooters. And putting too many restrictions on where people can find or leave scooters, they argue, could render them inconvenient or relatively useless for commuters who live or work from a designated hub.
“Scooter bans and caps are counterproductive,” he continued. “A hard static cap on the number of scooters sets an arbitrary ceiling on scooter availability and makes scooters a much less reliable form of transportation. If a scooter rider repeatedly struggles to find a scooter when they need it, they will go back to using a car.”
While that scenario may be just fine with the chorus of locals who complain about scooters cluttering sidewalks and beach bike paths, Lime’s ridership statistics tell another side of the story. Over the past few months, Lime scooters have traveled 760,000 miles in 540,000 individual rides, the majority of them concentrated on the Westside. And that staggering statistic doesn’t count Bird scooters, which arrived months earlier and in greater number. (Bird did not respond to questions before press time.)
On Wednesday, Los Angeles City Councilman Mike Bonin, whose district includes Venice, broke with West L.A. Councilman Paul Koretz and San Fernando Valley Councilman Mitch Englander to oppose a citywide ban.
“We need smart regulations for dockless scooters, not a total ban. Scooters are a popular, convenient zero emission form of transportation. If we are serious about combatting climate change, cutting emissions, or reducing gridlock, we need to put our mobility where our mouth is,” Bonin posted to Facebook on Wednesday morning.
Meanwhile, other cities throughout the country are looking to Santa Monica, and perhaps Los Angeles, to set a tone for regulating a disruptive technology that raises new questions about urban transportation planning and the use of public spaces designed primarily around automobile traffic.
In Denver, scooters arrived suddenly, just like in Santa Monica and Venice.
“They were dumped on us overnight,” Denver City Councilwoman Mary Beth Susman told The Argonaut, though quickly added: “People love them.”
The problem is that Colorado law classifies motorized scooters as toys — meaning they can only be ridden on sidewalks, to the great frustration of pedestrians.
“We don’t have nearly enough bike lanes to say they must be in bike lanes, so we’re going to have to come up with some sort of compromise or try to have the law changed,” said Susman, who is working with a council committee on how to regulate the scooters.
But with five e-scooters companies waiting in the wings — Lime, Bird, Razor, Lyft and Spin — the city could soon be inundated with them, like Abbot Kinney Boulevard or downtown Santa Monica.
Salt Lake City, meanwhile, has adopted a yearlong pilot program that allows Bird and Lime to operate pending new city regulations.
“We’re not looking it just electronic scooters; we’re looking at the whole dockless movement,” said Matthew Rojas, a spokesman for Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski. “What little that we’ve heard is that people want to try them and experience them.”
Lime initially launched its bike share program in Southern California, but quickly found scooters to be in much higher demand here.
“There’s also a lower barrier to entry for people who have never used shared mobility before,” explained Lord. Also: “Scooters are fun and allow riders to get to the office or a meeting without working up a sweat.”