Santa Monica’s new electric scooter rules allow innovation to flourish, and L.A. should follow its lead

Bird scooters occasionally roost in strange places — like this one spotted in a tree near Neilson Way and Hollister Avenue in April
Photo by Pam Martin

Judging by the sheer volume of complaints on social media and in this week’s letters to the editor, the following sentence may be offensive to many of our readers: We think the electric scooters taking over sidewalks from Santa Monica to Playa Vista are actually pretty cool.

We’ll grant you that Bird scooters arrived suddenly and in great number, almost like the plot of Alfred Hitchcock’s fabled avian film — a playful comparison that inspired Venice photo-
grapher David Zentz to document the invasion in an ingenious photo book (thebirdsthebook.com). And we concede that abandoned scooters impeding public walkways present a serious pedestrian safety hazard, though we suspect both inconsiderate riders and cantankerous Bird haters are to blame for scooters toppled in the right of away, tossed into bushes or even left hanging from trees.

But it’s precisely the ability to find or leave a scooter just about anywhere that makes this latest technological disruption a potentially valuable contribution to the urban landscape.

Instead of exacerbating traffic congestion, grab-and-go electric scooters can alleviate gridlock by replacing cars for short trips, generally a mile or less. If even just a few of the hundred-plus scooters routinely scattered along Abbot Kinney Boulevard by Venice-based Bird (and now also their San Mateo-based competitor Lime) replace a traffic-impeding Uber pickup or a lackadaisical tourist trolling for a parking spot, drivers get from Main Street to Venice Boulevard a little bit faster.

Electric scooters also promise to amplify taxpayer investment in public transportation by putting Expo Line stations and Big Blue Bus stops within much more convenient reach of homes and businesses. In city planning speak, they’re a “last-mile solution” that bridges the forget-walking-I’ll-just-take-the-car gap and makes taking the bus or the train a much more realistic option for people.

More public transportation use and smoother automobile traffic flow is good news for the planet. And not only are scooters less expensive to use than rideshare (Birds are $1 to unlock
and 15 cents per minute thereafter), they’re also a lot more fun.

This is all to say that Santa Monica city leaders — initially caught off-guard by Bird’s ask for forgiveness instead of permission launch strategy — showed restraint and foresight last week by enacting new regulations that balance the potential benefits of electric scooters with the very real nuisances and hazards they can and often do pose.

One big win for the Bird-bashing public is the establishment of a 24-hour complaint hotline to quickly address rogue scooters and persistent trouble spots, once the new regulations take effect this fall.

Operators must also develop systems to prevent improper parking in the first place — including incentivized pick-up and drop-off zones, but not so heavy handed as to destroy the scooters’ “last-mile” practicality. How this tension eventually plays out is the thing to watch.

There was talk of putting a numerical limit on the number of scooters that can operate in the city on any given day, but Santa Monica City Council members opted instead for a “dynamic cap” based on usage — limiting the deployment of scooters to no more than what riders will use an average of three times a day, according to real-time tracking information that operators must share with the city. In other words, more scooters when people want them and less when they don’t.

Not only is it encouraging for the public to finally wrestle data access from the iron grip of Big Tech, Santa Monica Mayor Ted Winterer points out that the city can utilize this data to better understand and design public policy around the actual transportation needs of residents and visitors alike.

Santa Monica has demonstrated how government can harness disruptive private sector innovation and put it to work for the public. Other cities, especially Los Angeles, should take note.

Don’t cage the Birds. Just make sure they’re flying in appropriate formation.

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