Santa Monica enacts new regulations for increasingly ubiquitous Bird and Lime scooters

By Gary Walker

Rows of freshly charged Bird and Lime scooters line Abbot Kinney Boulevard, but where riders will leave them is anybody’s guess
Photo by David Comden

In an attempt to balance the burgeoning popularity of grab-and-go electric scooters with widespread concern about public safety and obstruction of sidewalks, the Santa Monica City Council voted unanimously on Tuesday to regulate the number and distribution of shared mobility devices throughout the city and more quickly address complaints.

Electric scooters deployed throughout the Westside by Venice-based Bird and now San Mateo-based competitor Lime are locked and unlocked via a smart-phone app and thus can be picked up or dropped off anywhere, a convenience often abused by users who leave them blocking the public right of way.

After an intense four-hour discussion, council members adopted a 16-month city pilot program, beginning Sept. 17, that will require “dockless” electric scooter and bicycle operators to develop remedies for improper parking — including incentivized pick-up and drop-off zones — increase user safety education, establish a 24-hour public complaint hotline and distribute devices more equitably throughout the city.

They chose not to place a hard cap on the number of vehicles an operator can deploy, opting instead for a “dynamic cap” based on usage — three times a day for scooters and twice daily for bicycles, measured by realtime utilization data that operators must share with the city.

“This pilot approach will allow us to understand usage and operations in order to create a long-term program that establishes a safe, equitable and sustainable mobility option in Santa Monica,” said Santa Monica Mayor Ted Winterer.

Acknowledging the city’s long-standing support for alternative transportation innovations, Winterer also asked that operators survey riders about what modes of transportation they abandoned in favor of electric scooters or bikes.

“I think it might be nice to have that data, especially if we find out that people are giving up their cars for these scooters,” he said.

The new rules allow up to two electric scooter operators and two electric bicycle operators to deploy vehicles within city limits, but operators must pay an annual permit fee of $20,000 plus $130 per scooter or bicycle.

Mayor Pro Tem Gleam Davis noted that the scooters have become ubiquitous throughout Santa Monica so rapidly that it took city officials by surprise.

“I have never seen anything that has become so popular in such a short time. For us as lawmakers it’s about embracing the change and managing it in way that keeps everyone safe,” Davis said.

“Technology often moves faster than government … and we’re trying to adapt to new technology and see how we can regulate it.”

Bird landed in Santa Monica in September, and in February the company agreed to pay more than $300,000 in fines after the city brought criminal charges for failure to obtain a business license and vendor permit. News reports have since estimated the company’s value at more than $1 billion.

“Bird has not been perfect. There’s some real history here and we need to clean that up,” said Bird Chief Legal Officer David Estrada, who told the city that on any given day Bird now has more than 1,500 scooters operating in Santa Monica.

Estrada and Lime Director of Strategic Development Sam Sadle argued against a city staff recommendation for hard numeric electric scooter and bicycle caps, which the council ultimately traded for the “dynamic” usage-based caps.

“We think it’s best when the free market creates a competitive marketplace,” Sadle said.

More than 40 people spoke out against or in favor of electric scooters during the council meeting — supporters celebrating them as a fun and inexpensive alternative to car trips, opponents complaining of users riding illegally and often recklessly on city sidewalks.

“I’ve been almost hit twice by [people riding] these scooters,” said Santa Monica homeowner Joseph Moran. “What are you going to do about protecting the public right of way?”

Santa Monica-based personal injury attorney Catherine Lerer said her law firm has received between two and three dozen calls seeking help from pedestrians who have been injured by people riding Bird scooters. Because it is difficult to identify the riders, short of taking a photograph of the accident, Lerer said victims are often left without any recompense.

“We have people calling us who have been involved in hit-and-run accidents with Bird scooters. Who’s going to compensate these victims?” she asked.

Estrada told council members that Bird is willing to work with the city to improve safety by using geo-location technology to discourage users from riding on sidewalks.

Cris Gutierrez, a co-chair of the environmental group Climate Action, said regulating rather than curtailing electric scooters increases eco-friendly transport options for Santa Monica residents.

“We need a multi-modal mobility system to advance carbon neutrality and climate resiliency in order to confront our climate crisis with the sense of urgency this demands,” Gutierrez told council members.

Adam Cramer, who works as an independent contractor to collect, recharge and redeploy Bird scooters, praised them as both a transportation solution and economic opportunity.

“Santa Monica is home to a thriving group of hustlers who eat because of Bird, who have a roof over their heads because of Bird, who are reducing traffic congestion because of Bird, and quite literally survive because of Bird,” Cramer said.