Move Fast and Break Laws: The Scooter Wars Coming to a City Near You

A scooter war is underway.

A handful of companies have been invading cities like Los Angeles, Denver, Nashville, and Indianapolis with technology that could either revolutionize urban transportation or quickly run out of power. The vehicle in question is a scooter, similar to the ones every child lobbied their parents to buy in 2001. But these scooters have motors, travel 15 miles per hour, and are connected to a smartphone app for easy rental.

For relatively new California startups Bird Rides and LimeBike, the electric scooter presents a new opportunity in the sharing economy. Sharp-looking smartphone apps guide users to the nearest dockless scooters — conveniently parked on every sidewalk in town — and after a base price of one dollar, the ride is 15 cents per minute. Riders just drop the scooter wherever they want at the end of their ride.

The only problem is they might not be legal.

In May, the Nashville Department of Public Works started confiscating scooters parked in the “public right-of-way,” particularly on sidewalks. Similar local backlash has occurred in Denver and San Francisco. Since the scooter companies have operated under the “ask-for-forgiveness-not-permission” philosophy that characterized the introduction of Uber and AirBnb, virtually every city in which they now exist has scrambled to introduce regulations for the new industry.

Theoretically, Bird riders are to wear helmets, use bike lanes (when possible), and park scooters next to bike racks out of the way of pedestrians. In reality, countless stories circulate about helmetless and underage riders zooming around on city sidewalks. Dallas, Texas experienced its own dockless crisis in the quick rollout of a massive bikeshare program that led to endless complaints and a neighborhood banning the bikes. The big question is whether or not the eventual outcomes, less cars and more mobility, are worth this initial chaos.

The new electric scooter industry markets itself as attempting to solve the “last mile” problem of public transportation. This refers to the inability of most transit systems to deliver people to a final destination. Professor Ahmed Elgeneidy, who teaches urban planning at McGill University, says the scooters could increase the catchment area for public transportation, but there are still problems to be solved. He says, “A major issue I’m seeing is that they are thrown into a region without planning. The capital cost is low, so once they make their money, a lot is thrown away, like the heaps of bicycles from bike shares in China.”

The CEO of Bird Rides, Inc., Travis VanderZanden, released a public statement pledging specifically to avoid this problem by implementing “daily pickup, responsible growth, and revenue sharing.”

VanderZanden has also promised one dollar per scooter per day to local governments “to build more bike lanes, promote safe riding, and maintain our shared infrastructure,” and he challenged rival companies to make the same promise. The move came off to many as an evasion from regulation, particularly after the company faced a criminal complaint and a $300,000 settlement in Santa Monica.

Elgeneidy points out that Uber willingly violated local laws in many cities at its onset, and Bird appears to be acting outside of many city requests to suspend operations. “Governments should be proactive,” Elgeneidy says, “anything that can get people out of cars is good, but it should be implemented in a way that aligns with public interest.”

While technological innovation can solve modern problems, a common criticism of tech startups is that they tend to solve the problems of their own demographic: wealthy, able-bodied twentysomethings. In The Washington Post, Ronald Klain decries the privatization of public transportation: “Who decided that our urban transportation grid needed scores of buzzing scooters and free-range bikes, instead of (for example) newer and cleaner buses or better-functioning subways? Who weighed the respective claims of youth-friendly scooter-filled sidewalks against the desires of senior citizens or the disabled for more accommodating passage in our public spaces?”

The answer: a savvy group of techies has made those big decisions, and unless municipalities charge themselves with finding a better way, they could be making more.