If you’ve walked the streets of San Francisco, Los Angeles or San Diego lately, you’ve almost certainly seen electric scooters whizzing by. They are parked randomly on sidewalks, and are well… everywhere.
These dockless electric scooters are the work of three startups, Bird, Spin and LimeBike, and they are even popping up across the US in cities such as Washington D.C. and Austin. As a part of the on-demand economy, riders can rent these electric scooters via a phone app for $1 plus 15 cents per mile, ride them wherever they need to go, then just leave the scooters essentially anywhere for another rider to come along and scoop up.
Many riders are hailing the electric scooters as a convenient solution for last-mile type transit, a way to get from home or work to the train or metro, for example. With top speeds of around 15 mph, electric scooters are a fast and fun way to get around.
However, many others from pedestrians to municipalities are crying foul. Even though it is illegal for the scooters to be ridden on sidewalks in many places, that hasn’t stopped countless riders from breaking the rules and weaving through pedestrians at top speeds. It’s only a matter of time before someone gets hurt, many city officials fear. And despite policies by the electric scooter companies regarding where to properly park their scooters (Spin advises to only park in motorcycle parking spots or the furniture zone of sidewalks), many riders are simply leaving their scooters anywhere, obstructing sidewalks, handicap ramps, and building entrances.
The issue has largely arisen from the method that these electric scooter startups used to rollout their fleets. Much like the early days of Uber and Lyft, who began operating in cities where no laws existed to regulate such ridesharing companies, electric scooters were basically dumped on the streets and sidewalks of California overnight. Now, cities are playing catch up in an effort to regulate the force of riders and scooter companies already in place.
For its part, Bird has helped sponsor California State Assembly Bill 2989, which would make it legal to operate electric scooters on sidewalks in the city, increase the speed limit from 15 mph (25 km/h) to 20 mph (32 km/h), and remove the helmet requirement for adults. However, many feel that these regulations are too lax and don’t do enough to protect the public.
San Francisco Supervisor Andrew Peskin argued in a resolution opposing the bill that removing statewide regulation of electric scooters would place an undue burden on every local city and municipality to pass their own regulations protecting pedestrians on sidewalks.
Dockless electric scooters are undoubtedly an asset in moving more people towards sustainable, electric transportation. Every electric scooter trip that replaces a gas-burning taxi or ride share trip in the city is a step in the right direction. Furthermore, the convenience and comfort of dockless electric scooters and the ability to rent them for a few minutes or miles can help personal electric vehicles gain more widespread acceptance as legitimate transportation alternatives.
However, it is the responsibility of riders – not the electric scooter startups themselves, to practice proper etiquette and prevent this communal EV asset from turning into a tragedy of the commons. Despite sidewalks occasionally being more convenient routes and shortcuts, riders must follow local laws and stick to either streets or bicycle paths, both for their safety and the safety and peace of mind of pedestrians around them.
Parking is also an issue. In much of California, it technically isn’t even legal to park these scooters on sidewalks, a consequence of Bird, Spin and Lime’s “deploy first and ask questions later” philosophy. So in the meantime, riders must make an effort to leave their scooters out of the public’s way and prevent them from becoming obstacles and tripping hazards. Eventually, dockless electric scooters have the potential to develop into either a convenient asset or a public nuisance. It is the riders that will ultimately decide that outcome.
Lastly, these scooters are certainly cheaper than hailing an Uber or Lyft, but if you find yourself using them often, the cost can begin to add up. At around $2-$2.50 per trip, those who use the scooters a few times a day, especially for commuting, might be better off just buying their own scooter to ensure they always have one at their disposal.
Bird and Spin both use the popular Xiaomi M365 scooter, available on Amazon in the US and AliExpress worldwide. It’s not as convenient as being able to leave your scooter on the curb and forget about it, but it does beat searching for blocks to find an available scooter, and they do fold to fit conveniently under your desk or in the corner of your office.