#ScootersBehavingBadly: U.S. Cities Race To Keep Up With Small Vehicle Shares

Apr 23, 2018

From San Francisco to Washington, D.C., e-scooters and dockless bikes have become the latest transportation trend to grip urban spaces — and local governments are struggling to keep up.

The concept is simple: Riders download an app, find and unlock a scooter or bike, and leave it when they're done. Many cost as little as $1, and fans of the services tout them as faster, easier, and greener ways to get where they're going.

But some residents are angry about what they call bad behavior: riders weaving in and out of traffic without helmets; speeding down sidewalks and blocking the way for pedestrians and those with disabilities; and discarding bikes and scooters in inconvenient places. It's even inspired a hashtag: #ScootersBehavingBadly.

Cities have clashed with the rental companies on ways to approach regulation. San Francisco and Santa Monica both have issued cease-and-desist orders to a handful of firms until they can come up with solutions. In Austin, Texas, the company LimeBike deployed 200 scooters before it finished negotiating an agreement with the city.

Patrick Sisson, a reporter with the website Curbed, says local governments largely have been unprepared to regulate the new transportation technologies, and are having to play catch-up on creating new rules.

"It sort of follows the same blueprint we saw with Uber and Lyft, where tech companies are looking to provide transportation mobility solutions," Sisson says. "But they're asking for forgiveness after the fact instead of permission before the fact."


Interview Highlights

On #ScootersBehavingBadly in California

It's what some have called "Scooter-geddon." In San Francisco especially, people have been complaining quite a bit about these scooters — that they're blocking the right of way. San Francisco has issued a lot of declarations and passed laws that are looking for permitting of the scooters. They're actually even asking scooter riders to take photos of where they park their scooters to make sure the not blocking the right of way. In Santa Monica, the company Bird settled for $300,000 with the city after being fined for safety violations and blocking the right of way....

This is also spreading to cities like Washington, D.C., and Austin where people are having the same complaints.

On how e-scooters and dockless bikes provide solutions to other transportation issues

The tech companies — they're on to something. I mean, there's a great desire for people to have car-free, last-mile transportation solutions [instead of walking from the train or bus]. I remember speaking to someone in Santa Monica city government that says, "You know, we really like the idea of having these around — it's just there's existing transportation infrastructure, there's safety issues. We just gotta make sure it's properly regulated."

On cities' solutions to issues created by new forms of transportation

Seattle's been trialing a dockless bike parking space that maybe is showing what could be done in scooters and other situations. You're also seeing in San Francisco that Lyft is trialing a dropoff and pickup system, where they would designate certain parts of a neighborhood for dropping off and picking up riders. There's a lot going on, and I think we're still sort of an early days in terms of how this regulation is going to work.

Alyssa Edes and Jolie Myers produced and edited the audio story.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

It's springtime in Washington, D.C. And around NPR's headquarters, there is more popping up than just flowers. All over the sidewalks there are shared bicycles, scooters, electric bikes. Lots of little companies are popping up to do this kind of transportation in major cities in the U.S., and bigger companies are buying some of these smaller companies.

In a moment, we're going to talk with a reporter for Curbed about what's going on. First we're going to try out some of these little vehicles. Our first stop is a scooter company called Bird. And there's one not far from here. We're going to head that way.

(SOUNDBITE OF ESQUIVEL'S "CIELITO LINDO")

SHAPIRO: OK, scooter's here. It's black. It says Bird. We're going to use the app to unlock it.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEEPING)

SHAPIRO: I'm going to take this one for a ride around the block and try not to kill myself.

What makes it go?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: How'd it go?

SHAPIRO: I did not fall. I did get some strange looks. I did not feel like I was going to die. It was a nice little ride around the block.

Next up, Capital Bikeshare. This is a program that's been in Washington for a few years and lots of other cities, too. The bikes all go into docking stations, so there isn't the same problem with sidewalk clutter.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEEPING)

SHAPIRO: It's a beautiful day for a bike ride.

(SOUNDBITE OF ESQUIVEL'S "PRIMAVERA")

SHAPIRO: OK, our last ride of this little tour is an electric scooter company called LimeBike.

We are in a rundown housing complex. I can't find the Lime scooter. The app says there's a Lime scooter right here, but it is nowhere to be seen. So I guess this is one of the kinks to be worked out in this new technology. We're going to head back to the studio and talk with Patrick Sisson, a journalist who's been writing about this for the website Curbed.

(SOUNDBITE OF ESQUIVEL'S "TICO TICO")

SHAPIRO: Hi, Patrick.

PATRICK SISSON: Hey, Ari.

SHAPIRO: We just heard a little bit of what it's like here in Washington, D.C. You're in California. There has been a lot of drama in San Francisco and Santa Monica. Tell us what's going on there.

SISSON: Yeah. It's what some have called scootergeddon (ph). In San Francisco especially, people have been complaining quite a bit about these scooters, that they're blocking the right of way. San Francisco has issued a lot of declarations and passed laws that are looking for permitting of the scooters. They're actually even asking scooter riders to take photos of where they park their scooters to make sure they're not blocking the right of way. In Santa Monica, the company Bird settled for $300,000 with the city after being fined for safety violations and blocking the right of way.

SHAPIRO: People are clearly annoyed. There's a lot of #ScootersBehavingBadly on Twitter.

SISSON: Yeah, exactly. And this is also spreading to cities like Washington, D.C., and Austin where people are having the same complaints.

SHAPIRO: Well, speaking of Austin, in Austin, LimeBike deployed 200 scooters before the company had reached an agreement about rules with the city. And so I'm wondering whether local governments are ready to deal with these new technologies or if they're just playing catch-up in one city after another.

SISSON: Well, in a lot of ways they are. And it sort of follows the same blueprint we saw with Uber and Lyft where tech companies are looking to provide transportation and mobility solutions, but they're asking for forgiveness after the fact instead of permission before the fact.

SHAPIRO: So while you've got the inconvenience, the awkwardness, the frustration with local cities, is there also a problem that's being solved here? If somebody takes the train into work or takes the bus, that last mile-first mile problem of getting to where you're going from the public transportation hub sounds like a good use for these things.

SISSON: Yeah. I mean, to be totally fair to the tech companies, they're on to something. I mean, there's a great desire for people to have car-free last mile transportation solutions. I remember speaking to someone in Santa Monica city government that says, you know, we really like the idea of having these around. It's just there's existing transportation infrastructure. There's safety issues. We've just got to make sure it's properly regulated and operating the way it should be.

SHAPIRO: We're talking so much about scooters. D.C. is also cluttered with dockless bikes. There are several different brands out there. Are dockless bikes part of this equation, or are they already being eclipsed by scooters?

SISSON: I think they're all part of the same equation. It's just a matter of urban mobility solutions, trying to get people around the city without cars and sort of solving that last mile problem.

SHAPIRO: Are there any cities that are coming up with really creative solutions to these problems you're talking about?

SISSON: There's a couple trials going on that I think are kind of interesting. Seattle's been trialing a sort of dockless bike parking space that maybe is showing what could be done in scooters and other situations. You're also seeing in San Francisco that Lyft is trialing a drop-off and pickup system where they would designate certain parts of the neighborhood for dropping off and picking up riders. There's a lot going on. And just, you know, I think we're still sort of in early days in terms of how this regulation is going to work.

SHAPIRO: Patrick Sisson is a senior reporter for the website Curbed covering cities, transportation and architecture. Thanks so much.

SISSON: Thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.