The formula is familiar: A disruptive tech product creates a brand-new market overnight, antagonizing or evading regulation long enough to assert cultural and economic dominance. Not surprisingly, the furtive, ambitious rise of the e-scooter in Greater Los Angeles is laced with at least as much controversy as excitement.
Foreboding criticism about everything from safety and liability to laziness and cultural encroachment from our tech overlords jars proponents who hail it as a missing, democratic link in a fragmented transportation network. The battery-powered devices require only a credit card and a smartphone to activate (typically $1 plus 15 cents per minute), and you can both pick up and leave them literally anywhere — which, critics note, has led to cluttered streets and sidewalks.
Regulation is balkanized and, absent a coherent and practiced regulatory framework, safety concerns are warranted. You couldn’t tell from looking that, as currently classified under state code, there are age limits (kids love them), helmets are required (the vast majority of users don’t wear one) and sidewalk riding is prohibited; in fact, most users seem to only ride on sidewalks — which, in many areas, is arguably the safest place, and where 15 to 20 mph is faster than it sounds, especially for pedestrians in the way.
Culver City and Santa Monica (where it all started) have approved pilot programs, while West Hollywood voted last week 4-to-1 to ban the devices — a decision that, local media noted, pitted young supporters against older councilmembers. Meanwhile, in L.A., regulation is nonexistent.
“They just showed up. The only rules are the ones proposed and working their way through City Council,” said Oliver Hou, a transportation engineering associate with L.A. Department of Transportation, of the slim devices that seem to multiply like gremlins, and have been making stealthy, eastward gains.
“This is completely new. They just showed up, are unregulated — and also, compared to other transportation rolled out, there really was very little warning. It’s not something we want to not have in the city, but want to have it put out in a safe manner, so that all our streets remain accessible,” Hou said.
Under proposed rules that may or may not be decided this summer, fleets would be capped at 3,000 per company, with expansion based on performance and the ability to expand to 5,500 if the remainder are in disadvantaged areas. But thereafter, Hou acknowledges, there is no cap on expansion; it would be incremental and at the discretion of the DOT.
“It’s not to say we want to restrict them. We actually see them as a really good compliment to the rest of our transportation network,” Hou said.
The guerrilla tactics are working. Among companies offering dockless e-scooters, Bird, helmed by a former Uber and Lyft exec, is valued at a gobsmacking $2 billion after recent funding rounds. Meanwhile, in signs of a coming war, Uber, Google and others invested $335 million in Bird competitor Lime (now valued at $1.1 billion).
But Juan Matute, associate director of UCLA’s Lewis Center and Institute of Transportation Studies, said other comparisons to Uber and Lyft are misplaced.
“Those are state-regulated. There is a lot of diversity in how cities are handling scooters … and no existing statewide regulation that could exert jurisdiction. There is always inertia when it comes to changing legislation, and in addition the political opposition,” he said, referencing a state bill, sponsored by Bird, recently stripped and amended to include only a single change: removal of the requirement that adult riders wear helmets.
“I could see some statewide standardization of operation rules, which exists, perhaps some reinforcement. … But with time more cities will be more mature in their experience with handling these,” Matute said. Moreover, he added, cities’ own interests will make them less willing to cede control to the state.
Currently, e-scooters are classified under state code that allows anyone 16 and older with a driver’s license to ride, at a speed no faster than 15 mph, in a bike or car lane. Helmets are required. But none of that seems to ever be enforced.
Bird offered a statement touting environmental stewardship, equality and safety — and reiterated that it has provided 35,000 free helmets to users nationwide.
“Los Angeles is notorious for having some of the worst traffic and carbon emissions problems in the world. This is why we are so excited to see Angelenos embracing Bird as a means of getting out of the car, riding low-speed electric scooters and reducing carbon emissions,” Bird said.
Pointing to L.A.’s “limited and often disparate” public transportation options, the company touts its product as a last-mile alternative to short car trips. Bird has a point: For many people marginalized by a patchy and expansive grid, a 15-minute ride for $3.25 is a fraction of a traditional ride-share, and way more convenient than a bus.
But while distribution to disadvantaged areas is a priority in L.A.’s proposed rules, conditions on the ground may be at odds with uniform implementation. Many cities don’t have the resources or will to prioritize fancy bike paths and pedestrian-oriented development.
Matute noted Santa Monica’s “significant investment and considerable accommodation for pedestrians and paths and bikes,” while L.A. has made some concessions but still “has a lot of gaps in their network and less implementation” — which may be less accommodating to scooters.
“Generally we want to have them in areas where there’s already built-up infrastructure. At the same time, we see the need to have some geographic equity in terms of rollout of these devices,” Hou said, noting a requirement to track them in real time, to ensure they’re not concentrated in certain areas.
Love or hate them, expect e-scooters to be a lasting fixture — at least until or unless something else eclipses their tidy combination of function, accessibility and affordability.
“They’re clearly extremely useful for mobility, not just for joy riding. People are engaging in recreation and it’s novel,” Matute said. “They’re taking (a scooter) to get groceries, to and from work. So they’re filling a niche in mobility needs and likely here to stay save some sort of disruption by another device that fills need of a cheap unit, low operating cost, electric, compact, ubiquitous, easy to access, low transaction cost” — a package with which autonomous vehicles are unlikely to compete.
While acknowledging genuine safety hazards, Matute chalks those up to novelty and lack of experience.
“The safety hazards are comparable to those for automobile use; we’ve had over 100 years to figure out a lot of things. … But [scooters are] lower speed, very easy to control, easy to be aware of your surroundings. Riders are a danger to pedestrians and to themselves but not to other vehicles, not as much to cyclists.”
The first time I saw them, a cluster appeared as a dark spot in my peripheral vision, driving somewhere west of La Brea. Then a pair; a lone soldier parked at an odd angle outside a restaurant, or next to a bench. There was something alien and jarring, an unfamiliar object suddenly multiplied, like a robot invasion.
Curious about their eastward proliferation, a friend and I recently grabbed a pair, rode for a half-hour down Beverly Boulevard, and landed at El Coyote. I’d read the alarmist articles cataloguing their dangers — concussions, broken bones, car crashes — so I stopped at every intersection and alley, walking mine across. Then I hit the gas and flew. My companion whizzed by, yelling back to use the brake and stop jumping off while it was still moving. What? Ah yes, the brake. By the time I got the hang of that, my brain and body had long been on diverse trajectories, which, along with the hard starts and stops, is evidently a trigger for motion sickness. Soon I was swooning in the heat, brittle with nausea. Enchiladas verdes, please. As soon as I uttered those words I was out the door, desperate for air. A walk ended with me puking at the foot of a stately palm, just before dusk. Stone-cold sober. (In case you wonder, that’s as inglorious as it sounds.) No matter I’ve survived turbulent waters from the Caribbean to the Red Sea with never so much as a Dramamine. Leave it to a fucking e-scooter.
A man in a white terry bathrobe, socks, sandals and oversized visor sunglasses unlocked the scooter I’d abandoned. “You use these a lot?” I asked. “All day, everyday,” he said, and zipped away, clean and breezy, toward the West.