A Field Guide to the Bird Scooter Issue

If you’ve been out and about in the last couple of months, you’ve probably noticed stray, unattended electric scooters standing or lying around randomly on our neighborhood business and residential streets.  By now, most people know that the scooters in Los Angeles belong to one of two companies, Bird or Lime, and are more technically known as “dockless shared devices” or “dockless on-demand personal mobility services.”

They’re also the latest manifestation of our increasingly “app-ified” world – if you download the Bird or Lime app on a smart-phone, and enter a credit card number, you can grab and activate any scooter that’s convenient, ride it around, leave it where you like when you’re done, and the company will eventually come by and collect, charge and relocate it (if another rider doesn’t grab it first).

But while some people think the scooters are all kinds of wonderful, others think they’re nothing more than dangerous sidewalk litter and would like to kill all the Birds as soon as possible.  And city governments all over the country are now playing catch-up to figure out just how to regulate the devices, and whether or not they can actually play a valuable role in urban transit.

Here’s a quick guide to the issues:

What’s Good About the Birds

Like bicycles, small electric scooters are terrific for short-distance individual transportation – especially the few blocks from home to a local destination or major transit stop, or from such a stop home.  And if you don’t have much to carry, they’re even simpler to navigate than a bike…and much easier to park.  Especially if the device doesn’t belong to you, and the company you rent it from allows you to just leave it when you’re done, without any special locks or docks.

But that’s just the personal convenience.  An even bigger issue – and potential benefit for cities – is that devices such as electric scooters may be an extremely helpful solution to the infamous “first-mile/last-mile” problem when it comes to public transportation. (In short, people don’t tend to use public transportation if it’s located more than a block or two from their homes and destinations, especially if no car parking is provided at the transit stations, as is the case with most of Los Angeles’ new subway stations, including the Purple Line Extension.)

If people could grab a small electric device within a block of their front door, hop on for a quick, non-sweaty ride to public transit, and just leave the device safely at the transit stop (then repeat the process at the other end – picking up a scooter at the transit stop and leaving it at their final destination), a lot more of them might be a lot more likely to consider public transit for their daily commutes.  And that could provide a huge boost to ridership, as well as reductions in car traffic, congestion and pollution.

Also, even if people don’t use them to access longer journeys on public transit, they may even more often use them for local jaunts and errands of shorter distances, anywhere from a couple of blocks to a mile or so, for which they might have previously used a car…which also cuts down local car travel and traffic.

And, finally, of course, many people also find the scooters quite fun to ride, which may encourage people to use them more frequently.

What’s Bad About the Birds

While the potential benefits of the scooters are considerable, however, so is the potential downside…especially in the current “wild-west” phase of their deployment, as the devices appear to be multiplying exponentially while cities are still trying to figure out how to regulate them.  Issues include safety for both riders and pedestrians, sidewalk clutter, speeds, insurance, the age of riders, and more.

The Bird website cautions riders to always ride in bike lanes (officially, while bicycles are allowed on sidewalks in Los Angeles, electric vehicles – including scooters – are not), and to always obey helmet laws.  Also, riders are officially limited to ages 18 and older, who have a valid drivers’ license. (Lime requires only a valid license, which would include ages 16 and up.)  Riders are also cautioned to park their scooters off of public sidewalks and pedestrian areas, so others won’t have to stumble over or step around them.

But if casual observation is any guide, many riders do ride on sidewalks (the scooters can go up to 15 mph, about the same as a bicycle), almost none wear helmets, many riders are younger than 18, and many riders also leave their scooters on sidewalks, in doorways, and in other inconvenient and less-than-safe areas after they’re done with them, creating hazards for any pedestrian, but especially those with visual or mobility impairments.  (This writer has even seen one Bird rider, during peak late-afternoon traffic on Wilshire Blvd., riding in the traffic lane in shorts and flip-flops, with no helmet, and steering with one hand while reading something on her phone with the other – not exactly a commercial for responsible ridership…and, sadly, all too common.)

What Other Cities Are Doing

To keep the Birds from becoming a completely Hitchcockian experience for city dwellers and managers, cities where Birds and Limes are now proliferating are now scrambling to figure out whether to outlaw or regulate the scooters, and – if they choose regulation – what the best practices might be.

While some cities – such as West Hollywood – have banned dockless shared scooters entirely, others, such as Santa Monica, have adopted local rules and regulations for both riders and the scooter companies themselves, so they share the burden of responsible operation.

Santa Monica’s rules for the scooter companies include:

  • Applying for a city permit, and paying an annual fee of $20,000 and a per-device fee of $130.
  • Maintaining interactive safety information for riders, which could include sending messages to riders’ phones if/when they’re riding unsafely.
  • Sharing real-time data with the city, to show how/where the scooters are distributed, and to help ensure they’re distributed evenly throughout the city instead of piling up at just a few popular locations.
  • Establishing a 24-hour hotline for complaints.
  • Making sure that improperly parked scooters are promptly moved.
  • A “dynamic” cap on the total number of scooters allowed, depending on how much currently deployed scooters are being used.  (If each scooter is used more than three times a day, more will be allowed…but if ridership is lower, the number allowed could be reduced.)

Santa Monica’s rules for riders are also very clear:

  • Wear a helmet.
  • Have a valid driver’s license.
  • Ride on streets only (no sidewalks or beach bike paths).
  • No tandem riding.
  • Leave devices out of the public right of way.
  • Obey all traffic laws.

Finally, Santa Monica’s police department is getting serious about issuing tickets for violations, and about confiscating illegally located scooters.

Also, some other cities, such as San Francisco, are starting to study injuries from electric scooters…and some people are starting to ask about insurance for scooters and their riders, which could lead to additional regulations as the business matures.

What Los Angeles is Doing

As with many such things, Los Angeles hasn’t been quite as fast out of the gate as some smaller cities to pass new regulations for dockless scooters, but the City Council is working on the issue.

According to CD4 Communications Deputy, Mark Pampanin, City Council Member David Ryu “was actually one of the first to endorse dockless vehicles (bikes & scooters), back in October, when he introduced the legislation to bring dockless regulation to the City of Los Angeles.”

A Department of Transportation proposal to regulate dockless vehicles, resulting from Ryu’s motion, was presented to the Council in June, and it included rules for test area restrictions, vehicle fleet caps, community engagement provisions, a recommendation on the “lock to device” issue (whether scooters should always be locked to something else, to keep them from being left loose on sidewalks) and an enforcement plan.

Specific requirements in the proposal included “dynamic fleet monitoring,” as in Santa Monica, with a minimum fleet size of 500 scooters, and a maximum of 2,500, per company.  Bike and scooter companies could add up to 2,500 additional vehicles if the additional vehicles are located in “disadvantaged communities.”  Companies would also have to receive written approval from each Council District they operate in, pay annual permit fees of either $20,000 or $500 (depending on which of two proposals is selected), and pay individual vehicle fees of either $130 or $50 per year (the $130 fee could be discounted to $39 for vehicles in disadvantaged areas).

The city would not require that unused vehicles be locked to a stationary object to help prevent improper parking, but would reserve the right to require that kind of rule if parking becomes a problem in the future.

The proposed pilot program would be in effect for 12 months, after which it could be renewed yearly, with requirements adjusted as necessary.

Also under the proposal, the city would also require dockless vehicle companies to have both liability and property damage insurance, register for city taxes, and have visible identification on all vehicles.  They would also have to maintain a 24-hour hotline and remove improperly parked and/or inoperable vehicles within two hours between the hours of 7 a.m. and 10 p.m.  Bikes and scooters would be required to be parked only in an upright position, on “the landscape/furniture zone of the sidewalk, preferably to a bicycle rack or in another area specifically designated for bicycle parking,” and companies would be required to inform customers on correct parking procedures.

The proposed rules were approved by the City Council’s Transportation Committee on July 31, and forwarded to the Public Works and Gang Reduction Committee for further review.

But while the process is proceeding, it’s not doing so fast enough to please some Council members.  Also on July 31, City Council Member Paul Koretz introduced a new motion that would ban dockless shared scooters entirely until the new regulations have been adopted.  The motion read, in part:

“Although the City has not yet adopted a regulatory framework for new electric scooters, several dockless scooter-share companies have launched operations in the City without permission. This has led to the devices being placed in the public right-of-way, operating on sidewalks, and causing public safety concerns for riders and pedestrians. The City has issued cease-and-desist letters, however, electric scooters can still be found throughout the City. The City should take all available measures to ban these devices until the companies can obtain the necessary permits to operate.

I THEREFORE MOVE that the Council instruct the Department of Transportation to reissue cease-and-desist letters to any electric scooter company that is found operating in the City and require the companies to remove them until they receive the necessary permits to operate.

I FURTHER MOVE that the Council direct the Los Angeles Police Department to issue violations of the California Vehicle Code and any applicable local ordinance to individuals riding the scooters and instruct the Bureaus of Sanitation and Street Services to remove and impound any vehicles found in the City’ and fine each rental company for the removal of each scooter.”

But according to Pampanin, Council Member Ryu’s “position is that, rather than argue over bans, we should focus on getting the regulation passed so we can allow residents to enjoy a popular mobility option while ensuring safety and allowing for enforcement.”

And he expects that to happen soon. “We hope to see these regulations passed and enacted by the end of the month,” Pampanin told the Buzz on Friday.  He also provided a statement from Ryu himself:

“As was the case when I introduced the motion to develop dockless vehicle regulation back in October, we need to embrace innovative solutions to get Los Angeles moving,” Councilmember Ryu said. “We don’t need a ban. I don’t think it’s helpful to debate a ban when we could just approve the regulations which passed the Transportation Committee in June, and solve these issues without denying the City a valuable mobility option.”

“Dockless bikes & scooters are popular, and one of the most effective tools in solving first-mile, last-mile issues we have seen in years. Are there bad actors and distracted scooter drivers? Sure. But a few bad operators shouldn’t mean everyone is banned from enjoying this mobility resource. The issues we’re seeing with dockless scooters across the Westside is all the more reason to get these regulations approved and enacted.”

So for now…the Birds are still flying, but it looks like we’ll see their wings clipped (or at least trimmed a bit) very soon.

About Elizabeth Fuller

Elizabeth Fuller was born and raised in Minneapolis, MN but has lived in LA since 1991 - first in the Sycamore Square neighborhood, and since 2012 in West Adams Heights/Sugar Hill. She was long-time board member of the Sycamore Square Neighborhood Association, currently serves on the board of the West Adams Heights/Sugar Hill Neighborhood Association, spent 10 years with the Greater Wilshire Neighborhood Council, volunteers at Wilshire Crest Elementary School, and is the co-owner/publisher of the Buzz.

2 thoughts on “A Field Guide to the Bird Scooter Issue

  1. Hi Liz,

    Nice article. I personally am very much against the electric scooters, they are an eyesore left all over the place and a major safety problem, for pedestrian, car drivers, and scooter riders. While I think the first mile/last mile is a problem, I do not think that most scooters riders are riding these to and from mass transportation, I think they are just riding for fun, or to go from one place to another. I’ve seen most scooter riders riding recklessly, on the sidewalk, in and out of traffic, not stopping at stop signs, making all sorts of illegal turns at intersections on any sides of the street. I have yet to see any riders wearing a helmet, many are in flip flops and have no protective gear, many ride one handed while checking texts or doing other stuff on their mobile devices, many riders are under age 18 or even 16, and many riders ride tandem–two to a scooter. The average ages of riders I have seen are 13-30 or so, with primarily all caucasian riders and no minorities. The scooters still cost about $9 per hour and require a credit card/app account. I just don’t think these 13-30 year old caucasian folks are the ones using mass transportation.

    All the best,
    Bennett

  2. How do any of those things affect your life? They primarily seem like personal safety issues for those individuals. Just install some designated bike+scooter corrals every couple of blocks and ticket those who don’t park these devices there. How many drivers drive while looking at their phones, not stopping at stop signs, not using their signals, while in control of a much more deadly multi-ton vehicle? Hint: as a daily pedestrian, I can tell you, a LOT.
    Additionally, “eyesore” is a ludicrous complaint that is entirely opinion-based. I think a lot of people’s choice of decor, use of water-sucking lawns, and disgusting McMansions are eyesores, but I accept that as part of the cost of living in a dense city. I don’t ride the scooters myself, but you anti-scooter folks need to calm down and reevaluate your priorities. Consider yourself lucky that this is the biggest problem in your life right now and go drive your expensive car to a hot yoga session or something to calm yourself down.

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