Rules for Dockless Scooters and Bikes Inch Forward

New regulations for the fledgling dockless shared vehicle industry (including scooters, bikes and possible future additions such as mopeds) took a few baby steps closer to completion last week, as the City Council’s Public Works and Gang Reduction Committee approved a set of rules passed earlier this month by the Council’s Transportation Committee, with a few small revisions and additions.

In getting to those revisions, however, the meeting’s discussion also provided a rather fascinating look at how the city is trying hard to both understand and regulate a brand new and largely unknown industry, which itself is based on still-evolving technology.

In general, vehicle speed, city liability and enforcement of any eventual rules are the main concerns of city officals at this point in the discussion, and the City Council members who spoke at the meeting had very distinctive positions and comments on these and other issues.

For example, Council Member Paul Koretz (who is not a member of the committee, but addressed it as a speaker) has previously moved to ban shared devices such as scooters and bicycles until regulations are enacted.  And at last week’s meeting, he again cited safety concerns, saying he’s seen more than 1,000 dockless scooters ridden in his neighborhood, but only one rider wearing a helmet…while others routinely violate safety rules by riding on sidewalks, transporting additional riders, and/or allowing children to ride.

Koretz said that because people do not follow the rules, “the problem is there’s no way to do this safely and legally,” and the city needs to figure out enforcement measures before it passes any new laws.  If that can’t be done, Koretz said, we should just “pull the bandaid off and ban them” altogether.  Finally, Koretz said that if the city does pass new regulations without effective enforcement in place, it will have to do lots of publicity and public education, and then write thousands of tickets for moving violations to get people’s attention and convince them to follow the rules.

City Council Member David Ryu, who was a co-sponsor of the original motion to create a regulation scheme for dockless shared devices, staked out a slightly different position at the committee discussion.

“Whether you love or hate dockless bikes or scooters,” he said, “it’s here.”  And with that being the case, he said, it’s up to the city to figure out how to make the new industry work. “Will they be a scourge or solution?” Ryu asked. “I believe it will become a solution.”  And “this is an opportunity to show how this new industry could work.”

But even Ryu wasn’t as optimistic as fellow committee member Joe Buscaino, who said, “In my district, I couldn’t wait to study the disruption – send them to my district!” Buscaino said that he has had a few complaints about dockless shared scooters in his area, “but in general, this has been a win for the district, from Watts to the waterfront.”  “As a city,” he said, “we need to encourage innovation and not stifle it by overregulating.”

Across the board, however, all of the committee members had concerns about various parts of the proposed regulation plan, and offered comments and suggestions.

Ryu asked whether the currently proposed pilot program, which would be limited to companies that already have scooters and bikes on the streets (such as Bird and Lime), would give those companies an unfair advantage over others that waited patiently for regulations to be enacted.

Ryu and committee chair Bob Blumenfeld also asked about the city’s liability for inevitable crashes and injuries, especially if they involve potholes or other hazards from streets in poor condition.  Several members suggested using some of the fees generated by the new dockless vehicle business to fund liability claims and additional insurance.

There were also lengthy discussions of the optimal top speed for scooters, which was originally going to be set at 15 mph, but could be lowered to 12 mpg if a suggestion from the Transportation Committee is adopted.  During the discussion, Buscaino pointed out that the scooters need to be useful and comfortable for riders, so the committee recommended returning the initial speed cap to 15 mph, and reserving the Council’s right to change it after more ridership and safety data becomes available.  The Committee also asked the scooter companies and city officials to report back on technical options, either now or in the near future, as the technology matures, to establish a “geofence” around the city limits, to make sure no scooters operating inside the city limits can exceed the set speed limits.

Enforcement of the new rules was another big issue in last week’s discussion.  Currently, enforcement proposals would involve a rather vast web of city agencies and services, including 311, LADOT, the Bureau of Street Services, LAPD and others.  But committee member Nury Martinez was adamant that these schemes are still way too complicated, and even DoT officials said it could take up to 24 hours to respond to a complaint of illegally parked dockless vehicles, especially if the complaints come in at night, when city crews are not on duty.

Here, too, however, there was a proposal to let the vehicles’ software help out – by not closing out a “ride” unless the vehicle is left in an upright position. This which would incentivize riders to be at least a bit more attentive about that particular detail.

The committee hearing also included discussions of more general legal and infrastructure issues, including:

  • State laws prohibit the operation of motor vehicles on sidewalks, but scooters going 12-15 mph just don’t feel safe on street with traffic zipping by at 25 mph or more…so many people will inevitably ride on the sidewalks.  Can scooters be engineered so they automatically operate with different speed caps depending on whether they’re being ridden on a street or sidewalk?  (The answer was yes…maybe…but not just yet.)
  • The 2010 Mobility Element of the City’s General Plan called for construction of more protected bike lanes, which could make riding dockless scooters safer and more appealing…but little of that kind of new infrasturcture has been built, and the city has so far been concentrating on repairing failing streets.
  • Should corrals for dockless scooters and bikes be built in high-use areas, or “furniture zones” marked along city streets, before new dockless vehicle rules go into effect…or should the business be allowed to operate for a while first, so the city can better gauge where new features like this should be placed?

In the end, the Committee officially endorsed most of the regulatory scheme approved earlier in the month by the City Council’s Transportation Committee, but added or changed the following:

  • Open the CUP applications during the 120-day dockless vehicle trial period to all companies that would like to appy, with a 1500-vehicle cap per company during the trial period
  • Return to a mandatory 15 mph preset speed limit (from the 12 mpg recommended by the Transportation Committee), with the City Council reserving right to review data and revise the limits later, if necessary.
  • Ask LADOT about building out the city’s bike network for safer riding
  • Ask the City Attorney’s office to report back on legal libility issues for the city, including indemnity and the option of using scooter fees for a liability fund
  • Require the scooter companies, within a certain number of months, to have technology that would not end a ride unless the vehicle is left in an upright position.
  • Ask the Department of Transportation to report back on how operators can further  incentivize good behavior from their riders.
  • Create corrals in high-use areas and use geofencing technology to require riders to use the corrals.
  • Ask the vehicle companies to report back on technology progress to set variable speeds, depending on where vehicles are being used (street, sidewalk, etc.).

The proposed rules will now go to back to the full city council for further review and a possible vote.

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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.

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