SANTA MONICA, Calif. — Black, electric-powered scooters suddenly began appearing on the downtown streets, suburban sidewalks and beachside a few months ago in this urban coastal city.
The dockless shared scooters took Santa Monica by surprise, including the mayor, who says he received a LinkedIn message from Bird chief executive Travis VanderZanden, offering to introduce him to the company’s “exciting new mobility strategy for Santa Monica” — after they landed in town.
“If you’re talking about those scooters that are out there already, there are some legal issues we have to discuss,” Santa Monica Mayor Ted Winterer said he told VanderZanden.
And to reinforce the point, the city filed a criminal complaint of nine counts centered on Bird’s failure to obtain a vendor permit, something the company maintains is applicable to food vendors, not dockless shared electric scooters.
The criminal case by a cornerstone city of “Silicon Beach” against an electric scooter company illustrates the continuing challenges, years after the onset of now-massive shared economy companies such as Uber and Airbnb, that arise when integrating new technologies, even when those technologies help solve stubborn civic problems such as traffic congestion.
At the root of the battle between Bird and the city of Santa Monica is an issue that has increasingly confronted municipal governments facing new tech and business models — a lack of directly applicable existing regulation and precedents.
“These scooters literally just began showing up on our streets last fall,” said Anuj Gupta, Santa Monica’s deputy city manager and director of policy. “The challenge is that they decided to launch first and figure it out later.”
A Bird representative says the company did reach out to the city before putting its scooters on the streets, but the company notes that Santa Monica has at least five city departments that could be involved in regulating its business.
Expected or not, the scooters have been a hit. More than 40,000 people have taken a ride since the company began operating in September. Users download an app and pay $1 plus 15 cents a minute to ride them.
In addition to the permit dispute, the city has raised concerns about safety. California law requires riders of motorized scooters to be at least 16 years old, to be licensed drivers, to wear helmets and to not ride on sidewalks.
The Santa Monica Police Department has made 281 traffic stops and issued 97 citations involving Bird scooters between Jan. 1 and Tuesday, and the Santa Monica Fire Department has responded to eight such accidents. Minors and adults have been injured, including with a head trauma incident and an arm fracture, authorities say.
Bird has taken a number of steps to encourage and educate its riders to follow the law, including a free helmet program and stickers on the floorboards of the scooters that list safety regulations. During the first weekend of a helmet giveaway in January, 1,800 riders requested a helmet, according to the company. A company spokesman said Bird plans to begin running advertisements that feature safety information.
The company also shuts down its network at 8 p.m., picks up the scooters and takes them to a nearby facility, where they are recharged.
“The fact that they launched first and now are doing this process makes it more difficult to change the behavior of folks,” Gupta said. “People have been riders on these scooters for months without helmets, with young people on them, so there’s a sense of this is how they’re meant to be ridden.”
The challenges cities experience when integrating and regulating new technologies probably will continue to increase in complexity, experts say. Airbnb’s head of global policy and public affairs, Chris Lehane, said this is just the beginning.
“Compared to the issues that are coming behind us, this is like a lemonade stand,” said Lehane, whose company connects renters with available private properties. “If you have a difficult time figuring out how to deal with scooters, what are you going to do when cryptocurrency is around the corner?”
Gupta said that the existing regulatory framework wasn’t built for the new scooters but also that the city understands that there will be similar issues in the future.
“We recognize that Bird is just the tip of the iceberg,” Gupta said.
In many cities, officials are impeded not just by regulatory tools that might not yet exist, but also by siloed departments.
“We had regulations and operational activities that didn’t look at a system,” said Stephen Goldsmith, a Harvard University professor and former deputy mayor of New York, talking about his efforts to integrate ride-hailing companies in New York. “No one was thinking about mobility; everybody was thinking about how you regulate a particular slice of it.”
On Super Bowl Sunday in downtown Santa Monica, Bird scooters were very much a part of the landscape, propped up against fences and walls as well as on their own kickstands on the sidewalk. Passersby curiously eyed them, and some approached to learn more.
“The scooters are something wonderful, and I’m really excited about it,” said Lorenzo Tejada, 28. “I don’t have to wait for a schedule or a bus; I can just hop on it, and let’s go.”
On the Third Street Promenade, Tyler Catudioc, 20, a student at UCLA in nearby Westwood, was renting a scooter.
“I thought it was kind of weird, but then I saw someone come and just take it, and I was really confused at why they could just go and take this and how it worked,” she said. “They’re all around Westwood, and you can just basically walk out of your apartment and ride one to class.”
As the sun set over the iconic Santa Monica Ferris wheel, a couple of pedicab drivers tried to cajole tired beachgoers into rides while they waited near the scooters.
“It’s just not safe; people are out here riding drunk, too,” said Keith Brown, adding that he doesn’t believe the scooters have affected his business. He said he witnessed an accident just the day before involving a minor on a scooter who was riding “recklessly” at “full speed.”
Bird’s next test might be in San Diego, where the company has been running a pilot program since last month.
“We are looking into this across departments, including city attorney, police department, mayor’s office, transportation, and the engineering and operations division,” said Anthony Santacroce, a city spokesman. He cited safety and right-of-way concerns as the city’s main issues.
Despite the regulatory disagreements and safety issues, Santa Monica and Bird hope to arrive at a solution. A Bird representative characterized the legal dispute as a misunderstanding that can be worked out. The next court date in the case is scheduled for Feb. 26.
“Nothing would make me happier than to have them out there operating legally and safely with the appropriate permits,” said Winterer, Santa Monica’s mayor. “It’s just a matter of talking; talk helps a lot.”
Noah Smith is a freelance reporter based in Los Angeles.