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Electric-scooter companies conquer with a simple strategy: Act first, answer questions later

A scooter rider headed down H Street NW in Washington last week. (Robert Miller/The Washington Post)

At first glance, it looked like a painful defeat.

Mere weeks after they had blanketed Miami streets, electric scooters disappeared overnight, their companies sent packing by city attorneys with cease-and-desist letters in hand.

The scooter rental companies’ preemptive approach in some ways resembles Uber’s “disruptive” playbook: Bumrush new markets, ignore local regulations, turn riders into voters — act first and apologize later.

In Miami — as in San Francisco and Austin before it — companies were able to prove that a market for electric-scooter rentals existed before they could be shut down, quickly creating loyal customers and amassing valuable transportation data before coming to the table to negotiate with city officials.

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The same sequence of events has played out in cities targeted by scooter rental companies across the country, often with victorious results.

With typical Silicon Valley self-assuredness, Bird — a popular scooter start-up banished by frustrated Miami authorities — portrayed its recent clashes with city officials as less a fight than an inevitable part of the process of introducing innovative technology. Each time it arrives in a new city, the company says, it’s not sure whether Bird will encounter resistance or open arms.

“We enter markets where scooters aren’t prohibited, and we follow the laws on the books,” Kenneth Baer, a Bird spokesman. “But in most cities, the laws never anticipated this technology.”

Bird said the company is working with Miami officials to create an ordinance regulating scooter firms. Companies such as Bird and bicycle and scooter rental firm Lime expect to return to Miami in the near future, but this time they’ll have thousands of riders on their side, as well as some prominent political backers.

“I’m a big fan of the electric scooters,” Miami Mayor Francis Suarez said, noting that he considers himself a technology-friendly mayor. “I think they’re a first-last-mile transit alternative.”

Suarez noted, “In a city as hot as Miami, having a device that allows you to travel and get a significant distance with the breeze on your face could be a key to unlocking a transit system that has been a little bit underwhelming, to put it mildly.”

From their critics’ perspective, electric-scooter-rental companies arrive in virgin territory overnight, unleashing chaos and fear before eventually recruiting amenable locals to their ranks, filling their coffers and moving on to the next conquest.

From the perspective of their customers, electric-scooter startups are a desperately needed supplement to underdeveloped transportation systems. Their futuristic technology takeover is inevitable, scooter fans maintain, and city officials need to catch up, even if the initial launches feel abrasive.

However bullish it seems, the strategy of act first, answer questions later seems to be working. After companies deposited 2,000 scooters on San Francisco streets in March, furious public officials responded by impounding the scooters and issuing cease-and-desist orders. The city is now considering a pilot program that would allow companies to put 2,500 scooters for rent on city streets beginning in July, according to the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Authority.

During the scooter rental company’s first 30 days in San Francisco, Bird says, 32,000 riders took 95,418 rides, traveling 143,725 total miles.

During the Lime scooters’ brief time on the streets of Miami, more than 10,000 Miami residents and visitors took 30,000 trips, saving almost 32,000 pounds of carbon dioxide, the company claimed.

Lime is operating in more than 70 cities around the country.

Darren Weingard, head of government relations for Skip Scooters, told USA Today that his company decided not to launch after they learned San Francisco was planning to regulate the new form of transportation. His rivals went ahead, he noted, unleashing a preemptive strategy that looks awfully familiar.

“Some of what we were seeing [with rivals] seemed out of the old Uber playbook,” Weingard told USA Today. “We didn’t want to follow that.”

Similar struggles have played out in Denver; Santa Monica, Calif.; Washington, D.C.; Nashville and Austin, where scooter rental companies have swooped into town with little warning before seeking constructive talks with city officials who had pushed back. After being pulled from the streets, scooter rental companies say they often expect to be back in the market in a few weeks — sometimes earlier, as cities rush through permits to meet the sudden demand for their services.

The smoothest scooter rollout to date, by most accounts, has been in Memphis, where officials  introduced a 30-day operating agreement ahead of Bird’s launch, according to the Commercial Appeal. The city council is expected to vote on an ordinance regulating scooter rentals next month.

“This is just something that can prove to the world that Memphis is ready, that Memphis is open to business, and that Memphis makes accommodations for things we want,” council chairman Berlin F. Boyd told the paper.

Memphis leaders said they decided to get ahead of the scooter wave after watching it crash into Nashville. After scooters appeared on sidewalks in the state capital, city officials threatened to impound them, arguing that they represented illegal obstructions of rights of way, according to the Commercial Appeal.

Bird’s attorney initially pushed back in Nashville, arguing that the city was “grossly exceeding” the parameters of the city code, before the company decided to remove its scooters and work with city officials on permitting, the paper reported.

Even if Nashville had refused to negotiate with Bird, the question is how long they could’ve held out before incurring public pressure to bring back the scooter rentals. The city is home to music festivals and sporting events, the paper noted, ideal venues for alternative forms of transportation.

Hundreds of rental scooters had already been deposited across town, giving the public a taste of cheap, electric mobility.

“It goes viral very quickly,” Baer said. “People like it. It solves a problem for them, and it’s fun.”


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