SANTA MONICA, CALIF.
Electric scooters are a little like Q-Tips .
In both cases, the products are marketed with explicit warnings about how not to use them, even though everyone knows that’s precisely the way pretty much every customer will use them.
For scooter riders here in Santa Monica, it means: Don’t you dare ride on the sidewalk, which is against the law, even though it sometimes feels super unsafe to ride next to cars. Or: Wink-wink, always wear a helmet. Also, the beach bike path is verboten, even though it is the smoothest, most fun, most scenic ride possible. And definitely don’t just dump your scooter in the middle of a busy path or sidewalk.
Aw shucks, well, we did warn you. Guess it’s your fault if you land in the ER.
I get it. Electric scooters are hard to regulate. They’re different from other popular modes of transit — skateboards, bicycles, motorcycles, cars — so there’s no template for rules or best practices. And how do we retrofit both our laws and our car-centric infrastructure to accommodate such a promising new(ish) technology?
Compounding all this, public officials are also somewhat scarred by their experience in the ride-share wars.
Not so long ago, companies such as Uber and Lyft appeared and proceeded to ignore existing livery laws — some of which were sensible, some of which were stupid — to gain market share. In the process of turning themselves into billion-dollar-plus “unicorns,” the companies mounted aggressive public-relations campaigns. Persnickety politicians who tried to enforce the law were labeled puppets of Big Taxi, or — worse — Luddites.
Faced with this new alien e-species, regulators may fear earning another scarlet “L.” About a year ago, Santa Monica became the first city to fully grapple with the task of regulating scooters. It shows how difficult it is to get the regs right.
Developments here followed an arc that will sound familiar to the scores of other cities that have since been inundated.
First came giddy media coverage about these whiz-bang devices. They’re cheap and fast! They’re super fun! And they can solve the “last mile” problem of commuting, relieving car congestion and carbon emissions! They might even solve climate change!
Second came the furious stories about tangled nests of discarded scooters and, more seriously, injuries to both riders or pedestrians. One gentleman, William Kairala, recalls waking up in the emergency room with a fractured skull and possibly permanent brain damage.
“They’re very handy. The problem is: You find a scooter, but you don’t find a helmet,” he said during an interview for a “PBS NewsHour” segment I did on Santa Monica’s experience. “And unfortunately I fell off of one. I wasn’t even going fast.”
Santa Monica initially fought with the scooter companies, even filing a criminal complaint against one, Bird. Ultimately the city launched a pilot program in September with tighter regulations governing when and where the devices could be used, which companies could operate, and so on. But after another PR campaign, Santa Monica appeared to cave on its original criteria for which firms could participate, and when I interviewed city officials more recently, they took on a more conciliatory tone.
So, strikingly, did the vendors themselves, perhaps wary of being banned altogether. Ride-sharing companies had an established, motivated customer base — people frustrated with their local taxi monopoly — willing to fight the regulators on their behalf. Scooter companies don’t really have an equivalent.
Which perhaps explains why even Lyft emphasizes just how deferential it’s being in rolling out its scooter business.
“Our goal here is to do what’s right, and what’s right in this context is to work closely with the cities, get permits and launch once we have permission,” David Fairbank, Lyft’s bikes and scooters market manager, told me.
Why does its scooter-sharing strategy seem so different from its car-sharing one? I asked. “I don’t have a ton of context on that but, yeah, we’re working closely with the governments this time,” he said.
Meanwhile, the bad habits that riders developed during the Wild West days remain. Helmet use is still virtually nonexistent. (In January, California will actually stop requiring them following a successful lobbying effort by Bird, though the company still recommends wearing helmets.) Scooters are still on sidewalks, beach paths and other places officially forbidden for safety reasons.
It is great that regulators and firms have turned the temperature down a little this time and are trying to develop a workable, safety-minded set of regulations. But only if those regulations actually get enforced.