Last week, the Los Angeles Times reported that electric powered scooters which users can rent by the minute from tech start-ups such as Bird and Lime are being defaced or destroyed by vandals, who appear to have a vendetta against this burgeoning form of personal and public transportation.
These thousand-dollar-plus vehicles have been set on fire, thrown into canals, snapped in half, tossed into the ocean off Venice Beach and been, in hopefully rare but exceedingly gross fashion, smeared with feces, according to the report. There’s even a dedicated Instagram account devoted to images depicting different modes of their destruction!
On the one hand, these scooters should be welcomed. They are small, efficient, and get people around urban environments quickly without either burning gasoline, or taking up parking spaces. On the other hand, many pedestrians haven’t taken kindly to being buzzed or hit by reckless riders on the sidewalk, nor have they been happy to trip over unattended scooters abandoned haphazardly by users once they’re done with them.
The annoyance factor is no doubt why these scooters have attracted the scorn of some, and why a proportion of them have met an untimely end. The public’s reaction has also forced a backlash against electric scooters from officialdom. Earlier this year, the city of San Francisco banned companies from operating powered scooters on city streets in response to complaints from people.
There could be a solution here to balance the obvious benefits with the downsides, so what can be done?
To start with, the problem is likely a side effect of the tech mantra: “to move fast and break things.” These electric scooters are, for sure, a disruptive technology appearing en masse pretty much overnight on city streets. For that reason, the Los Angeles Times article points out the introduction of these scooters is viewed by some as another example of how the tech industry has encroached upon the community without asking for permission.
And as with other tech startups that have moved fast (notably, Uber in the transportation space) at some point, notoriety demands a more thoughtful approach to market growth. This is driven in part by a public relations imperative, but it also tends to be forced by regulation.
In the case of San Francisco, in June of this year, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) instigated the clumsily-named “Powered Scooter Share Program Permit” and according to the rules, there will be a 2,500 cap on the number of scooters allowed in the city - to be operated by a maximum of five companies.
Successful firms who have applied for a permit will most likely be allowed to begin operating in the city this month, though the terms require participants to pay an annual $25,000 fee to cover costs. In the evaluation process, SFMTA has required interested companies to provide a plan for pretty much the whole gamut of operations. Before awarding permits, officials will have reviewed each applicant’s plans for things such as safe riding and storage, distribution and maintenance, labor and hiring policies, through to community outreach and zero waste commitments. A “wild west” approach won’t fly.
And on top of regulation, other headwinds will likely face the young industry too - lawyers!
Bloomberg details that personal injury lawyers have scooters in their sights. The aforementioned pedestrian collisions and tripping hazards has led some lawyers to think a serious injury is just waiting to happen. While Bloomberg says there are no records of lawsuits being filed against either Bird or Lime, they say it’s just a matter of time, which in turn, is likely just a question of identifying where deep pockets are to be found.
So, lawsuits and regulations face the industry - which sounds pretty much like any other - but these electric scooter companies are perhaps only just having to grapple with these realities, and they will have their work cut out to find the smooth road ahead.
In which case, homegrown corporate responsibility is likely to be critical to their success too. Indeed, Lime and Bird already devote part of their websites’ to providing tips to users on how to operate safely, park responsibly and follow traffic laws. But how can they enforce rules, and where does their accountability begin and end? This will likely all be part of the evolution.
Of course, shared personal transportation is not a new thing by any means. Bicycle sharing programs have been around for several years and operate in hundreds of cities all over the world. Their introduction appears to have come with less of a backlash and perhaps that’s partly because people are just more familiar with bikes?
But beyond that, perhaps it’s because there is more apparent order with the bike sharing model. Bikes are stationed at designated locations - you pick up a bike from one location, and either return it there, or to another designated location - so they are less likely to appear lying around randomly. Bikes aren’t allowed on the sidewalk either. In short, this model appears to operate on a more predictable basis.
Clearly, one of the benefits of the electric scooter business model, though, is dropping them off wherever is maximally convenient for the user, but maybe stronger rules will have to apply on where they can be left. A letter to the San Francisco Chronicle this week suggested maybe one parking space per block could be dedicated to scooter parking. Dedicated stations would borrow from the bike sharing model but could be more frequent in distribution. That would require a public - private arrangement. Cooperation will be key.
But despite all these tribulations, the electric scooter is a compelling and convenient device from the user perspective and there are plenty of investment dollars lined up behind these businesses, too. With Uber and Lyft getting in the game as well, they aren’t going away. Nevertheless, responsible growth is going to be the key to securing acceptance of both local authorities and the public. These companies have a vested interest in achieving such acceptance - otherwise their assets may continue to be lost at sea.
Image credit: Mike Licht/Flickr
Phil Covington holds an MBA in Sustainable Management from Presidio Graduate School. In the past, he spent 16 years in the freight transportation and logistics industry. Today, Phil's writing focuses on transportation, forestry, technology and matters of sustainability in business.