Bracing for Impact

 Trevor Bach
  3rd-Oct-2018

IN SAN FRANCISCO, THE electric scooter war escalated quickly. In late March, after hundreds of Bird, Lime and Spin scooters suddenly clogged the city's streets, local officials were outraged, but there was little they could do – the city's transportation agency acknowledged the scooters were "not explicitly covered in the transportation code." As thousands of complaints of obstruction and bad rider behavior flooded the city's customer service center call line, the municipal government moved forward with a new regulatory ordinance. Bird, before any new law was actually passed, launched a counterattack, declaring officials were curtailing the democratic process. The city attorney followed with a cease and desist. Soon the scooters, nearly as quickly as they appeared, were gone. "It would be very nice," Supervisor Aaron Peskin told the San Francisco Chronicle, "if the tech bros could come in and ask for permission instead of asking for forgiveness."

For millions of Americans, the rapid proliferation of electric scooters has meant a sudden exposure to, and often benefit from, a revolutionary new transit option. But for cities the trend has presented a dilemma: how best to respond to the arrival of a potentially transformative – but highly disruptive – new technology. It's a problem framed, to a large degree, by cities' recent extended battles with hyperaggressive ride-sharing apps.

"City governments are still recoiling from Uber infiltrating their cities in a really abrupt way," says Sarah Kaufman, an urban planning professor at New York University. "So any new mode of transportation, or any new disruption, is setting off red flags."

Government responses, influenced by both local logistics and bureaucratic culture, have varied dramatically. Beyond tech-jaded San Francisco, where the city eventually granted limited permits to reintroduce scooters – but not to Bird or Lime – after a frenetic bidding process, several cities, including Indianapolis and Austin, Texas, issued temporary bans until new agreements dictating fees and permitting were codified. Milwaukee filed a lawsuit. Kansas City, Missouri, eager to augment its reputation as a burgeoning tech hub, took a welcoming tack, even producing its own scooter etiquette public service campaign.

Electric Scooter Armageddon?

"People need to learn how these electric scooters fit into our transportation system," says city spokesman Chris Hernandez. "Because they're new, we wanted to introduce people before we start enforcing [violations]."

Despite headaches, cities recognize a tremendous upside: The permit fees companies pay, typically $1 per scooter per day, will usually be dedicated to improving bike lanes and other infrastructure. In May, when Bird and Lime arrived in Denver, which boasts among the country's most progressive public transportation systems, the city initially took a hardline stance, quickly seizing hundreds of illegally placed scooters and issuing fines. The companies pulled their fleets. But by late July, Denver was welcoming electric scooters back, issuing 350 permits each for Bird, Lime, Lyft, Spin and Razor – under new rules that require they regularly corral fleets at bus and other transit stops, a stipulation designed to enhance the city's own public transit options.

"We were just trying to figure out how to best manage this new mobility option," says Heather Burke, a spokesperson for the public works department. "I think it's going to be a learning curve for everyone."

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