Regulating the Scooters


A pilot designated dockless scooter and bike zone on 2nd. St in downtown Santa Monica utilizing a curb bulb out space created at a mid-block crosswalk.
I see a lot to like about the scooter trend, but that doesn’t mean I don’t see that there are valid complaints and points of contention associated with the rapid rise of dockless e-scooters here. Many of the complaints to my ear largely echo those lobbed at bicycling over the years. Root causes stemming from cars and our car culture and car centric engineering, are often ignored or arguments made seemingly as if cars somehow don’t exist, despite the fact that cars swallow up public space on an unfathomable scale while threatening bodily harm upon everyone.
Our responses should be proportionate and acknowledging the very real potential of this new mobility to advance important goals and improve public safety overall by eating into the share of vastly more impactful and hazard inducing car trips and vehicle miles traveled.
Bird scooters parked to the side while an unattended dockless Hertz rental car sits blocking the sidewalk on Santa Monica Blvd.

The area of scooter complaint where I am most empathetic, and as a frequent pedestrian myself, is excessive encroachment on sidewalks. They are refuges from cars that are far too often far too narrow and or crowded by utilities & “street furniture,” to keep things out of the way of cars, and where faster than walking speeds are problematic and detrimental to the pedestrian experience and safety.

Ultimately the storage issues they represent are really easy compared to that of cars, with vastly smaller footprints, and already I am seeing creative ways to get them out of the way of sidewalks with tiny nooks and setback spaces. For areas where sidewalk and adjacent space is inadequate and scooter use and drop off is high, we should create more curbside bike corrals, and perhaps design them with some dedicated area with dockless scooters and bikes in mind.

Even if I’m wrong about the long term potential of the dockless model of bike and scooter sharing, we need more bike corrals anyways in certain areas where bikes end up attached to every random object pinned down and are sometimes also in the way on sidewalks or attached to railings of wheel chair accessible pedestrian ramps.

I’m glad to see Santa Monica is experimenting with utilizing sidewalk spaces out of the main walkways to paint and demarcate zones for parking dockless scooters and bikes, we take for granted how much signage and how many markings and regulations it took to get cars to mostly be parked in an orderly fashion and people still mess that up a lot. There has also been consideration and talk here and elsewhere to require dockless mobility options to be locked to posts rather than being allow to “float” anywhere to be dropped off, which would necessitate placement in line with sidewalk installations and not the main walkway. However, that could create a serious demand crunch on bike racks and anything similar in width that is nailed down without a serious and comprehensive scale up of bike racks and in places warranting them, bike corrals.

Dockless self locking scooters enable uses of niche spaces like one in a red curb sliver next to a parklet on Main Street.

As it is there is not enough dedicated bike parking for our existing bike ridership in much of the city without a whole new wave of scooter riders also looking for a place to lock up, even with the additional racks going in now. It could seriously limit ridership growth, and in some ways could make the parking complaints situation worse by forcing the scooters out of odds and ends setback spaces in which they can fit out of the way now but where they is rarely anything to attach to.

As for riding the e-scooters on the sidewalk, the same things I’ve said and that most bike advocates have said for years, would go much further toward remedying the issue than any legal prohibitions and police crack downs. We need more bike lanes, and we need more bike lanes that do more than be a thin strip of paint, which are designed with real world conditions in mind, and that obstructing them as they so often are by people double parking or loading, needs to be taken at least as seriously as the scooters blocking walkways is being take, it typically feels entirely ignored by anyone who isn’t a regular bike commuter and seldom enforced.
Bird scooter being ridden on the Colorado Esplanade protected bikeway.
If we want bicycling and other similar modes of transportation to be off the sidewalks, bike lanes and more so buffered and especially protected bike lanes, are the best tools we have locally short of completely overhauling our car culture or prohibiting cars from more streets. When separated facilities are present, and especially when protected by more than just markings, the overwhelming majority of users will ride there. Additionally it may be worth considering signage or special markings, especially in highly visible places, which make it clear that the e-scooters are valid bike lane users, and are in fact under current state obligated to ride in them when present.
The thing many don’t grasp is that motorists, armed with cars, are themselves a kind of de facto army of self deputized enforcers that terrorize vulnerable road users, & often illegally. For some it’s more deliberative, targeting those whom they perceive as lessors, like those riding bikes, despite every assured right to travel on paper and supreme court precedent that exists, and will react with aggression and the threat of deadly force to intimidate people into riding on sidewalks. For most motorists, it may not stem from any malicious ill will, but cluelessness and carelessness creating close calls or worse, in moments of increasingly common driving distraction, but this too serves as “muscle” to marginalize and terrorize.
Whether intended or not, the hierarchy of the streets in our status quo is not so much one guided by law as by ‘might makes right’ and the ever present implicit threat of potentially lethal automotive violence. The everyday SUV enforcers speak louder than the law, even when they aren’t literally screaming out their windows as they occasionally do. Part of the endurance of this power hierarchy and allocation of space is that other modes of travel are then made to feel in bitter competition with each over the limited space remaining, with many pedestrians mad at the riders of bikes and scooters on sidewalks, bicyclists upset at pedestrians on the beach path, bus riders feeling neglected and facing diminished schedule performance stuck behind cars. All these little turf wars sparked over bread crumbs of space and funding while car culture eats nearly all the pie.
Proposed protected intersection design for 17th & Arizona as part of the 17th St. Safe Streets project.
To Santa Monica’s credit, not yet fully implemented facets of the city Bike Action Plan, appear to be getting a boost and renewed urgency, and city fees collected on the dockless operators are being directed toward these ends. The project I am most excited about seeing moving forward is the upgrading of mostly standard minimum bike lanes on 17th St. to be protected lanes, with for the first time, protected intersection designs (which depending on when the project is completed may be a first for anywhere in Southern California) modeled off those ubiquitously used in the Netherlands, which use small concrete traffic islands to position cyclists ahead of right turning drivers, and narrow the exposed gap across, and which help facilitate making “box turns” to make lefts without having to mix with other traffic, for those uncomfortable with “vehicular” style cycling utilizing the same left turn lanes as other vehicles.
This 17th St. segment is an important puzzle piece in taking cycling, and now scooters along with, to the next level of accessibility into a much broader potential ridership, with a north south protected bikeway connecting the 17th St. Expo Line station to Pico Blvd. & SMC to the south, and major hospital and medical insitutiitions to the north up to Wilshire Blvd. Also intersecting with the fully off-street Expo Line bike path as well as important cycling corridors like Broadway. Whether here in Santa Monica, or the city of Los Angeles and elsewhere in the region and state, a lot of what we need for a smoother adoption of this mobility is already sitting on the shelf of too often languishing bike plans.
Santa Monica has been piloting stencil markings like these to discourage sidewalk riding in the downtown.

Starting September 17th the city will be entering a pilot period which will limit the number of venders and allow for a dynamic cap on deployed fleet size in the city that can rise with utilization rates per scooter or e-bike. The big news last week was the final selection of vendors, and the selection committee recommendations had raised the possibility Bird & Lime, the first two established vendors in the city might lose out completely to proposals by Lyft & Uber’s Jump. But as Frank Gruber pointed out, it’s pretty easy to sound good on paper without having actually launched any scooters anywhere yet. Ultimately the final decision, made by David Martin, Santa Monica’s planning and community development director, was to allow Bird & Lime to stay, and allow Jump and Lyft to also operate scooters with smaller starting caps. However Lyft and Uber’s Jump will be the sole operators of shared use dockless e-bikes during the pilot program, excluding Lime’s limited existing presence of e-assist bikes that have operated in Santa Monica.

It is disappointing to me that the city of Santa Monica was among the entities who lobbied at the state level to water down AB-2989 that now sits awaiting the governor’s signature, that in an earlier incarnation would have brought the e-scooter regulations more in line with the way we regulate bikes and e-bikes, but now only removes the all ages helmet requirement. Right now under existing laws governing electric scooters, despite little functional difference beyond lack of pedaling from bicycles in the case of low speed and light weight e-scooters such as Bird and Lyft use and which are presently capped at 15mph, are subject to driver’s license requirements and an all ages helmet mandate, where as bicycling does not require a license and there is no adult helmet requirement. Except in the case of class III e-bikes which are capable of being far faster and are more powerful than Bird and Lime scooters with 28mph pedal assist. Confusingly the e-scooters are also required to be operated in bike lanes when present, always in the roadway of the street with a full statewide sidewalk prohibition, unlike some municipalities and areas that do allow sidewalk cycling, but they can only be ridden on streets that don’t have bike lanes that are 25mph or under speed limits.
Part of the contention around the bill was cities where the scooters are already common now not wanting to see sidewalk legalization, but it could have very well been crafted to like bicycles, allow local control while removing statewide full prohibition. I absolutely understand the concerns of encroachment of faster than walking means of transportation into pedestrian space in urban locations with many pedestrians like Santa Monica and San Fransico, that too often in spite of many who walk still have cramped sidewalks, but in the vastness of the built environments of California, such environments where many walk are unfortunately an anomaly and not the norm.  I grew up in the suburbs of the San Gabriel Valley, often in-line skating to get anywhere on my own as a kid and teen, where one could expect few bike lanes, and with largely barren sidewalks on the arterials required to get between spaced out subdivisions. Those arterials also often feature an onslaught of 40-50mph vehicles outside of the most congested times.
Google Street View of Nogales Street in West Covina, the only remotely direct through access route between where I lived during High School and the school, or any places of business. Fast 3 lanes of travel each way for cars and sidewalks where barely a soul is ever seen actually walking due to the distances between destinations. This is much more typical of what many contend with navigating in California than Downtown Santa Monica or San Fransico, and why I oppose the statewide prohibition of sidewalk use for the e-scooters.
In auto-centric suburban environments maintaining the prohibition on e-scooter sidewalk use, and riding ban on roadways with greater than 25mph speed limits, it is a de facto legal banishment for functional use nearly anywhere that isn’t doing laps in cul-de-sacs for much of the state. But as the utility of these devices, whether owned by individuals or rented through shared access fleets, continues catching on, they are going to be used out in suburbs where few things can be walked to, but with a little extra speed things start coming within reach. And many suburbs are increasingly made up of poorer families that aren’t able to afford owning and maintaining a car, or the assumed small fleet of multiple cars for a family that many auto-centric suburbs were initially built around.
When the structure of the law is so divergent from typical uses which pose little risk to others, it is a recipe for abuse and pretense for profiling people who we should if anything be encouraging not blanket criminalizing.  The too often self-absorbed myopia of Santa Monica and San Fransico should not be the basis upon which legal reforms are crafted or not crafted, and if localities want full prohibitions over certain sidewalk uses, that should be determined by context through local regulations, not protecting blanket policies at the state level that criminalizes the utility of these devices throughout most of the built environment of California. Across the board I would like to see e-scooter regulation generally brought in line with the regulations on bicycles and e-bikes, there are functionally more similar than they are different, and the ways in which they are different do not merit such wholly different and more stringent set of regulatory constraints.’
Maybe it’s just me but I feel like the bigger problem here is the number of planet busting SUVs taking up beachfront property next to the constrained path, and not the scooters.

It is under current municipal law prohibited to ride motorized devices on the beach path and within city park paths, although I don’t recall any issue made of Segway tour groups or other low to moderate speed devices fairly equivalent to bicycling in the past. From a user standpoint confusion is understandable especially as we obligate the e-scooters to be ridden in bike lanes, so if they belong where bikes do, why prohibit from the beach path where bikes are ridden? If the concern is about speed and safety, I don’t see the rationale for 15mph max devices as somehow too fast, but conventional pedal driven bicycles can and often are ridden faster than that on the path, and there are laws governing “recklessness” that can cover egregious cases without blanket banning, or could be further clarified.

The path can get crowded at times in the peak season, but I’ve never understood why the county can spend billions on highway widenings that accomplish essentially nothing to improve trip times like the most recent 405 project, when a comparably infinitesimal investment in improving our bike path facilities and creating more of them, could enhance these facilities for many to enjoy and utilize more safely and create a more cohesive network that would be actually transformative. Widening the beach path at the most constricted points of high ridership through Santa Monica and Venice is a widening project I can actually get behind, and space for pedestrians should be included immediately alongside as it is for some portions in Santa Monica because wherever such paths exist, especially in such scenic locales, people will want to stroll along them, that’s just never not going to be the case, so let’s plan and build accordingly.

A Lime scooter hub using spaces secured in a private lot on Main Street. There are 16 scooters heres taking up a small fraction of the 2 car spaces they are in, giving a sense for vastly more space efficient they are for personal travel.

On the whole I think Santa Monica is getting a lot right, and I’m glad that the response has not been quite as combative and curtailing as the path San Fransisco has taken on this emergent issue, or Beverly Hills where a 6 month ban was put in place, while navigating pressure from supporters and users of the systems as well as many ardent detractors. I don’t want to see the scooters overly regulated, but ensuring their longterm viability also requires avoiding any backlash large enough to stop things in their tracks in these early stages. In the back of my mind through all of this however, is the degree to which our society is largely complacent and tolerant of ubiquitous scofflaw driving that imposes overwhelmingly more risk, and continual harm to the public, as well as long term harms that will last generations in the form of substantial CO₂ emmisions.

The e-scooters are the hot topic for invoking “what about the dangers” not because they are uniquely or especially dangerous, but because they are new (or seem to be as the history of similar devices has been largely forgotten). Most have internalized the monumentally greater danger of cars as an immovable force one accepts because that is just the way things with little reflection. I’d rather take my chances sharing space with the 15mph speed capped light weight scooters than more 2 ton behemoths designed to easily and casually break all speed limits, and much of the potential and more limited hazard the scooters bring can be largely mitigated with the will to fully implement our bike plans and continue building upon them.

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