A new set of proposed regulations for dockless electric scooters in Santa Monica seeks to establish a 16-month pilot program for Shared Mobility Devices, creating a framework that balances the city’s desire for mobility innovation, public safety, and sustainability goals.
The recommended regulations would allow up to three providers to operate a maximum of 1,500 devices in the city, with the potential to increase that cap to 2,250 by the end of 2019. The plan, which will be introduced to the Santa Monica City Council on June 12, would also establish minimum operating requirements for maintenance, education, safety, customer service, and data sharing, and create a checklist for evaluating the performance of these mobility startups. The proposal also advocates hiring a program coordinator to oversee the pilot.
Kenneth Baer, a spokesperson from Bird, the most popular scooter startup operating in Santa Monica, was happy the proposed ordinance allows operations to continue, but was disappointed that the proposal introduces a cap on the number of vehicles.
“It will severely undercut our ability to serve all of the neighborhoods and residents of Santa Monica,” says Baer. “If the ordinance is put into place as introduced, then electric mobility companies like Bird will need to put scooters only in the areas of densest use, limiting our potential to help all people get out of cars, reduce traffic and cut carbon emissions.”
The pilot underlines that success, as Santa Monica sees it, will only come with an “open and productive partnership,” where operators such as Bird prove themselves “highly responsive to real community concerns about safety and adverse impacts on members of the public who walk, bike or drive in Santa Monica.”
Cities everywhere struggle to regulate scooters
The spread of, and backlash against, dockless electric scooters has become a national story as companies like Bird and Lime have raced to introduce this new transit option to more than 30 cities across the country and met “inapplicable, inadequate or inappropriate” regulation.
As the Santa Monica proposal, which evolved from a series of emergency rules passed in March, notes, these new options are causing “significant upheaval as well as shifts in travel behavior nationwide. Public agencies have “struggled to get out ahead of venture-capital-funded disruptive technologies.”
But in many ways, the story started in Santa Monica and Venice, where Bird, a startup which may soon be valued at $1 billion, began operations last fall. Today’s announcement, ahead of a highly anticipated regulatory proposal from San Francisco, underscores how Santa Monica has been wrestling with this issue longer than most other cities.
Santa Monica has already taken action to address scooter-related safety and traffic. Last December, the city filed a criminal case against Bird, accusing it of operating without proper permits and owing more than $6,000 in fines. Bird eventually settled with the city for $300,000 in February. On March 6, the city council established an impound fee for vehicles blocking the right of way.
But as the scooters continue to flourish, many of the main issues between riders, companies, and cities remain unresolved. City officials have received hundreds of community complaints regarding Bird scooters blocking sidewalks, curb ramps, ADA access, doorways, and the beach bike path. The Santa Monica Police Department, which has been enforcing existing laws pertaining to motorized scooters, has seen increased enforcement activity this year. During the first three months of the year, the department conducted 623 stops and issued 302 citations. In May alone, that number rose more than 809 stops and 366 citations.
Creating a better partnership for improved city transit
Santa Monica wants these mobility startups to be better partners, since city officials have embraced scooters as part of its overall transportation plan.
“Santa Monica is a multi-modal city focused on carbon reduction,” city spokersperson Constance Farrell told Curbed. “We’re supportive of...the concept of Bird. They just need to operate lawfully and safely.”
The proposal notes that scooters can help the city reduce congestion and emissions—echoing the startups’ pitch that scooters encourage car-free transit—and improve first/last mile connections. The shared mobility industry can help the city “expand mobility options without incurring the expense of operating its own service.”
Bird spokesman Baer noted that since the company launched nine months ago, riders have taken 577,930 rides. If just half of those Bird rides replaced a one-mile car trip, then according EPA data, Santa Monica riders have saved 257,372 pounds of carbon emissions.
Some suggestions within the proposal—adding “lock-to” requirements that would seek to reduce scooter congestion by requiring vehicles to be docked to a rack or stationary object, blocking vehicle distribution from areas with high pedestrian traffic such as the Third Street Promenade, or increased education of riders and users—seem to be attempts to meet the companies halfway when it comes to improving multimodal transit while respecting safety and existing rules.
The pilot program seeks $286,570 from the city for nine months of staffing and program costs during the 2018-19 fiscal year, but expects to generate $350,000 in annual revenues from operator and per device fees. The proposal includes a $20,000 per vendor per year, with a $130 fee per device. Fines would also bring in additional revenue, but can’t be accurately estimated. The pilot would begin in mid-September.
In anticipation of regulatory pushback from cities, some of the scooter companies presented their own rules for the nascent industry, hoping to establish themselves as responsible players in urban transit and counter the impression they were simply flooding the streets with unregulated vehicles.
Bird had previously introduced Save Our Sidewalks, a plan for scooter- and bike-sharing companies to avoid overcrowding and abandoned vehicles by promising to pick up vehicles every night, follow a sustainable growth model, and remit $1 per vehicle per day to city governments to fund improved transit infrastructure.
Adding to the regulatory questions over new mobility options, Lime, which has operated electric bikes in Santa Monica since early 2018, says it, too, will offer dockless electric scooters beginning today. The micro-mobility company, which operates in more than 60 cities, has partnered with local businesses in Santa Monica to distribute their scooters on private property, to avoid blocking public right-of-ways (though, that will only make an impact in the morning, when the scooters are set out for the day, since they can be parked anywhere during active operation).
“We applaud the City of Santa Monica for formally embracing innovative transportation, and look forward to collaborating with them as they work to further establish regulations around an environmentally-clean, shared mobility program for scooters,” Lime spokeswoman Mary Caroline Pruitt said in a statement. “We are supportive of a regulatory framework that prioritizes rider safety and accessibility, but also enables us to provide affordable, equitable transportation by allowing for enough scooters to serve the entirety of the City, including areas that are underserved.“