Daniel lives a little over a mile from the middle school in central Los Angeles where he attends eighth grade. To get there, he used to sometimes hitch a ride from a parent driving to work, but most days he found himself making the 20-minute walk.
“I used to come late to school, because I always wake up late,” he told Curbed. “Now the Bird gets me here on time.”
Daniel is one of three 13-year-olds interviewed by Curbed (their names were changed to protect their identities) who have used e-scooters to get to campus or socialize with friends. The students say the scooters are fun, affordable, and efficient.
There’s one major problem. Under California law, scooter riders must be at least 16 and have a driver’s license or permit. E-scooter rental companies operating in LA have an even stricter age requirement: 18 years old.
E-scooters have been championed by some local leaders as a solution for alleviating traffic and reducing pollution. Over the last year, they have become increasingly popular in cities for traveling short distances that make up a majority of urban trips.
One of the age groups e-scooters could best serve is teenagers, especially those who don’t have access to cars—or who don’t want to get a drivers’ license at all.
Most kids are already adept at riding them, and they could use them to get to school or work without relying on a parent, says Sarah Kaufman, associate director of NYU’s Rudin Center for Transportation.
“E-scooters are a fantastic way for kids to get around,” she says. “These are kids who grew up using Razor scooters, and now they’re graduating to e-scooters. It’s a better option than saving up for a car... if they’re old enough to work, they should be old enough to operate a scooter.”
The rules, which are designed to keep young riders safe, have gone largely unenforced. Experts say there are better ways to protect kids while giving them access to the new technology.
Scooter companies require users to agree to terms of service certifying that they are at least 18 years old, and most require users to upload a photo of a driver’s license and scan the barcode on the back.
But the uploaded information is not always verified. Two of the 13-year-olds interviewed for this story said their parents had let them borrow their driver’s licenses and credit cards to ride. (Only one student said he knew about the requirement to be 18.)
“I read through the agreement, but I didn’t take it seriously,” Javier told Curbed. “I told my parents I was riding it, and they let me.”
The students told Curbed that they’ve been able to ride Lime scooters without having to upload a license at all. One student, Brian, said that’s why he continued to ride Lime instead of Bird.
In its June application for San Francisco’s scooter pilot, Lime noted that “due to the current political climate,” the company does “not support requiring the scanning of users’ driver’s licenses,” claiming that it will “discourage the immigrant community from using our service.”
But in its Santa Monica proposal filed in July, Lime said it would photograph licenses and use a third-party verification system to confirm the rider’s age. A spokesperson from Lime says the app photographs and scans the barcode of the rider’s driver’s license and has riders sign an agreement that they are 18 and over.
Over the past few weeks, Curbed tested the validation process for Bird and Lime using an expired California driver’s license and a California non-driving identification card—both of which worked to unlock scooters.
State lawmakers have tried to tweak the law around e-scooters. AB 2989, signed into law last week, will no longer require helmets to be worn by scooter riders who are 18 and older, starting January 1.
An earlier version of the bill also attempted to create a new vehicle class for e-scooters that wouldn’t have required a driver’s license, and it would have been up to cities to impose tougher standards.
The original bill would have been a move in the right direction, says Frances Anderton, host of the KCRW show “DnA: Design and Architecture,” Santa Monica resident, and mom to a teenager. In January, Anderton interviewed teens under 18 who were using Bird scooters to get around, which her own daughter did at one time as well.
She says Santa Monica teens who once rode e-scooters are now more hesitant to ride, due to rumors of hefty fines for riding under 18—like the $500 tickets reported in a recent Verge story about underage scooter riders.
A city spokesperson says the majority of the 1,100 e-scooter citations handed out in Santa Monica have been for riding without a helmet. “The court sets the fees for all tickets, but we understand that most are around $200,” spokesperson Constance Farrell says.
It’s easy to see where there might be confusion about the age requirements—and the consequences for defying them.
Even Santa Monica’s website for its scooter pilot program says riders must be 16, which reflects state law but not the e-scooter companies’ rules. To use ride-hailing and other shared mobility companies, 18 is the industry-wide standard.
Like rental car companies, scooter companies probably adopt stricter standards for liability reasons, says Jim McPherson, an attorney and consultant specializing in new modes of transportation.
“[Riders] have to have the maturity to drive safely but also to enter into a contract,” he says. He believes that for e-scooters, that age is 14, as long as a parent co-signs the contract.
It’s not just the ages, but having a license that’s important, says Santa Monica’s mobility director, Francie Stefan.
It’s critical for motorized scooter riders to know traffic rules, because they are supposed to share the street with cars, she says. Do kids know to slow down when they approach a speed bump, or what to do when approaching a sidewalk apron?
“I think it’s great that kids want to use scooters, but until they understand how streets work, there are other options,” Stefan says, like non-motorized kick scooters.
But why should e-scooter riders need to know how to drive a car to operate a motorized scooter? If it’s important for them to know the rules of the road, why not require riders to obtain a scooter permit?
Experts like Kaufman and Greg Rodriguez, an attorney who does policy analysis for emerging transportation technologies, say one obvious solution would be to create a new permitting system for scooter riders, similar to cars but separate.
“We have all these new innovations coming online, and we’re trying to make them fit into this existing world of cars, and that just doesn’t work,” he says.
If California cities truly want to embrace emerging transportation tech, it would mean allowing teens and people who don’t have driver’s licenses to share e-scooters and other options on the horizon—but also dramatically rethinking ways to keep all users of the road safe, says Kaufman.
“In Los Angeles, and in frankly every city, we need protected bike lanes that are now becoming bike and scooter lanes, so people can ride safely and also avoid the sidewalks where they might run into someone,” she says.
But putting 16-year-olds behind the wheel of a car is more dangerous, says Kaufman.
“If we’re giving kids permission to drive two-ton vehicles, we can’t be concerned about their safety or the safety of others when it comes only to scooters,” she says. “There’s far more damage done by cars than scooters.”
“I’d say that as a mother whose child gets to Santa Monica High School using various transit options—bicycle, bus, walking, car—I am as nervous of her safety on all of these as I was when she rode e-scooters,” she says.
She’d like to see the vehicles reclassified so a drivers’ license is not required, limited to a safe speed, discounted for students, and integrated into Santa Monica’s transportation infrastructure.
Most critically in a city notorious for bad traffic, with a particularly paralyzing rush hour, scooters should be folded into school mobility plans, says Anderton.
“What a way to lighten car congestion during school dropoff and pickup hours,” she says.