Santa Monica’s elec­tric scoot­ers to keep rolling

City to adopt 16-month pi­lot pro­gram for rental com­pa­nies

Los Angeles Times - - CALIFORNIA - By Melissa Ete­had and Tracey Lien

Love them or hate them, the scoot­ers are stay­ing in Santa Monica — at least for the next year and a half.

That was the con­clu­sion Tues­day night af­ter Santa Monica’s City Coun­cil heard from more than 30 im­pas­sioned scooter sup­port­ers and de­trac­tors and grilled scooter rental com­pa­nies Bird and Lime on how they would be good for West­side res­i­dents. The coun­cil ul­ti­mately ap­proved a 16-month pi­lot pro­gram that will al­low elec­tric-scooter and elec­tric-bike rental com­pa­nies to con­tinue operating in the city.

“This is not a ref­er­en­dum on a sin­gle scooter com­pany,” Mayor Ted Win­terer

said dur­ing the four-hour dis­cus­sion that led to the coun­cil’s unan­i­mous ap­proval of the pi­lot pro­gram. “We’re not say­ing these are the hard and fast rules. We’re ex­per­i­ment­ing.”

The pi­lot, which be­gins Sept. 17, was framed as a fact-find­ing mis­sion to help the city craft longer-term reg­u­la­tions.

Cities na­tion­wide have strug­gled to craft poli­cies on the scoot­ers. There are pub­lic safety con­cerns, as rid­ers tend to drive and park on side­walks and not wear hel­mets.

But the scoot­ers of­fer a con­ve­nient, eco-friendly and low-cost trans­porta­tion op­tion. That’s ap­peal­ing to cities, which want to keep traf­fic and pol­lu­tion down but have lim­ited funds for pub­lic tran­sit.

The scoot­ers have proved pop­u­lar with rid­ers, who can find the near­est avail­able one by us­ing a mo­bile app, then rent it by scan­ning a code on the han­dle­bar with their phone. Both Bird and Lime charge $1 to rent a scooter, plus 15 cents per minute of use. Rid­ers can aban­don the scoot­ers any­where when they’re done.

Un­der Santa Monica’s pi­lot pro­gram, elec­tric-scooter and elec­tric-bike com­pa­nies will have to ap­ply for a per­mit and pay an an­nual fee of $20,000 and a per-de­vice fee of $130. That’s a lot more money for the city: Cur­rently, the com­pa­nies are pay­ing only for a per­mit that, ac­cord­ing to the mu­nic­i­pal code, starts at $50 a year, plus a $60 im­pound fee for each scooter that poses an im­me­di­ate hazard or ob­structs ac­cess to build­ings.

Com­pa­nies that re­ceive permits will also have to agree to cre­ate in­ter­ac­tive safety ed­u­ca­tion for rid­ers, such as send­ing push no­ti­fi­ca­tions to cus­tomers’ phones to tell them if they have been rid­ing un­safely. They’ll also have to share real-time data with the city; en­sure that their scoot­ers are evenly dis­trib­uted through­out the city; es­tab­lish a 24-hour hot­line to field com­plaints; and make sure im­prop­erly parked scoot­ers are promptly moved.

The city will also im­pose a “dy­namic” cap on the num­ber of scoot­ers each com­pany is al­lowed to de­ploy, which will be de­ter­mined by whether the com­pany’s scoot­ers are get­ting enough use.

A com­pany that can demon­strate that each of its scoot­ers is be­ing used at least three times a day may have its cap in­creased, while a com­pany that shows lower rid­er­ship will be or­dered to re­duce the num­ber of scoot­ers it de­ploys in the city.

The pi­lot pro­posed by city staffers had called for an ini­tial cap of 1,500 scoot­ers to­tal, with the op­tion to in­crease that cap to 2,250. Cities such as San Fran­cisco and Austin, Texas, have im­ple­mented scooter caps as part of their pi­lot pro­grams. But the cap was a point of con­tention dur­ing the meet­ing, with coun­cil mem­bers Gleam Davis and Terry O’Day ex­press­ing con­cern that such lim­i­ta­tions would en­cour­age scooter com­pa­nies to de­ploy their de­vices only in high-den­sity ar­eas, leav­ing out­ly­ing res­i­den­tial parts of Santa Monica with­out ac­cess to the scoot­ers.

Bird and Lime had also op­posed the cap, in large part be­cause they are jostling for mar­ket share, and the more scoot­ers they de­ploy, the more cus­tomers they’re likely to gain. Both com­pa­nies are backed by ven­ture cap­i­tal funds, which typ­i­cally mea­sure a com­pany’s suc­cess on how rapidly it has grown.

Bird or­ga­nized a Tues­day rally out­side City Hall to make an en­vi­ron­men­tal sus­tain­abil­ity ar­gu­ment against the pro­posed cap. Around 50 Bird sup­port­ers showed up, many wear­ing shirts em­bla­zoned with the phrase “Save our planet,” and car­ry­ing col­or­ful signs that read, “Let the birds fly,” “More birds less traf­fic” and “Free the birds.”

David Estrada, chief le­gal of­fi­cer for Bird, was one of a hand­ful of speak­ers to talk about how Bird can help Santa Monica achieve its goals re­lated to cli­mate change, and why the cap would hurt progress.

Estrada said around 1,500 to 2,000 Bird scoot­ers op­er­ate in Santa Monica on a daily ba­sis. The pro­posed pi­lot pro­gram would have lim­ited Bird to 500 scoot­ers.

Deputy City Man­ager Anuj Gupta and the city’s mo­bil­ity di­vi­sion man­ager, Fran­cie Ste­fan, had said that the pro­posed cap sought to level the play­ing field for scooter com­pa­nies, so that com­peti­tors wouldn’t try to one-up one an­other by flood­ing the city with more scoot­ers.

Gupta said Wed­nes­day that adopt­ing a dy­namic cap will make things less pre­dictable and could re­sult in a surge in the num­ber of scoot­ers, but that he felt good about the de­ci­sion be­cause coun­cil mem­bers made clear that the in­crease will hap­pen only if there is de­mand.

Sev­eral is­sues re­main un­re­solved.

Cal­i­for­nia law re­quires peo­ple who ride mo­tor­ized scoot­ers to wear hel­mets, but com­pli­ance in Santa Monica is low — City Man­ager Rick Cole put it at 2%. It’s also un­clear where scoot­ers should be parked if not on side­walks, and what the city will do about rid­ers who be­have reck­lessly.

The scoot­ers “pro­pose an un­usual en­force­ment challenge,” Cole said. “You can’t run them down with foot pa­trol, you can’t chase them down with bike pa­trol, and it’s dan­ger­ous to pur­sue folks in a squad car.”

“So maybe we should get the Po­lice De­part­ment some scoot­ers,” Davis said, to laugh­ter.

At least a dozen Santa Monica res­i­dents pleaded for the city to crack down harder on the scooter com­pa­nies, in­crease tick­et­ing for rid­ers who break rules (so far, the city has is­sued 668 traf­fic ci­ta­tions to scooter rid­ers, ac­cord­ing to city data), and think twice be­fore is­su­ing permits to home­grown start-up Bird, which launched last year with­out first con­sult­ing the city.

“For nine months, since Sept. 17, Bird drop­pings have been lin­ing the city,” Harriet Ep­stein, a Santa Monica res­i­dent, said at the meet­ing. “The City Coun­cil should con­cen­trate more on the safety as­pect than on whether [Bird] can sur­vive and how many scoot­ers they need to make it prof­itable.”

Pro­hib­ited acts such as rid­ing scoot­ers on side­walks, rid­ing with­out a hel­met, and im­proper park­ing re­main ram­pant, pos­ing a safety is­sue for pedes­tri­ans, Ep­stein said.

Bird struck a con­cil­ia­tory tone at the meet­ing, with Estrada say­ing the com­pany hadn’t been per­fect and wants to “clean that up.” He also chalked up some of Bird’s mis­steps to its youth, say­ing that the com­pany had been around for only nine months and that the coun­cil should “think about what cars were like when they’d been around for nine months.”

Coun­cil­woman Sue Him­mel­rich shot down the com­par­i­son be­tween scoot­ers and cars, telling Estrada: “I’m a lawyer. Sorry, that doesn’t work on me.”

Be­fore ap­prov­ing the pi­lot pro­gram, coun­cil mem­bers em­pha­sized that they ex­pected bet­ter from the scooter com­pa­nies, that safety was para­mount, and that the city could sus­pend or re­voke permits from com­pa­nies that don’t play by the rules.

Lime, which launched its scoot­ers in Santa Monica last week, wel­comed the pi­lot and said in a state­ment that it looks for­ward to work­ing with the city.

Euwyn Poon, co-founder of San Fran­cisco scooter rental start-up Spin, said Wed­nes­day that since the pi­lot was ap­proved, Spin is “def­i­nitely con­sid­er­ing launch­ing” in Santa Monica, and that it plans to ap­ply for permits when the city be­gins ac­cept­ing ap­pli­ca­tions in July.

Bird’s rep­re­sen­ta­tive was also pleased.

Around mid­night, Estrada left the cham­ber hall with a smile on his face. He said he was happy that City Coun­cil mem­bers amended the pi­lot pro­gram to lift the cap on the num­ber of scoot­ers al­lowed to op­er­ate.

“I think this is a ter­rific re­sult,” he said. “The coun­cil was thought­ful and bal­anced.”

‘This is not a ref­er­en­dum on a sin­gle scooter com­pany. We’re not say­ing these are the hard and fast rules.’ — Ted Win­terer, Santa Monica mayor

Myung J. Chun Los An­ge­les Times

BIRD SCOOT­ERS roll along the side­walk on Colorado Av­enue in Santa Monica. The elec­tric scoot­ers are pop­u­lar with rid­ers, who can rent them by scan­ning a bar­code on the han­dle­bar with an app on their phone.

Gina Fer­azzi Los An­ge­les Times

SUP­PORT­ERS of rental scoot­ers rally out­side Santa Monica City Hall on Tues­day. Rid­ers rent the scoot­ers for $1, plus 15 cents per minute of use.

Gina Fer­azzi Los An­ge­les Times

PRO­PO­NENTS of elec­tric-scooter rental com­pany Bird rally out­side City Hall in Santa Monica. About 50 peo­ple at­tended the rally, which was or­ga­nized by the com­pany to make an en­vi­ron­men­tal sus­tain­abil­ity ar­gu­ment against the city’s pro­posed cap on...

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