Cal­i­for­nia firms hope scooter shar­ing will win state ap­proval

Elec­tric de­vices pose some prob­lems

The Buffalo News - - FRONT PAGE - By Tom Pre­cious

AL­BANY – Elec­tric scooter shar­ing might be com­ing to New York State this year.

Ubiq­ui­tous over the past cou­ple years on the streets of many Cal­i­for­nia com­mu­ni­ties and spread­ing east­ward to dozens of other com­mu­ni­ties, the elec­tric scoot­ers are get­ting the back­ing of Gov. An­drew M. Cuomo and some law­mak­ers who want to see the de­vices op­er­at­ing from Buf­falo to Man­hat­tan.

Called elec­tric scoot­ers, the one-per­son de­vices can move in and out of traf­fic – and, to the dis­may of pedes­tri­ans, along side­walks in some com­mu­ni­ties – at up to 20 mph pace. They are al­ready in some ar­eas of the state – though in vi­o­la­tion of New York law.

Now, elec­tric scooter star­tups are push­ing hard to get New York State law changed, clear­ing the way for ride-hail­ing com­pa­nies to bring tens of thou­sands of the mo­tor­ized de­vices into the state mar­ket­place. A push is also un­der­way to ex­plic­itly per­mit op­er­a­tion of elec­tric bikes, which of­fer rid­ers as­sis­tance with ped­al­ing.

For pol­i­cy­mak­ers, how­ever, there are ques­tions still to be re­solved, not the least of which is how to make elec­tric scoot­ers safer – for users and nonusers.

“Au­tho­riz­ing these trans­porta­tion al­ter­na­tives in a sen­si­ble and safe­ty­con­scious man­ner will pro­vide cheaper and more en­vi­ron­men­tally friendly tran­sit op­tions to New York­ers and vis­i­tors who can use these op­tions for work or leisure,” said Ja­son Con­wall, a Cuomo spokesman.

Lobby comes to Al­bany

Heard of Bird Rides, Lime or Bolt? Most New York­ers haven’t.

But the com­pa­nies have lob­by­ists work­ing the Capi­tol’s hall­ways push­ing mea­sures to bring elec­tric scoot­ers to the state in less re­stric­tive ways than how Cuomo last month pro­posed to le­gal­ize elec­tric scoot­ers and e-bikes.

Lime, based in San Fran­cisco, last week had a cou­ple of lob­by­ists push­ing around one of its scoot­ers on the Capi­tol’s third floor, show­ing off the de­vice to law­mak­ers and staffers.

Bird Rides, based in Santa Mon­ica, Calif., is not yet 2 years old and is al­ready val­ued at $2 bil­lion.

The firm is pay­ing lob­by­ists a to­tal of $40,000 a month – a price tag that out­paces what most of the na­tion’s largest com­pa­nies spend to in­flu­ence Al­bany.

Ex­ec­u­tives with Bird, the largest elec­tric scooter com­pany al­ready op­er­at­ing in 100 cities around the world, late last month sub­mit­ted writ­ten tes­ti­mony to a joint As­sem­bly and Sen­ate panel that was go­ing through Cuomo’s bud­get re­lated to trans­porta­tion. It called elec­tric scoot­ers a “trans­for­ma­tive, af­ford­able, and en­vi­ron­men­tally friendly way to travel.”

Elec­tric scoot­ers, which have a han­dle­bar with throt­tle and brake con­trols and a nar­row plat­form on which rid­ers stand, emerged on the streets of sev­eral Cal­i­for­nia com­mu­ni­ties via a ride-hail­ing pro­gram less than two years ago. Un­like bike­shar­ing pro­grams in many com­mu­ni­ties in New York, the scoot­ers are not docked, or locked, into any sort of pub­lic sta­tion.

The scooter in­dus­try calls what they of­fer “last-mile” trans­porta­tion, such as get­ting con­sumers from a bus or sub­way stop to their home or work. The pitch is that it gets people out of cars, thereby re­liev­ing con­ges­tion and pol­lu­tion.

Us­ing smart­phone apps, rid­ers in Cal­i­for­nia pay $1 to ac­ti­vate a scooter and then 20 cents per minute.

Safety has been a ris­ing con­cern, how­ever. The third known scooter­re­lated death on a road or side­walk oc­curred last week in Austin, Texas, and Con­sumer Re­ports re­cently said at least 1,500 people in the United States have been in­jured in elec­tric scooter-re­lated crashes since late 2017.

Scooter plans afoot

Leg­is­la­tion has been kick­ing around to per­mit elec­tric scoot­ers in New York. But the ef­fort has in­ten­si­fied this year via well-placed lob­by­ists and the re­cent plan that Cuomo put into his 2019 bud­get.

A cen­tral pro­vi­sion in Cuomo’s pro­posal would al­low lo­cal­i­ties to “opt in” to an elec­tric scooter pro­gram. The scooter in­dus­try is try­ing to change that to make it an “opt out” pro­gram.

Cuomo also wants a re­quire­ment that all elec­tric scooter rid­ers wear hel­mets. Such a re­quire­ment does not fit with the dock­less world of elec­tric scoot­ers. Bird Rides gives free hel­mets to cus­tomers who ask, but any­one who has been to Cal­i­for­nia in the past year can attest to the hel­met­less ways of most elec­tric scooter rid­ers.

The Cuomo plan would limit elec­tric scoot­ers to one rider who must be at least 16 years old. It al­lows lo­cal­i­ties to fur­ther reg­u­late things like max­i­mum speeds, time of day they can op­er­ate and ar­eas of a com­mu­nity where the de­vices would be banned. The pro­posal also states that the de­vices could op­er­ate on pub­lic roads where speed lim­its have a posted max­i­mum of 30 mph, though lo­cal­i­ties could let them op­er­ate on side­walks so long as elec­tric scooter op­er­a­tors kept their speeds be­low 8 mph.

The Cuomo pro­posal also sets fines for im­prop­erly op­er­at­ing elec­tric scoot­ers, with penal­ties ris­ing sharply for us­ing the de­vices while im­paired by al­co­hol or drugs.

Not all of­fi­cials sold yet

Some lo­cal govern­ment lead­ers are tak­ing a cau­tious ap­proach. Buf­falo Mayor By­ron Brown, one of the cities tar­geted by elec­tric scooter com­pa­nies, has con­cerns about the pro­posed leg­is­la­tion, his spokesman said.

“There have been is­sues in other mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties re­gard­ing these ve­hi­cles when it comes to the safety of them, the stor­age of them and other con­cerns,” said Brown spokesman Michael DeGe­orge.

Michael Gal­ligano, CEO of Buf­falo-based Shared Mo­bil­ity, which has helped launch bike-shar­ing pro­grams in com­mu­ni­ties across the state, sup­ports ef­forts to bring elec­tric scoot­ers and e-bikes to New York. But he cau­tioned that the de­vices are markedly dif­fer­ent from one another and need to be treated by reg­u­la­tors ac­cord­ingly.

“The ef­fect will be huge if done right, but detri­men­tal if done wrong,” Gal­ligano said of New York’s at­tempt to in­crease use of the de­vices. He noted prob­lems have arisen in other states where elec­tric scoot­ers, not hav­ing to be teth­ered to a lock­ing sta­tion like bike-shar­ing pro­grams, have been left scat­tered around side­walks.

There are also con­cerns about li­a­bil­ity. Some cities re­quire scooter com­pa­nies to carry in­sur­ance poli­cies on de­vices, but ques­tions have been raised about li­a­bil­ity in scooter­re­lated crashes.

“There are hun­dreds of scoot­ers in some cities and they have caused some headaches and have in­sur­ance im­pli­ca­tions for con­sumers, mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties and in­sur­ance com­pa­nies,” the Na­tional As­so­ci­a­tion of In­sur­ance Com­mis­sion­ers re­cently warned in a con­sumer alert.

Clearly, the elec­tric scooter-shar­ing in­dus­try has its eyes on the state’s big­gest prize: New York City. Bird Rides, in its re­cent tes­ti­mony pro­vided to state law­mak­ers, pre­sented safety claims and eco­nomic and en­vi­ron­men­tal ben­e­fits. The com­pany, whose founder was a top ex­ec­u­tive with Lyft and Uber, said cities in New York have been made to “fall be­hind the rest of the coun­try in adopt­ing this next gen­er­a­tion of mi­cro­mo­bil­ity.”

The com­pany wants elec­tric scoot­ers to be treated like bi­cy­cles; in New York, only bi­cy­cle rid­ers un­der the age of 14 must wear hel­mets. Treat­ing elec­tric scoot­ers like bikes, for the pur­poses of reg­u­la­tions, is “an in­tu­itive and sim­ple ap­proach” that is eas­i­est for con­sumers to un­der­stand, Bird Rides told state law­mak­ers.

Elec­tric scooter ad­vo­cates say com­mu­ni­ties in New York should em­brace in­fra­struc­ture im­prove­ments – such as ded­i­cated bike and scooter lanes and park­ing ar­eas for scoot­ers and ebikes – if the de­vices are go­ing to truly mean a re­duc­tion in auto use.

State Sen. Tim Kennedy, a Buf­falo Demo­crat and the new chair­man of the Sen­ate Trans­porta­tion Com­mit­tee, said “there’s def­i­nitely move­ment” on a mea­sure to le­gal­ize elec­tric scoot­ers. He called the de­vices “con­ve­nient and en­vi­ron­men­tally friendly.”

But he said there is fur­ther ex­am­i­na­tion to be had to en­sure they do not pose a dan­ger.

“The gover­nor moved the ball for­ward, but the full im­ple­men­ta­tion and in­te­gra­tion into the com­mu­ni­ties has to be done in a way that’s safe and ef­fec­tive in the long run,” Kennedy said.

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