If you spent any time in a major U.S. city this summer, you likely witnessed an electric scooter zooming down the sidewalk. Maybe you were even riding the scooter. Bird, one of the better-known electric scooter start-ups, claims to have facilitated over 1 million rides within a year of its launch.

Electric scooter start-ups are in the business of changing the face of transportation. Bird’s goal is “to alleviate congestion and allow people an easy way to travel quickly for short distances.” In order to access a scooter, a user must download the application to a GPS enabled smartphone, enter a payment method, and pay a small unlocking fee. Despite resistance from cities nationwide, it appears the scooter trend is here to stay.

Electric scooter start-ups launched their businesses with a model similar to Uber and other ride-sharing services. Essentially, the companies drop massive numbers of scooters off overnight, without providing any warning to the city. The rationale behind this invasive methodology is that because there are no regulations in place prohibiting the operations, there is no harm in launching without permission.

As a result of this tactic, angered cities forced the electric scooters off the streets by suing the companies and impounding the scooters. The scooters, however, are largely being reintroduced to the cities that once booted them out. City officials nationwide have worked with the scooter companies to create a series of regulations that allow the scooters back on the sidewalks. Nashville, for example, recently passed an ordinance that allows an electric scooter company to apply for a permit to circulate a number of scooters during the first month of operation. Each month, the threshold number of scooters increases. In Nashville, start-ups Bird and Lime paid $18,000 to release their scooters. Seattle had a similar strategy, but the start-ups pay a much steeper annual fee of $250,000 to keep their product in the market.

The scooters themselves are met with mixed reviews. Proponents of the scooters applaud them as an easy and environmentally-friendly option for short-distance trips. The market for the scooters certainly exists. In April 2018, Bird released data demonstrating that over a month-long period its 100,000 San Francisco rides averaged 1.5 miles. With nearly 40% of U.S. automotive trips less than two miles in length, the scooters represent a shift towards cleaner transportation. The technology is also fun, inexpensive, and user-friendly. But not all that glitters is gold. Opponents to the electric scooter trend claim they are a nuisance because users tend to leave the scooters strewn across sidewalks, hindering the public’s ability to use the sidewalks. The scooters are also attacked as unsafe methods of transportation.

The introduction, banning, and permissive reintroduction of electric scooters in cities nationwide represents the need for cities to develop flexible regulatory frameworks for governing new technologies as they are introduced. The best framework will be one that is suitable for broad application over time. A city introducing regulations for new modes of transportation should take heed of how other cities are regulating the technology, but with the understanding that each city has unique attributes that will greatly influence the best implementation for that particular locale.

Alexandra Bakalar


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