Electric scooter companies showed strength in numbers Tuesday, calling on their fleet of independent contractors and tech enthusiasts to argue against a cap on the number of dockless electric devices in Santa Monica city limits. During a five-hour debate over a new pilot program to govern the disruptive companies, the City Council declined to set finite limits on the number of devices zipping around town.
“Cities like Santa Monica haven’t seen so much disruption on our streets since Henry Ford flooded them with Model Ts and scared the horses,” said Councilmember Kevin McKeown.
Under the new ordinance, the city will select up to four vendors to operate during a 16-month program. Vendors will be required to meet utilization targets to ensure efficient use of both bikes and scooters. City staff had recommended capping the number of devices around 1,500 – roughly the amount of Birds already strewn on city sidewalks on any given day. However, representatives for Bird, Lime and Ofo Bikes argued the scooters’ ubiquitous nature is crucial to their success, allowing the convenience of a cheap electric ride on any street corner.
“The market will, in the end, establish the number of devices…none of these companies have the incentive either financially or operationally to have more devices on the streets than are really being used,” said Philip Recht, a lobbyist for Beijing-based Ofo Bikes, which is currently valued at $3 billion, with 10 million yellow bicycles deployed in 20 countries.
According to City Hall, the pilot program will:
- Set a dynamic device cap based on utilization.
- Require vendors to create interactive safety education for users and increase the availability of helmets for riders at the time of use.
- Require operators to share real-time utilization data with the City.
- Allow up to four operators to be selected to participate made up of at least two electric scooter and two electric bike options.
- Ensure equitable distribution throughout the City.
- Require operators to develop systems that will remedy improper parking, including pick up/drop off zones and incentives.
- Enhance operator customer service and responsiveness to resident and user complaints, including a 24-hour hotline.
- Set forth a broader list of recommended program components through which partners could be evaluated during the pilot term.
Several cities across the globe have experienced escalating levels of dockless device clutter as companies race to capture market share in a brand new business. In Dallas, for example, various companies littered streets with as many as 20,000 bikes in their quest to attract loyal riders with convenience.
Nine months after their debut, Bird’s chief legal officer pivoted from disruption to cooperation. In February, the start-up settled a lawsuit from the city arguing the company operated without the proper business licenses, agreeing to pay $300,000 in fines. The E-scooter company has now expanded into cities across the United States and is reportedly worth $1 billion.
“We are so far from perfect,” lawyer David Estrada said while offering a menu of solutions to appease Councilmembers’ concerns about public safety. City leaders said they received more than 1,000 duplicate emails from Bird riders supporting the controversial company. Several speakers complained Bird has refused to cooperate with the Santa Monica Police Department and the public to punish users who violate the vehicle laws or carelessly dump scooters on driveways and wheelchair ramps.
Bird will be just one of several companies competing for the right to operate in the city. Applicants will have to suggest interactive safety solutions to rampant user violations, as thousands of users illegally ride without helmets and on city sidewalks. The Council also suggested a program to distribute helmets more quickly to first time users, such as a partnership with hotels to provide helmets to tourists.
The Council heard from more than fifty public speakers on the issue, including longtime residents who complained careless users run down pedestrians and leave the electric scooters strewn across the public right-of-way.
“Basically pedestrians have become the bowling pins of Santa Monica. We are an endangered species. We cannot walk safely down the street,” said resident Bill Davids.
Under the pilot program, electric bike and scooter companies will work with the city to establish pick up and drop off zones. Councilmember Terry O’Day urged planning staff to consider leasing street parking spaces to the companies to move the devices off sidewalks.