The Santa Monica City Council has approved an emergency ordinance to get a better grip on the thousands of Bird scooters left on sidewalks around town. The new rule allows the city to collect a $60 impound fee for any “shared mobility device” that poses an immediate hazard or obstructs access to public space. The emergency rules come as three more companies file paperwork to operate so-called “dockless” mobility systems in the city.

“We want to try to prevent this from getting out of control because this isn’t just about Bird. We have three other companies that have dockless bicycles that want to come into Santa Monica,” said Salvador Valles, the city’s assistant director of planning and community development Tuesday.

City staff will return to Council in the coming months to carve out a new, permanent regulatory framework to govern e-bikes, scooters, and bike rental operators that function without a fixed location. Bird allows users to pick up and drop off scooters anywhere within the city. The company is currently hammering out partnerships with private businesses to serve as more “nests” for the scooters to park without being in the public right-of-way. Each scooter has a GPS tracker that allows users and the company to track their whereabouts.

“We are eager to collaborate with shared mobility companies to develop a longer-term regulatory approach that enhances transportation options while protecting public safety and accessibility,” said Deputy City Manager Anuj Gupta. “In the meantime, we anticipate that companies will achieve voluntary compliance by limiting their vending of devices to private property locations.”

Valles pointed to the situation in Dallas, Texas as evidence of what can go wrong without regulations. In that city, dockless bike systems competing for users have flooded streets with 20,000 bicycles. The bikes clutter sidewalks near parks and even end up in water features because of careless riders.

In this city, code enforcement personnel have to wait 10 minutes before impounding any Bird scooter that does not constitute an immediate hazard. The municipal code was written in a way to give property owners a few minutes to come back and retrieve items left on the sidewalk, not to manage thousands of shared mobility devices.

“Put your toys away, damn it,” said Councilman Kevin McKeown who joined the 5-1 vote for the emergency ordinance while also calling it as toothless as an actual bird. Staff had originally proposed an emergency ordinance that included administrative fines of $500 to $1000 for violating the law but eliminated the fines after receiving backlash. A supplemental report submitted to the Council narrowed the scope of the rules and eliminated most of the fines except for devices deemed a “hazard” or obstruction.

Councilmember Terry O’Day voted against the new rules, arguing issues can be worked out when drafting individual permits. O’Day believes the city should embrace the dockless systems that commuters more options when they leave their cars at home.

“The hardest thing…is getting consumers to change behavior and here is an operation that has demonstrated that magical ability,” O’Day said. “People ride bikes and scooters on the sidewalk because it’s not safe on the streets. It’s our job to make the streets safe for those folks.”

“We support regulation but we want regulation to happen as part of a discussion,” said Carl Hanson, a member of Bird’s new government relations team, who called the emergency ordinance “rushed” and “heavy-handed.”

The emergency ordinance amends the Municipal Code to establish that dockless mobility systems are subject to vending regulations.

Kate Cagle

Senior reporter for the Santa Monica Daily Press