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Signs inform scooter users that they are forbidden from riding into local parks and tourist attractions, but the message really gets across after the devices automatically stop when riders try their luck.
Santa Monica was one of the first cities in the world to use geofencing to manage the movement of electric scooters. The city requires the four companies allowed to operate within its borders — Bird, Lime, Lyft and Jump — to maintain geofences around the Third Street Promenade, Santa Monica Pier, Palisades Park, Santa Monica State Beach and city parks that can communicate with the GPS on a scooter or bike and force the device to slow down or stop.
At first, the geofences slowed scooters and bikes to 5 miles per hour because officials worried that shutting them off completely would result in obstructive pileups of abandoned devices. But last summer, the city started requiring Bird, Lime, Lyft and Jump to gradually bring scooters and bikes to a full stop and collect any devices left behind, which officials said has been more effective in preventing collisions and conflict between riders and pedestrians.
But the technology has its limitations. Kyle Kozar, a senior transportation planner who oversees the Shared Mobility Pilot Program, said devices are not always able to immediately register a geofence.
While that matters less for larger areas like the beach bike path, Kozar said it can be tricky to geofence anything narrower, such as Palisades Park or the Promenade.
“Just like your cellphone, there can be all types of signal and connection issues, and on top of that, the GPS is accurate down to 30 feet or sometimes worse depending on the connection,” Kozar said. “It might take some time before the GPS recognizes that they’ve entered a prohibited zone. You could ride into Palisades Park and if you’re moving at 10 to 15 miles per hour, you can cover some distance in the 30 seconds before it registers.”
Using geofencing to keep scooters off of sidewalks — as officials in Santa Monica and other cities have proposed — would be almost impossible with current technology, Kozar said. A geofence can’t detect a device in the time it takes to ride a scooter across a sidewalk or differentiate between the sidewalk and the street with 100% accuracy, he said.
“You don’t want to get into a situation where someone is in a bike lane next to the sidewalk but the geofence registers that they’re on the sidewalk and shuts the device off while they’re riding with traffic,” he said. “That would be a risk to the user.”
New technology to restrict sidewalk riding is in the works, however. Last summer, the city partnered with Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo and Amazon Web Services to create a prototype of a technology that uses a combination of GPS and gyroscopic vibration sensors to distinguish between the sidewalk and the street. Scooter companies have expressed interest in bringing the technology to market, Kozar said.
“It will take a lot of testing and trial and error,” Kozar said. “But all cities want the tools to solve these problems and companies know that.”