A seemingly straightforward vote to extend the existing rental scooters and e-bikes pilot program exposed divisions within the Council last week with one councilmember suggesting the devices no longer belong in the city at all.
The City is about to embark on a new phase of scooter regulation restricting operations in the city to just two companies. However, that process is still under negotiation and last week Council was asked to extend the current multi-company system temporarily.
Council voted 5-2 in favor of extending the Shared Mobility Device Pilot Program, with Councilmembers Phil Brock and Oscar de la Torre both voting against the motion.
Brock’s opposition to rental scooters was apparent from the beginning.
“Residents still talk to me, every week, about scooters blocking sidewalks or scooters on the bike path,” Brock said, adding, “Today I turned a corner, there was a scooter blocking the sidewalk … What have we done to prohibit them from being left in the right-of-ways on sidewalks or left in places where they would block residents from walking and enjoying the city?”
Brock said he’d be willing to remove the devices entirely and see if they were missed.
“…I’m not sure I see the worth anymore,” he said. “And I almost would rather see a couple of months of peace and quiet on our streets to see if residents came back and said ‘hey, we need those scooters.’”
Electric powered rental scooters appeared in Santa Monica in September 2017 and these were manufactured by Bird, the company that arguably started the micromobility industry. It earned a checkered reputation for its lax approach to local legislation, but experienced explosive growth for several years becoming the fastest company to reach a Silicon Valley valuation of a billion dollars. One year later, the first Shared Mobility Pilot Program was launched in the city, with four operators: Bird, Lime, Lyft and Jump.
In March of 2021, Jump and Lime left the Santa Monica market following a Covid-caused downsize and a second pilot program was launched in July 2021. However, Bird was not selected at that time. Instead Veo, Spin, Lyft and Wheels were chosen for the second program.
The vote in Tuesday’s meeting was simply to allow the existing status quo to continue for 30 days while negotiations continue with potential vendors for a new iteration of the program. The current permits expire October 1 and without new authorization, all rental scooters would have been banned.
While some Councilmembers wanted more information on who would be allowed to operate in the city going forward and how those companies were being chosen, staff said those details were outside the scope of the agendized item.
“That process is not before the council tonight, this is merely the extension to allow for that process to be completed. So it would be premature to [discuss] those details at this point,” City Attorney Doug Sloan said, adding that two parties were indeed involved in negotiations, “But the specifics of the proposals is really not an appropriate discussion tonight.”
Staff said more comprehensive information would be forthcoming as the process concludes.
“We do plan on going into much more detail on the mechanics of the process, as well as the substance of the proposals that won and the terms that we negotiate,” said Trevor Thomas, Senior Transportation Planner with the Department of Transportation.
According to Thomas, there are something like 800,000 to a million trips on e-scooters and e-bikes every year in Santa Monica and approximately one third of those are undertaken by residents. If one third of those 800,000 rides were turned into car rides, we would have 275,000 additional car trips on our street every year.
Brock continued unabated, “And they promised us this great technology. They promised us the four wheel or the three wheel technology, they promised us that either Veo or Spin, one of the two, said we’ll be able to actually remotely move a scooter out of the right-of-way. That’s what they promised. None of that happened. Once they got the contract. It was back to a free for all,” he said.
De la Torre hinted that he had doubts by saying, “I’m also very concerned about the injuries and stuff because that’s still a cost [to the City] I mean, every accident is, you know, police resources, you know, fire all that, you know, being invested. So there’s a cost to the city for all that.”
While complaints about the scooters focused on their use of public space and potential dangers, supporters compared them to cars.
“Have we had more than 16 car accidents in Santa Monica this year? Yes. How much do we charge cars to use our streets just to drive, I’m not talking about parking or anything? How much do we charge cars? Nothing. And do we allow apron parking? Do we allow cars to park across the aprons in residential areas, which sometimes blocks the sidewalks?” Mayor Gleam Davis asked, “Has anyone suggested banning cars because they do that?”
Councilmember Jesse Zwick was concerned about the future of scooters in the city and which companies will be allowed to operate here citing Bird’s recent delisting from the New York Stock Exchange and its subsequent purchase of Spin.
“I’m excited to both extend this temporarily and to move to a new contract model that we’ve been talking about for some time,” he said.
Thomas said staff will be evaluating all the recent developments with the various companies before returning to council.
“We’re working with city attorney’s office procurement and staff generally, just to make sure that we’re on solid footing going forward with respect to that sort of change in ownership,” he said. “And that’s not going to throw a wrench in anything.”
The motion to approve the extension was made by Councilmember Caroline Torosis and seconded by Mayor Pro Tempore Lana Negrete.