Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab, covering transportation, infrastructure, and the environment. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps that reveal and shape urban spaces (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles, GOOD, L.A. Review of Books, and beyond.
As Bird, LimeBike, and Spin unleash dockless scooters in new cities, turf battles are breaking out.
Save your battles over affordable housing for another day. There’s a new urban crisis afoot: the scooter.
Not the Razor scooters that kids used to zoom around on, but dockless scooters—the electric, rentable, bitty-wheeled cousins of the dockless bike. They seem to have first emerged in Santa Monica in September 2017, when scooter-share startup Bird dispatched hundreds of its motor-assisted, foot-powered black vehicles into public streets without city permission. Since then, LimeBike, Spin, and other players in the dockless bikesharing industry have entered the fray, spraying thousands of their own scooters onto the sidewalks of San Diego, San Francisco, San Jose, Washington, D.C., and Austin.
Like their pedal-powered relatives, the scooters are available to book via app and can be parked and picked up anywhere, thanks to GPS and sensor-enabled technology. And much like the early days of Uber and Lyft, the out-of-nowhere appearance of these scooters has triggered a backlash from locals in virtually every city. Meanwhile, the players are competing fiercely for territory.
These battles reached new heights this week. On Monday, LimeBike launched the opening salvo in Austin: It inserted more than 200 bright-green scooters into public rights-of-way, having sent a sorry-not-sorry letter to Mayor Steve Adler last week. Previously LimeBike had been negotiating with Adler’s office to launch its various wares through a city-backed dockless mobility pilot program. But after Bird unleashed its signature black scooters into the streets earlier this month, and the city responded with only a timid attempt at enforcement, LimeBike took its gloves off.
“It is now apparent that our competitor will be allowed to operate without any significant repercussions,” LimeBike CEO and founder Tony Sun said in the letter, which also referenced Bird’s controversial arrival in Santa Monica. After the city attorney’s office accused the company of failing to obtain a proper business license, the city took Bird to criminal court and eventually settled for $300,000. “[W]e are considering our next steps as a company if the City of Austin is unable to vigorously enforce its dock-free mobility policies,” Sun wrote.
The same day, scooter-rage reached fever pitch in San Francisco. There, the city attorney’s office issued a cease-and-desist order against LimeBike, Spin and Bird for routinely breaking the law and “endangering public health and safety," following a mess of complaints from residents about disorganized parking and hazardous sidewalk usage, epitomized by a hashtag befitting of this fraught political moment: #ScootersBehavingBadly.
The scooters aren’t actually banned in San Francisco—the city has given the three companies until April 30 to submit plans for how they’ll straighten out. But that didn’t stop a major scooter-share investor from penning an op-ed in the San Francisco Chronicle accusing the city supervisor who is pushing to regulate the new mode with “refus[ing] to embrace the changes necessary for our city to reach our climate goals.”
Followers of the earlier emergence of shared mobility modes such as ride-hailing and dockless bikes may detect a pattern here. San Francisco had previously asked that electric scooter companies hold off on launching services until a new scooter-permitting process was completed. Bird disobeyed that request when it deployed scooters in the Bay Area in late March (though LimeBike had arrived a few days prior).* Announcing the launch, Bird also challenged its competitors to match its “Save Our Sidewalks” corporate pledge, in which the company promises to organize scooters at the end of the day, remove underutilized vehicles, and remit some revenue to the city to support bike lanes and other scooter-friendly infrastructure.
A few days later, San Francisco-based rival Spin released a handful of its own dockless scooters, and its CEO, Euwyn Poon, responded to Bird’s pledge on Medium. “Our competitors’ recent overtures, including a recent ‘Save our Sidewalks’ campaign, come off as insincere given recent criminal complaints and settlements,” he wrote. “Unlike the other operators, we reached out to the appropriate stakeholders before operating in San Francisco.” But, as LimeBike did in Austin, Spin followed Bird’s lead and started operating in the Bay.
Perhaps it’s no surprise that Bird is the most aggressive in the pack—its CEO Travis VanderZanden was formerly an executive at both Uber and Lyft, and it has $100 million in Series B funding to pursue its vision of deploying scooters and scooters alone in 50 U.S. cities. Its competitors, meanwhile, are more focused on bikes. Following the Uber-esque business ethos of move-first-apologize-later, Bird is essentially forcing its rivals to enter cities faster than they might have otherwise. It’s classic tech industry hubris.
But the upside to the “micromobility wars,” as lawyer-writer Jim McPherson recently dubbed this multi-city e-scooter standoff, is that it seems to force local regulators to move a little faster. After Bird settled with Santa Monica earlier this year, the city issued a stopgap emergency ordinance legalizing the scooters under certain conditions. Now, both San Francisco and Austin are hustling to update codes and regulate the new mode. Yesterday, San Francisco city officials heard proposed legislation that would permit scooter companies and enforce laws around parking and usage. And Austin authorities are feeling the pressure: “In order to forestall a predictable and unmanageable swamping of our streets with thousands of vehicles, (the department) recommends a more nimble response than our previously expressed pilot time frame,” Austin’s transportation department director said in a memo to city council on Monday.
That would seem to be a good thing—like their bicycle brethren and unlike their ride-hailing predecessors, electric scooters have the potential to replace trips that might otherwise be made in cars. Cities that want to cut down on vehicle miles and emissions should encourage them, not shut them down. No wonder #ScootersBehavingBadly has already created its own backlash, complete with counter-hashtags, from pedestrian and cycling advocates (and certain faux anti-urbanists). They argue that scooter crackdowns are a distraction from the real threat to street safety: #CarsKillingPeople and #CarsAreTheProblem.
Someone abandoned a dockless @Honda “powered car” this morning at 39th and Sloat. I am really glad @walksf and the @sfbos are on top of regulating these companies that are going rogue. #VisionZeroSF #ScootersBehavingBadly pic.twitter.com/OKBajHkvA1— Yes RM3/C/E/F/G, No B/H, Mayor: AFW/LB, D8: Sheehy (@maelig) April 17, 2018
Whether they are saviors or sidewalk menaces, dockless bikes, scooters, and other micromobility modes may face a very uncertain future once the venture capital that funds them runs out. The scooters are considerably pricier to rent than bikes, which rent for about $1 per 30 minutes; both Bird, Spin, and LimeBike charge scooter riders $1 to start and then 15 cents per minute thereafter, which comes to about $10 per hour. That could make for a profitable business model, especially once it’s legalized. But there are many questions about how well these things actually perform at their mobility tasks. Compared to bicycles, they are limited in their range and speed: On a full charge, the maximum range of Bird scooters is just 15 miles (other companies seem to go a little further), and have a claimed top speed of 15 mph. It’s too soon to say whether that’s quick and efficient enough to sustain “last-mile electric vehicle sharing,” as Bird describes it services.
For now, perhaps the scooter’s moment in the limelight of urban turf wars should be savored for the levity it brings to the news, compared to the national and international political scene. There are much graver battles happening between private interests and public good, and indeed other scooters to indict. “Apparently Bird, or LimeBike, or both, misinterpreted Trump’s order last week pardoning scooters. Or perhaps I’m confused,” quipped Ben Wear, a transportation reporter for the American-Statesman in Austin. A city can dream.
*CORRECTION: Bird representatives maintain that the company was in touch with Austin officials prior to launching there, and that operations in Santa Monica were in fact legal, contrary to a previous version of this article. Also, Santa Monica officials filed a criminal complaint, not a cease-and-desist order, against Bird.