The scooter invasion is here: How Austin and the Bay Area are coping

You would not think that something like an electric scooter would prompt the need for urgent regulation, but that’s the situation in some cities. Following the dockless bicycle rentals that have sprung up in some cities, electric scooters are now taking others by storm. One Austin, Texas, resident describes the scene there as like a “scooter bomb went off.”

The issue is this: Innovation is taking place at an ever increasing pace. The rental companies say they’re in a race to establish a market before competitors leave them in the dust; they can’t afford to wait for regulation.

But that’s putting cities in a race that they didn’t enter. If they don’t adapt quickly, livability is at stake. — Kevin Ebi

Austin, Texas, had planned to launch a pilot this summer to test the feasibility of electric scooter rentals as a means to help people travel short distances in the city. But it may be forced into doing that earlier by two companies that have jumped the gun in a race to command market share.

The dockless scooters are taking over the sidewalks of other cities as well, prompting some, like San Francisco, to declare them a “public nuisance.” The situation is triggering a debate over when is the right time to regulate.

A race for market share
The situation is escalating fast in Austin. LimeBike put 200 electric scooters — essentially motorized, narrow skateboards with handlebars — on Austin’s streets Monday, a little over a week after competitor Bird Rides rolled out its scooters.

LimeBike says it was disappointed in the city’s weak reaction. Bird Rides launched its service just one day after 10 bike-share companies met with the city to talk about potential regulations. They were all supposed to wait until regulations were in place. LimeBike says it was frustrated that the city only threatened to impound scooters abandoned for more than 48 hours rather than ordering Bird Rides to stop service.

The Austin American-Statesman newspaper found there may be something to LimeBike’s concerns. A reporter found several people using Bird Rides’s scooters; the LimeBike scooters were parked.

Like a “scooter bomb” went off
One Austin resident describes the situation as “like a scooter bomb went off.” Kit O’Connell said she found the city’s sidewalks “suddenly littered with discarded scooters.” And she points out that’s a significant accessibility issue for those who physically struggle to get around the new obstacles.

The scooters aren’t supposed to be dumped on the sidewalks, but given that they don’t have to be returned to docking stations, there’s little preventing the renters from dropping them off wherever they feel like it. And that is what prompted San Francisco to take tougher action.

San Francisco says it found 66 rental scooters blocking sidewalks and doorways. It impounded them and then declared them a public nuisance. Three rental companies were operating in the city. The city issued cease and desist orders to all three.

When is the right time to regulate?
Bird Bikes claims it’s better for everyone to launch the service before rules are in place to govern it. It says you can’t make effective rules until you’ve seen how they’re used in the real world. The problems that arise are data — data that will result in better regulations.

It’s essentially how cities responded to the launches of the ride-hailing services Uber and Lyft, and San Francisco, which has called the scooter company executives “spoiled brats,” says it’s not about to go down that path again. San Francisco Supervisor Aaron Peskin told the Mercury News, “San Francisco has learned from the earlier experience of Airbnb and Uber that we should be at the table from the beginning and not after the fact.”

For its part, Austin appears to be moving toward launching its pilot early. A six-month test with per-scooter licensing fees could be defined by the end of next week.

Back in the Bay Area, San Jose plans to have a draft regulatory framework ready in September. It says it hasn’t had many problems with the scooters so far and wants to see what the real problems are before writing rules.