Scoot or Scoot Over? Policy Challenges Facing the Increasing Adoption of E-Scooters
August 07, 2019
And it’s not just D.C. Over the past few years, these scooters have popped up in major cities across the world, from Paris to San Francisco. However, as these scooters rapidly integrate into metropolitan areas, they also present a series of important regulatory challenges for modern urban planners and policymakers.
The Big Issues: Safety and Scenery
While electric scooters offer relatively cheap and convenient transportation around cities, their use poses a danger to both pedestrians and riders. A study conducted by the Centers for Disease Prevention and Health in Austin, Texas, found that 20 scooter rides out of every 100,000 result in significant injuries, with 15% of those injuries including severe brain trauma. Other safety concerns include the lack of widespread helmet use, drunk riding, and increased traffic. As a result, many cities, including Washington D.C., have considered prohibiting scooter use and many have outlawed driving the scooters on sidewalks.
Another major concern stems from where riders dock their scooters. Scattered scooters present both an unsafe and unattractive addition to these cities’ landscapes. But to be fair, scooter companies are not completely at fault. Scooter company Lime instructs users to “park in areas outside the main pedestrian pathway,” while another company, Jump, similarly instructs riders to “never leave your scooter blocking walkways or accessibility ramps.” Yet, cities like San Francisco have received an increasing numbers of complaints about these scooters obstructing sidewalks and littering streets. With the increased number of scooter users paired with an increase in complaints from residents, many city policymakers find themselves faced with the challenge of crafting sustainable solutions that work for both sides.
Scooter Regulation and Enforcement Challenges
City governments around the world have struggled with how to regulate these scooters and, more importantly, enforce scooter laws. Some municipalities, such as Nashville and Beverly Hills, have proposed legislation that outright bans e-scooters, following reports of scooter-related deaths. Closer to home, lawmakers in D.C. are considering a bill that imposes a temporary ban on e-scooters from 10 p.m. to 4 a.m., caps the number of scooters in the District, and establishes scooter speed limits. Other policies in the pipeline nationwide would place limitations on where scooters can be parked, prohibit riders from using the sidewalks, and require helmet use.
However, speaking from both research and personal experience, many riders frequently ignore such regulations. According to a survey of e-scooter riders, over half used the sidewalk. Similarly, a UCLA study found that helmet use among riders is less than 4%. And, while these behaviors are illegal in cities such as Washington D.C., San Francisco, and Los Angeles, there is a lack of strong (if any) enforcement mechanisms. Some cities threaten fines for improper scooter use but, without resources devoted to monitoring scooter riders, enforcement measures remain largely unenforceable. It’s as if legislators built a regulatory fence but left the gate wide open, easily allowing circumvention.
Given the developing regulatory environment, some pedestrians have turned to litigation, attempting to sue scooter companies for damages. A handful of lawsuits in California were brought against scooter companies for injuries, but suing these companies – especially when the plaintiff was a rider and not a pedestrian – is an uphill battle. One prominent lawsuit accused Bird and Lime, two scooter companies, of “gross negligence” and “aiding and abetting assault” for allowing customers to dump scooters on the streets and failing to take action on reports of harmed pedestrians.
Beyond lawsuits, some have proposed redesigning cities to accommodate scooters. Many see these low-cost and environmentally-friendly scooters as the future of transportation, so wholeheartedly embracing them may offer an easier solution. Adding scooter lanes, creating two-wheeled parking spaces for scooters, and reintroducing roundabouts could help alleviate traffic and safety issues stemming from increasing scooter use.
Ultimately, e-scooters are likely here to stay. In our age of rapid innovation, technology has begun to outpace our traditionally slow-moving government. Beyond the latest in ride-sharing advances, e-scooters reflect an increasingly communal and gig-based society. The question now is whether governments will choose to fight them, tentatively allow them, or embrace them with open arms.
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The views expressed on the Student Blog are the author’s opinions and don’t necessarily represent the Wharton Public Policy Initiative’s strategies, recommendations, or opinions.