Electric drop-and-go scooters bringing solutions and challenges to final-mile urban mobility, Robert Gray discovers.

The Birds are invading but it’s not a modern twist on Alfred Hitchcock’s classic film of the same name. These Birds are electric scooters seeking to be the elusive answer to the last-mile conundrum.

The black, dock-less stand-up scooters that are rented and “unlocked” by mobile apps can be seen swarming the streets of certain neighbourhoods in Los Angeles, Washington, DC, Nashville, and other major US cities. Yet, they’re not alone; rivals Lime and Spin are also dropping their scooters onto sidewalks across major metro areas. These scooters are taking over sidewalks, college campuses, and urban streets in a number of major metropolitan areas.

Pedestrians, motorists, and city planners alike are trying to figure out exactly where the scooters fit into the changing mobility landscape. “Scooters can be attractive for both point-to-point travel and connecting with transit for trips under three miles,” notes Juan Matute,associate director at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) Institute of Transportation Studies. He added: “They provide a useful mobility option that fills the gap between bikeshare and TNC’s (Uber/Lyft) for less than three-mile trips. 

These scooters are not designed for the long haul – they’re made for a single rider, though they can easily be spotted with two riders, and there’s no seat or basket to help transport parcels. “Scooters are true first mile, whereas if you need to go further and have more hills that’s when a bicycle is a more comfortable experience,” Claire Bowin, senior city planner, city of Los Angeles told journalists.

Bowin also said that, while the city’s mobility plan does not specifically mention scooters, “I think we need to continue to be fluid and accommodative to changing needs and changing urban structures. We knew things were changing (and) tried to write policies broad enough to include innovations and cover their goals.”

Sidewalk surfin’

Not surprisingly, Bird claims that its product is the “perfect option for short trips across town or down the last mile from the metro or bus station”, according to a company spokesperson, who touted the scooter’s ease of use and lack of physical exertion compared to a bicycle. In an email, the spokesperson asserted: “Birds provide an affordable, environmentally friendly transportation option”, adding that the scooters are collected each night and then redeployed in busy areas which helps cut down on sidewalk clutter.

Matutetold TU-Automotivethis flexibility gives scooters a leg up on docked bicycle sharing programmes. “Their dock-less nature means they can aggregate in locations of highest demand, rather than in the locations where docks can be most conveniently placed. Many cities don't want to remove parking or travel lanes for bikeshare docks, and bikeshare's business model means that larger docks are more cost-effective.  Dock-less means that vehicles can be distributed in sets of one to three, something not economical for docked bikeshare.”

The scooters are “unlocked” by a mobile app, linked to a user’s account and credit card. Bird’s website instructions states that helmets should be worn (and the company even offers to provide them), riders should be 18 or older, and there should not be more than a single person onboard. A short drive down virtually any street on the Westside of Los Angeles reveals numerous violations of these requirements, sometimes all at once – scooters swarming sidewalks, tandem riders on a single scooter, children driving the electric vehicles and, in researching this article, l spotted just one single helmet on a rider out of hundreds of riders observed. That single rider was apparently a father perhaps modelling behaviour as he was scooting just behind his young daughter who was riding her bicycle with a helmet.

Matute says the scooters’ lack of individual ownership and accountability, especially when it comes to parking them, may lead to bad behaviour in other ways such as leaving the vehicles on access ramps: “With a shared scooter I never have to return to the same scooter and I may not be reprimanded by the company for bad behaviour, especially if I'm a frequent user.  It will be up to the scooter companies to self-regulate to enforce user behaviour, or they'll face stronger regulations from the cities.”

The Bird spokesperson told us: “Riders rent Bird vehicles and issues regarding rider responsibility are similar to car rentals.” In other words, it’s up to riders to follow the rules. It remains to be seen if more stringent regulation may bring a change in this laissez-faire, self-regulation. However, the company is being proactive in trying to corral the far-flung Birds, which are often abandoned in front of schools, coffee shops, and offices. Bird is hiring “chargers” to collect them each night, recharge the batteries at home and then drop them at designated locations the following day.

Bird’s founder and CEO Travis VanderZanden has also challenged other electric scooter and bike-sharing companies to take the “Save Our Sidewalks” (SOS) pledge. He contends this will help American cities avoid the “fate of many Chinese cities where out-of-control vehicle deployment has led to piles of abandoned and broken bicycles over-running sidewalks and polluting public areas”. The proposal includes daily pickup and retrieval of vehicles, not increase a city’s supply if demand not growing and commit to sharing $1 per vehicle per day to city governments to build more bike lanes and other road-sharing initiatives. A Bird spokesperson said so far there has been no uptake by rivals.

User behaviour

Meanwhile, says disruption is good: “These things cause trouble, conflicting with traditional behaviour that people want to hold onto. I like to push the boundaries and feel like we need to support and evolve. Safety needs to be front and centre but we need to work cooperatively to employ these new things in the best way possible.”

In the wake of the Facebook privacy brouhaha, riders may eventually find fault with these mobile app-based scooters tracking and possibly sharing their movements. Bird says the data it collects is used to improve rider safety and experience and that it’s only used for these purposes.

Bowin said she is not concerned about protecting privacy of movements as the tracking is useful for the city and the department of transportation. “We have always struggled with data relative to the number of people using things outside of your car. These new forms of transportation are able to get more hard data; it’s a positive thing from our perspective. It helps us to know if we need to put a bike docking station here, or facilitating parking for scooters here because of demand. That’s up to software people to protect the data and giving us the data to put in improvements.”

[Mob.Gray.2018.03.29]