Activist Government vs. Emergent, Bottom-Up Solutions

From Engadget, on rental scooters in SF:

San Francisco is a city where companies frequently like to try out new ideas. Uber had its start here many years ago, as did success stories like Twitter and Airbnb. So it's no surprise that San Francisco happens to be one of many cities experiencing a new form of transportation: sharable electric scooters. They appeared in downtown SF seemingly out of nowhere, taking over sidewalks and pedestrian paths. But what was marketed as a low-cost, eco-friendly way to get around town soon became a public nuisance.

It all started in late March when three companies -- BirdSpin and LimeBike -- unveiled their scooter-sharing solutions in San Francisco. All three work the same way: You unlock the scooter with an app, pay a nominal amount -- $1 to unlock and 15 cents a minute thereafter. When you're done, simply lock it with the app and it'll be ready for the next person to hop on.

Unlike docked bicycles, like the Ford GoBikes in San Francisco or New York City's Citi Bikes, you don't have to park them in designated spaces; they can be left anywhere. These scooters are then rounded up and collected every night for any necessary repairs or charging and then redistributed the next day.

In the meantime, though, they're often strewn aside carelessly, blocking the public right-of-way, thus making it especially difficult for wheelchairs and those with disabilities to move past them. Further, scooter riders are using them on the sidewalk, which is not only illegal but dangerous. I've personally had scooter riders zoom up past me, yelling "Watch out!" as they whizzed by. According to California state law, motorized scooters must be used in the bike lane or on the road. This means it's also against the law to ride them without a helmet and without a driver's license (therefore user must be 16 years or older).

So San Francisco is cracking down. Not only is the city working on legislating the scooters, but on April 16th, the city attorney sent cease-and-desist letters to all three companies to end operations until regulations are in place. The city also passed a law, demanding that all scooters have permits. Scooters found without permits will be subject to impoundment. San Francisco's Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) hopes to open up the permitting process starting May 1st.

So these things have been out on the streets for less than 30 days and now a handful of people in the SF government are going to ossify the whole thing with a set of rules that these couple of people dream up.  The impatience here is just staggering.  Clearly the riders and the owners both know that there are problems with the early implementation.  What about allowing them some time to iron out the bugs and figure things out?  What about giving the millions of people who live in this city some time to cooperate and create new social norms?  Nah, we are just going to let a couple of yahoos who are totally uninvolved with this new service and who know nothing about it and who likely are not even customers or potential customers (since they probably have a government car and driver) shut the whole thing down and make up some arbitrary new rules.  Jeez, how many of the products and services we now value would never have made it out of their infancy if the government started hammering them with uninformed new rules within 4 weeks of their introduction?

  • Elam Bend

    It was crazy how quickly these things popped up. I was surprised to hear some some complaints voiced to me. Of all the things SF has to deal with, this is really small cheese. Most the users I saw were pretty respectful, just like most drivers, pedestrians, etx.

  • Robert B.

    We have them here in San Diego as well and I am also surprised with the speed at which complaints started arising. Some of the concerns seem legitimate such as block access to businesses, but others are quiet vacuous, i.e., to look like the clutter up the neighborhood. Its already escalated to the point that some neighborhoods are attempting to ban them.

  • Sam P

    I just checked and existing California regulations would seem to make these companies' business models nearly impossible already, forget about additional permitting that San Francisco might try to add; vehicle registration isn't required by state law but localities are allowed to require such. Motorized scooters aren't allowed to be ridden or left on sidewalks or ridden on roads with speed limits over 25 mph, riders must wear a helmet and posses a driver's license (or learner's permit) and must be 16 or over. No sidewalks and helmets are likely to be a problem for almost all city users.

    I suspect most other states treat these electric scooters similar to bicycles. I saw a lot of these scooters yesterday in Washington D.C. I can't find anything specifically about them on Washington D.C.'s DMV site, I guess they're probably classified as personal mobility devices (e.g. motorized wheelchairs, Segways). If that's correct, then legally you have to be at least 16 to ride one of these (unless you are disabled).

  • Sam P

    I just checked and existing California regulations would seem to make these companies' business models nearly impossible already, forget about additional permitting that San Francisco might try to add; vehicle registration isn't required by state law but localities are allowed to require such. Motorized scooters aren't allowed to be ridden or left on sidewalks or ridden on roads with speed limits over 25 mph, riders must wear a helmet and posses a driver's license (or learner's permit) and must be 16 or over. No sidewalks and helmets are likely to be a problem for almost all city users.

    I suspect most other states treat these electric scooters similar to bicycles. I saw a lot of these scooters yesterday in Washington D.C. I can't find anything specifically about them on Washington D.C.'s DMV site, I guess they're probably classified as personal mobility devices (e.g. motorized wheelchairs, Segways). If that's correct, then legally you have to be at least 16 to ride one of these (unless you are disabled).

  • sch

    Maybe they thing they are being proactive after the recent deluge of picture montages of bicycle piles in Chinese cities. China has the dubious advantage of huge amounts of money sloshing around so a few hundred million spent on dockless bikes is no big deal except
    to the cities that have to deal with the pile ups.

  • steamboatlion

    What amazes me most is how the regulators jump immediately to the conclusion that the company should be responsible for users not parking the scooters correctly. A bit like going after Avis because a rental car is illegally parked.

  • marque2

    Interesting side note. While operating an electric scooter an adult must wear a bicycle helmet. While riding an actual bicycle one must wear a helmet only if under the age of 18. Seems bizarre. Interestingly, wearing helmets has killed bicycling among youth. When I was a kid we used to bike all over all the time, and then they got strict with helmets, and doing arm signals for turns, and well we stopped.

    We make it more and more difficult for kids to play outside, then wonder why they are overweight playing video games in the proverbial basement.

  • marque2

    Avis is responsible for their cars that are illegally parked. For parking violations, it is always the owner of the vehicle that is responsible, by definition of the law.

  • marque2

    It is interesting that a scooter needs a bicycle helmet, but unless you are under 18 a bicycle doesn't.

  • marque2

    From what I hear, SF needs porta poopers, so folks won't just go in the street. They could be picked up every night and cleaned.

  • Swami

    I was in San Diego for a few weeks in January (surfing) and to the best of my recollection saw no motorized scooters. I go back in March and there are scooters absolutely everywhere in the PB and MB boardwalk areas. Everywhere. However, they were not a nuisance. They were just readily available with hundreds of people using them and just as many sitting around ready to be used.

    To be honest, I am such a nerd I couldn’t stop talking to my wife about how we need to try it.

    I am going back again soon and plan on trying the app. I agree with the OP, potentially a great idea, and one which, like all ideas, will need to evolve over time.

  • SamWah

    I would presume they add the fine to the renter's bill. If they know about it in time to do so. On the other had, they do have the renter's credit card number.

  • Joe - the non economist

    "Nah, we are just going to let a couple of yahoos who are totally uninvolved with this new service and who know nothing about it and who likely are not even customers or potential customers"

    These are government workers - they know everything

  • marque2

    Definitely. I don't have their contract handy, but I am pretty sure, some of that fine print is, you will pay for parking tickets.

    I was once pulled over because I had expired tags on my rental car. Cop wrote the ticket to the car company, not to me - even though I was driving with expired tags.

  • ErikTheRed

    Yup. I'm also in San Diego and often downtown. The bike sharing thing really is obnoxious - sidewalks cluttered and blocked, assholes riding their bikes on the sidewalks, etc. It's a classic tragedy of the commons - sidewalks are "public" places. Our government has already turned them into de-facto homeless shelters and human / pet toilets. Why not bike storage as well? I'm often tempted to turn the problems against each other by paying the homeless people to piss and shit on the bikes (not that I really would, but it's an amusing thought).

  • Orion Henderson

    I've gotten tickets on rental cars and you generally see the charge on your card a couple months later. Once on a speed camera in Germany and once for accidentally going in a HOV lane in CA.

  • steamboatlion

    I expressed myself badly. Strictly speaking, the rental company is legally responsible, but as other commenters have pointed out, the rental companies pass that straight through to the renter, and I believe in the case of moving violations, are quick to tell law enforcement who the renter was. More importantly, what you don't see is anyone in government running around saying "rental cars are being illegally parked, or are speeding, we have to ban the car rental business." Why not apply the same approach to these electric scooters - have a constructive discussion with the rental companies about how and where the scooters should be parked, make sure that there's a law to cover that, let the companies know there's going to be fines for illegally parked scooters and then they can educate their customers and/or pass on the fines as necessary.

  • marque2

    That makes sense.

  • marque2

    People who use city sidewalks for business usually have to get a license and pay a vendor fee. Not just because it is a greedy taxing city, but because the services on the sidewalk cause wear and tear, and require additional maintenance, supervision, protection, etc. The bikes probably pay nothing, because they are relics of the the eco, Spirit of Gaia religion.

  • kidmugsy

    Using "bottom up" in a piece that mentions San Francisco is very naughty.

  • Three venture backed companies simultaneously launching very similar services isn't really emergent or bottom up. This isn't like jitney cabs.

  • Mike Powers

    I'm pretty sure that if every renter started abandoning their rental cars on the sidewalks and Avis replied by saying "well we make 'em sign a waiver saying don't do that so not our fault lolz" then things would work differently for rental cars.

  • Bistro

    My very first day in San Diego back in 1985 my brother and I watched in awe as a cop on a motorcycle rode it onto the sidewalk and mowed down pedestrians in order to give a man a jaywalking ticket on Broadway.

  • Aimless6

    So you demand that a product must have a permit. And the regulations to get that permit will be dealt with at some later date.......
    Sounds like SF stole that idea from Gun Control rules for the sales of ammo.

  • marque2

    The company could fine the last schooter driver if the vehicle is pounded. If an Avis car we're parked significantly out of whack where it is towed - again Avis is responsible - but the renter will probably pay.

  • OBloodyHell

    }}} What about allowing them some time to iron out the bugs and figure things out?

    In California? IN SAN FRANCISCO??

    Are you on drugs?

    Are you gonna SHARE?

  • OBloodyHell

    Exactly. This is an obviously self-solving problem, if they allowed them to solve it. But hey, more government is how to fix EVERYTHING, or you would be stupid enough to live in SF.

    I supposed you could pay me to live in SF, but it would probably be something like eight figures, since that's high six figures after @#$#@%#@ taxes and cost-of-living.

  • OBloodyHell

    Well, this is much more helicopter parents as it is bike laws. Somehow, they think streets -- which in my area have consistent bike lanes -- are "less safe" than when I was a kid and there were no bike lanes.

    But the ridiculous thing to me is that they attempt to give you a ticket which puts points on your driver's license if you're on a bicycle.

    You don't even HAVE to have a DL to ride a bicycle. So you can lose your DL for violations on a vehicle for which a rider does not have to have a DL...

    Rational sense. It is a foreign thing to many legislators.

  • OBloodyHell

    Which is a blatant violation of the Constitution, frankly, that would never stand up to a serious challenge.

    If you're going to make exceptions for the disabled, you're clearly giving them special treatment under the Law. I am not going to make a big deal with regards to ramps, bathrooms, etc. -- I still get to use those if I want/need to.

    But special exceptions to laws, and laws which treat a disabled user's vehicle differently from an otherwise equivalent vehicle -- e.g., a segway vs. a powered wheelchair vs. a NORMAL bicycle, which are all in the same "risk of harm" class when operated improperly -- is bovine excreta. You can run someone down with a powered wheelchair or "mobility device" just as easily as a bike or a segway, and cause just as much personal harm.

  • OBloodyHell

    Frankly, I find the scooter thing you're complaining about amusing. I despise scooters ON THE ROAD, because they are almost uniformly underpowered for operating at proper roadway speeds, so they constantly wind up with a half-mile of cars stuck behind them in no-passing areas, because they are doing 25 in a 40mph zone. They need to be legal to operate in a bike lane, with suitable constraints on passing, providing warning, and perhaps even moving briefly out into the automotive lane when passing. I wouldn't care about that, and it would solve the problems all around.

  • Sam P

    Bikes generally weigh under 30 lbs (many under 20 lbs). A Segway PT weighs 105 lbs, motorized wheelchairs weigh 150-250 lbs. So I don't really think they are in the same class of vehicles. On the other hand, the top speed of motorized wheelchairs is usually about 5 mph, Segway 12.5 mph. Bikes can be ridden much faster, though unlikely over 15 mph on a sidewalk.

  • Sam P

    In California (the following discussion probably doesn't apply to any other states), motorized scooters are allowed on bike paths and are not allowed on roads with speed limits over 25 mph unless they are on a bike path on such a road. Which is part of why I mentioned in an earlier comment that these electric scooters make little business sense in California, if such traffic regulations were actually enforced on a regular basis. So they are not allowed on sidewalks and not allowed on roads with non-city speed limits...

    I suspect most other states either don't have any specific regulations (I suspect the introduction of the Segway PT has lead to this category shrinking) or treat them as bikes or as Segways/motorized wheelchairs.

  • marque2

    Not exactly - we are asking government to use resources to impound schooter rather than do other things. That is still using the control of government to help the situation.