Why scooters have run into trouble

Cheaper than an Uber or Lyft ride and faster than a shared bicycle, dockless scooters are catching on in a number of cities across the United States. But city officials say the companies aren't doing enough to ensure the programs and scooters operate safely.

Mike Blake/Reuters
A man rides an electric Bird scooter in San Diego. City officials are pushing back against companies that leave electric rental scooters on sidewalks without warning.

Dockless scooters are one of the newest entries in the sharing economy that also includes businesses like Airbnb and Uber. Maybe surprisingly, the devices have also become controversial.

Q: How do they work?

Dockless electric scooters are cousins to the dockless bicycle and work through the same concept. Step 1: Download a dockless scooter app. Bird, Lime, and Spin are three of the largest in the business at the moment. Step 2: Use the in-app GPS tracker to locate a scooter. Step 3: Scan the bar code on the scooter to unlock the wheels. Step 4: Kick off and cruise to your next location.

In most cases, scooter riders must have a driver’s license, and some cities require riders to wear a helmet. It usually costs $1 to unlock a scooter and 15 cents for every minute of riding.

“[The scooters] are so efficient financially. I’m able to barely spend any money,” says Bryan Caicedo, who lives in Baltimore and takes a dockless scooter to work every morning. “I know people I’ve worked with in the past who take Uber on a day-to-day basis, and that costs them anywhere from $10 to $15. Or you can ride a scooter and pay literally a tenth of that.”

Businesses seem to be making a good profit from this model. Bird, for one, is said to be worth about $2 billion. 

Q: So what’s the catch?

The appeal – and potential downfall – of dockless scooters is that riders can leave them just about anywhere. Even with suggestions that a device stay on the sidewalk for the next patron to pick up, the scooters have been stowed in alleys and elevators. In some cases, San Francisco Bay has been a repository.

People who work for the scooter companies pick up the devices, recharge them overnight, and return them to public spaces by morning in easy-to-find clusters. The rechargeable aspect of the scooters is part of their environmental appeal. Their battery range is as much as 30 miles.

Q: Are the problems serious?

Because riders can leave the scooters wherever they want, the devices sometimes block sidewalks, which can pose accessibility issues for those with disabilities.

Also, in some cities riders are getting hurt – or causing crashes with other people – in what seem to be large numbers. In addition, city officials have complained that the scooter companies simply dropped their gear on sidewalks, following a tactic that other sharing-economy businesses have employed: Do now, ask for forgiveness later.

Dennis Herrera, San Francisco’s city attorney, sent cease-and-desist letters to dockless scooter companies after many of the devices turned up on San Francisco’s sidewalks overnight.

“Despite previous warnings, your company LimeBike (‘Lime’) has continued to operate an unpermitted motorized scooter rental program in the City and County of San Francisco ..., creating a public nuisance on the City’s streets and sidewalks and endangering public health and safety,” Mr. Herrera wrote to Lime. “Lime must immediately cease and desist from unlawful conduct....”

San Francisco is among the cities passing regulations to deal with scooter issues.

Q: What else is being done?

Many people who have had negative experiences with dockless scooters say they lack accountability. In the majority of cases, the scooters don’t have license plates to help with identification in the event of an accident.

Some law firms are dedicating resources to addressing the problems associated with dockless scooters. Catherine Lerer, a partner at McGee, Lerer & Associates in California, says her firm receives calls every other day about riders getting injured. She’s taken on a number of cases involving dockless scooter accidents.

Adi Raval, a Lime spokesperson, says the company collaborates with cities to overcome any issues that arise with the scooters. Overall, he says, communities have embraced Lime’s scooters. “We’re seeing scooter ecosystems being formed across this country,” he says.

Q: How can somebody ride a scooter safely?

Ms. Lerer says some of the most common issues she hears about are failed brakes and malfunctioning wheels. So before riders begin their journey, they should make sure the brakes work and the wheels aren’t locked up.

Also, riders should be aware of local regulations. Does a city require scooters to be operated in the street? Are helmets a must?

And when a trip ends, the rider should make sure the scooter is parked in a place where others can find it easily and it isn’t blocking public pathways.

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