We Pulled our Scooters Out of a Dozen Cities. Here’s What Cities Can Learn From That.
Several weeks ago, my company Lime made the difficult decision to withdraw our shared electric scooters from twelve cities around the world. Those communities’ rules governing shared mobility were a major factor in our decision, which followed similar moves by Lyft, Jump and other companies.
City leaders around the world have proclaimed their commitment to curbing car dominance, reducing emissions, and eliminating traffic fatalities. This is welcome news, promoting safer, cleaner, more efficient streets that prioritize people over one specific mode of transportation.
Unfortunately, while many of these U.S. cities claim they want to promote car alternatives, they often pass regulations that fail to reflect that goal. This limits the potential of new mobility options like free-floating scooters — which now attract more rides than docked bikeshare and which help replace car trips.
Many city officials have since asked us how they can avoid regulations that drive shared mobility operators out of town. This is an encouraging sign that some cities are serious about curbing auto emissions, congestion, and the tens of thousands of car deaths a year.
So, for communities grappling with how to regulate shared scooters and bikes, here’s the feedback we’ve given to those cities to help get it right:
Cities should allow vehicle fleet sizes that match rider demand — no more and no less. Several cities we departed have allowed too many shared vehicles for operators to reach sufficient vehicle utilization; ideally, a bike or scooter is used at least four trips per day, or else the vehicle and labor costs outweigh usage. Other big cities have allowed too few vehicles to satisfy rider demand — or restricted scooters to too few neighborhoods, which prevents the vehicles from becoming reliable enough to users that they opt to take one instead of a car. The right approach is somewhere in between: start with allowing about one scooter per 100 residents, and allow automatic demand-based fleet increases from there. Denver and Norfolk are among the cities who’ve gotten this right.
Cities benefit from more rides on shared mobility, but many city policies discourage its use. When more people make shared bikes or scooters a habit, cities win. Fewer people drive cars, and some cities even earn revenue through trip fees. But many cities have imposed rules that actually discourage ridership. One city mandated scooter parking in geofenced “corrals” only — a policy that the National Association of City Transportation Officials says doesn’t work and prevents people from easily finding scooters when in need. Others impose discriminatory geofence requirements that prevent shared bikes and scooters from riding and parking in areas where privately owned bikes and scooters are free to travel. The harder that cities make it to ride a shared bike or scooter — the less likely folks will choose one instead of a car.
Cities have a stake in the success of shared mobility operators. Of course, shared bike and scooter operators are private entities, which means in order to maintain longevity and a reliable service, we also have to sustain a business. But as operators provide a public good, solving a long-standing first-mile / last-mile transportation gap, cities should work collaboratively with us to set conditions that allow for responsible and sustainable operations over the long-term.
Unfortunately, we’ve seen the opposite in many cities: crippling impound fees (a burden not placed on rideshare vehicles or private bicycles); discriminatory night time curfews that reduce scooter ridership and revenue; fees that exceed those imposed on cars and rideshare services; and required nightly pickup of all scooters, which increase the very vehicle traffic scooters were invited in to reduce in the first place. If cities want to get people out of their cars, they shouldn’t subject shared bikes and scooters to rules that they don’t apply to cars. Columbus has struck a sensible balance with its fees.
Cities should incentivize operators to get it right. If cities want shared bikes and scooters to succeed, it stands to reason that they should reward operators that perform on the public’s behalf. But some cities have been oddly reluctant to differentiate between operators that are most responsive to city rules and those that fall short. One way to steer this nascent industry toward better performance could be incentives like fleet cap increases for demonstrated success when it comes to safety and responsiveness — Portland and Oakland are good models — or penalties like permit suspensions for non-compliance.
Lastly, as many cities are moving toward full-fledged scooter programs through procurement or other permitting processes, they should keep in mind that less-proven operators selling big dreams are probably too good to be true. The last thing you want is to be won over by promises of filet mignon, only to be served ground chuck.
Regulations should always reflect a community’s goals. For example, governments tax cigarettes to reduce smoking. They provide tax credits to encourage home ownership. It stands to reason that if they want to reduce car use, they’d encourage options proven to do just that. But many cities’ regulation of shared mobility hasn’t caught up to their goal of becoming less car-centric.
Cities are at a crossroads: will they take the steps to unleash the most popular alternative to the car we’ve seen in a generation, or continue to hold back these options, resolved to subsist with a status quo that keeps our streets choked with traffic? Shared bikes and scooters are filling a critical gap in cities — but will city leaders bolster their success or hinder it? For the sake of future generations, let’s hope they choose correctly.
Adam Kovacevich is Head of North America Government Relations for Lime, a shared e-scooter operator.