Ride-sharing and hailing have been–and continue to be–major issues of contention in large municipalities all over the country. The thought of unvetted drivers, personal vehicle use, and market challenges to the taxicab industry casts companies like Uber and Lyft in a negative light. Shall I remind you of the scores of sexual harassment complaints lodged against Uber drivers?
Nevertheless, the positive benefits and market innovations companies like these bring into our economy far outweigh the negatives when it comes consumer perceptions. Ride-sharing and hailing services have grown so popular that independent research indicates that 40 percent of people in major markets have used these services at least once. The number is greater in countries like China, where 51 percent of people have used ride-sharing services, versus the numbers here in the United States at 30 percent.
However, the evolution of new transportation concepts has been realized in several verticals. From bike-sharing to specialized taxi hailing services (e.g., zTrip or Arro), the sharing economy has furnished many different transportation solutions that easily replace Uber and Lyft. However, have you ever thought of electric scooters as a suitable option? No? Don’t worry, you aren’t alone. Thanks to a recent special report from Vice News covering San Francisco’s mission to regulate the concept, more than ever consumers are considering electric scooters.
When you think about it, the concept is quite simple. Companies like Bird, Spin, and LimeBike leave dockless electric scooters all over a particular metro area for temporary use. Customers can just swipe their card or purchase their session through a mobile app, and BOOM, they have access to a fully charged electric scooter starting at $1 and the recurring time unit rate. The only catch: bring your own helmet and ride your scooter on designated bike paths or shared street ways.
It really isn’t that hard to wrap your head around it. Municipalities though, like aforementioned San Francisco, believe that these new types of services are increasingly public safety risks to walking pedestrians and drivers who greatly outnumber the electric scooter-riding folks. For the case of San Francisco, scooters provided by Bird, Spin, and LimeBike appeared on the city’s streets virtually overnight. Though these types of launches are standard and usually become instant hits with a loyal customer base in each city these services operate, the public’s perception coupled with regulatory concerns may limit an innovative product.
One of the main qualms for San Francisco’s city government was that Bird, for example, began operating without licenses and “proper regulation.” Local residents even started to hate the concept fearing that the scooter riders could collide with people, other vehicles, and structures. Some of these people went so far to leave animal excrement on the footboards of several scooters, others went to further to more severe–and criminal (I might add)–measures (the city’s residents threw several scooters into the ocean).
Soon after the launch, the city government created a new license in which companies have to apply in order to sell their service in city limits; however, there’s never any guarantee that these firms will be approved for the license. Nevertheless, Bird, for example, advertises that they cooperate with all regulations in their operating markets. Spin has heralded themselves as “pioneers” in this space for innovating on the regulatory side of things.
In Santa Monica, the city government sued Bird for violating state laws that require helmets when riding on sidewalks and similar through-ways. This suit, with similar legal positions taken by the city attorneys in San Francisco and Los Angeles, brings to question how riders are properly vetted to use such a service. Ironically, letting the government contemplate the proper class of person to ride a scooter is what’s being conceptualized and enforced by several cities in California.
How will these firms survive when the constituency of several municipalities don’t want regulation but prefer instead to outlaw electric scooter sharing?
Headlines out of Nashville this past week have documented Bird’s first week in the southern metropolis. Suffice it to say; the initial public reaction to the electric scooters scattered all over the city resembles reactions had in San Francisco, Santa Monica, Los Angeles, Dallas for LimeBike and in Washington D.C. for Spin.
Advocates for scooter regulation claim that the “littering” of scooters is “like trash” and therefore a visual turn-off, while some argue that state law prevents such a service from existing in Tennessee. Meanwhile, advocates for the alternative to ride-sharing and traditional driving believe the concept is an innovative solution to gridlock (Nashville is 19th for the worst traffic in the United States).
In conclusion, I must agree with these advocates. Electric scooter sharing is the indicative litmus test for how ride-sharing and transportation solutions are evolving to meet the needs of a digital world. Just like Uber, these companies are doing something that could become a common trend in cities all over the world if the trend takes. In response to the calls for regulation, new and innovative concepts born in the private sector need time to flourish before a regulatory body installs burdensome rules.
Let these companies flourish and define the market. Don’t kill an idea when it’s just beginning.