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November 13, 2018

Some lessons for Seattle on shared e-Scooters

Parastoo Jabbari

Parastoo Jabbari

At the end of the 2017, we started to hear the news about e-scooters coming to major cities in the U.S., with Bird pioneering the trend. Soon videos of people riding e-scooters and flying by pedestrians and traffic emerged in social media. e-Scooters were on the streets before cities had enough time to come up with regulations and policies for this new mobility service. Almost a year later, many cities have made room for e-scooters as part of their transportation services.

Interestingly, Seattle -which usually is one of the first cities to welcome new mobility services– is resisting e-scooters. Unlike other cities such as San Francisco, in which scooter companies quietly unloaded their e-scooters all over the city’s sidewalks overnight without seeking regulatory approval, Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) preemptively warned e-scooter companies that they would not be allowed to launch their services in Seattle before city came up with a permit program. So, we have had to sit outside and be observers of how other cities are dealing with e-scooters. This is sort of disappointing, since there are many on-going projects (e.g. MOD Sandbox program,  new Light Rail stations, Mobility hubs) happening in Seattle and however, there will not be a chance to incorporate e-scooters and their impact in these projects’ design and operation studies.

Luckily, in the past couple of months I had a chance to travel to Salt Lake City, Portland, San Jose, Los Angeles, and Santa Monica that are hosting this new services and experience them first hand. All of the three e-scooter services I used in these cities, have the same pricing system: $1 to start plus $0.15 per each minute. Here, I am going to talk about my experience e-scooters.

 e-Scooter riding experience

Last August I was in Salt Lake City where my first encounter with e-scooters happened. Downtown Salt Lake City is home to the world headquarters of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and it is quite the tourist attraction. Flooded with tourists, people were riding e-scooters all over the place and it was not easy to find available scooters to rent. After looking around for some time, I found three Bird e-scooters sitting on the corner of a sidewalk. I downloaded the app and tried to unlock them but all of them were under maintenance.


Three “under maintenance” Bird e-scooters in Downtown Salt Lake City

Being a little bit disappointed by Bird, I was able to find a Lime e-scooter to rent. Even though the app confirmed that I had unlocked the e-scooter, when I moved it, it started alarming, “Unlock me to ride me, or I’ll call the police”. While people were looking at me-the scooter stealer- I unlocked the scooter again before it called the cops on me! I started riding it around and was surprised by its speed, it was much faster than I expected (they can speed up to 15 mph). Not having helmet with me, I was too afraid to ride it on streets.

A week after my Salt Lake City trip, I was in San Jose for a meeting. I decided to give e-scooters another chance and use them to explore the city in the limited time I had there. This time, I felt more comfortable to ride around on one. I think it was mainly because Downtown San Jose is pretty flat with continuous bike lanes which felt much safer to ride on compare to streets. I was there on a work day around noon and saw a considerable number of people who were riding e-scooters in bike lanes. In contrast to my experience in Salt Lake City, I got the impression that a good number of riders I saw were workers, wearing office clothes, and not looking like tourists.

During a visit to Portland on a Monday afternoon, a friend of mine and I had the hardest time to rent e-scooters . Our plan was to find a a parking spot to park the car and explore the area around Mill Ends park on scooters. While many people were riding e-scooters all over the park and nearby streets, we were not lucky enough to find any available e-scooters. We walked for couple of blocks South and West of the park but any unattended e-scooters we found were out of charge or under maintenance or were already in use (people can pause riding the scooter but not unbook it, so scooter will remain in their reservation). Therefore, we had to use the boring mode of walking.

Most recently I visited Los Angeles and Santa Monica and was surprised how e-scooters were on almost every corner (areas I visited included downtown LA, UCLA campus, Westwood neighborhood, Santa Monica beach). Lime and Bird scooters were dominant in LA but I also realized my Uber app added the option of “Bike & Scooter” which allowed renting Jump bikes and e-scooters in LA. However, I could not find either of them nearby to give them a try. In contrast to Uber, Lyft e-scooters were visible all over Santa Monica. When user is within the boundaries of the city, Lyft app will display a little scooter icon when clicked show available e-scooters on the map.


Lyft e-scooters distribution in Santa Monica (Lyft app screenshot)

Local Rules

Different cities have different local rules. Some of them like Portland have more detailed rules compare to others.


a) Salt Lake City local rules, b) Portland local rules, c) Los Angeles local rules (Bird app)

All of them include wearing helmet and not riding on sidewalks. The rule about having driver licenses is more ambiguous. Bird and Lyft require users to scan their driver licences and Lime mentions that you need to have a driver license. However, I was able to unlock both Lyft and Bird e-scooters by scanning my state ID. So maybe they need a scan of the ID for age purposes? In the help section Bird’s app, it is mentioned that “Only valid driver’s licenses will be accepted. Bird does not accept identification cards, passports, student ODs, or expired cards”. So maybe these apps cannot differentiate between WA state IDs and driver’s licenses!


Lyft Driver’s license requirement

Geo-fencing

Geo-fencing is a popular approach to impose regulations to specific areas in cities. e-Scooter companies are trying to utilize this system to comply with cities rules and regulations.

In Portland, Bird app local rules imply parks were no riding zones for e-scooters. However, there is no mention of riding in these areas in  Lime app and it only mentions that users who park the e-scooters in a no parking zone frequently may be fined or their account may be suspended. When you touch a Geo-fenced area in Bird app the message pops out as “No park or ride zone” and underneath it, it says “Do not ride in the park per City of Portland”. I saw many people riding on parks, so I can say that the no ride policy is not being enforced and it is up to the rider to make sure to follow this rule. I could not test whether the no park policy is enforced by not allowing the scooter to be locked. I could not find any evidence on this online, so my guess is that this rule is not being enforced either.

  
a) No parking zones in Portland (Lime app) b) No ride or park zones in Portland (Bird app)

On the UCLA campus, there were several no ride, no park or low speed zones. The Lime app would not allow you to rent e-scooters in no ride zones. Apparently you are allowed to park your e-scooter in no ride zone (because I saw many parked e-scooters in these zones) but you are not allow to rent them! If you want to unlock one you will receive a warning saying to find a scooter out of this area. It seems to be a very inefficient system since e-scooters that are parked in the no ride zone need to be rebalanced by some hired personnel. It would be easier to not allow people to park in the no ride zones to avoid having many unutilized e-scooters piled up in these zones. There were also low speed zones on the UCLA campus where apparently Lime e-scooter speed will automatically be reduced (based on info provided in the app).

a) No ride area warning  b) Low speed zone on UCLA campus (Lime app screenshot)

I think with features already available in these e-scooter sharing apps, there are opportunities to better utilize Geo-fencing. Right now it is mostly riders’ responsibility to make sure not to ride on no ride/park zones. If Lime has the technology to slow down e-scooters in low speed zones, they can also slow them down when they are entering no ride or no park zones as a method to warn riders that they are entering these zones. Also, they probably can  alert riders through the app or alert system embedded in the e-scooters (the one that calls the cops on you! maybe in lower voice) when they are entering these zones.

One other incentive or penalty to promote not parking in a no park zones can be charging riders who park in these zones. They can be alerted by the app at the time of locking, that this is a no park zone and they will be fined. However, I think this is a less effective method. Because while you are riding, you cannot look at your app to make sure you are not riding in such areas and when riders want to park they might find it very inconvenient to move outside of the zone. There should be a system in place to alert riders. Same as for cars, even if you are unfamiliar in the area, signs are enough to warn you where you cannot enter or turn.

Safety

All the three apps I used remind the riders of the safety guides including wearing helmets, riding in bike lanes, and how to park when using their app. However, I did not see anyone wearing helmet while riding e-scooters, I saw few riders in bike lanes, and many violations of parking rules.


Safety guides by Bird

Since at this phase, many people spontaneously decide to use e-scooters and they do not plan riding e-scooters ahead of time, it is understandable that they may not have helmets with them. On the other hand, it is important to have a plan for helmet usage now rather than later, before the culture of scooter riding has been shaped and established. To deal with this issue Bird is providing free helmets to active riders and riders are only responsible for paying the shipping cost. Portland Bureau of Transportation gave away 500 helmets in an educating event about e-scooters.

For the case riding on sidewalks, biking infrastructure is not continuous in many cities or at all available. Many people, including myself, are afraid of riding on streets, especially since it feels it is easier to lose you balance on e-scooter compare to regular bike. In cities like LA with wide multiple lane streets, it does not feel safe to share the lanes with cars. Maybe now more than ever governments need to invest on bike lanes and cycling infrastructures.


Seen at bus stop on UCLA campus

For the case of parking, at the end of each ride both Lyft and Lime apps require users to take a photo of the parked e-scooter. Based on the Lyft website, I concluded that these photos are being used to identify users who are flagged as non-compliant to parking policies. Lyft also mentions that they are using tilting sensors to track fallen e-scooters. If e-scooters fall less than one minute after they were locked, rider will be asked to make sure scooter is parked properly. Lime added the feature of “Parked or not” which presents users with parking photos of other rides (anonymously) and ask them whether they are parked properly or not. The goal is to crowdsource parking rating process and use the data to determine if scooters are parked correctly or not. Bird is investing in Geo-fencing solutions to guide riders to appropriate locations for parking.

 

a) Seen in Santa Monica b) Bird e-scooters on the train platform in LA

One size fits all?

Initially when I used the Lime scooters my biggest complaint was that they are too heavy and the bars are too high for me. I found the size and height of the Lyft e-scooters more comfortable and they were lighter and easier to maneuver compare to Lime and Bird. Later on, I spotted multiple sizes for Lime e-scooters. On the other hand, my 6’ 5” friend had a hard time riding Lyft and Bird for longer periods of time and his favorite e-scooter was Lime, the one with higher bars but the app does not provide info on the sizes and you would not know the size until you get to them. I think this is an easy fix for Lime, they just need to add this feature to their app. However, it is more complicated for Lyft and Bird. Right now they have one unadjustable type of e-scooters and they have to decide whether it worth it to fix this problem or their current e-scooters are good enough for majority of riders.


a) Two different sizes of Lime e-scooters b) Lyft e-scooters

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