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Scooter companies may have found a loophole in cities' limitations

City governments' tight control of scooter and e-bike rentals may be short lived.Although cities cont...

Posted: Oct 15, 2018 3:03 PM
Updated: Oct 15, 2018 3:03 PM

City governments' tight control of scooter and e-bike rentals may be short lived.

Although cities continue to limit scooters despite strong customer demand, startups are trying to hack the rules with workarounds -- such as direct rentals to your doorstep.

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The latest such move comes from Bird, the Santa Monica, California-based startup that pioneered scooter sharing. Its new Bird Delivery service drops off scooters by 8:00 a.m. at customer's homes and gives total control of them for a day. Bird picks the rentals up in the evening, recharges them and loans the scooters to someone else the next day.

Most companies rent scooters by the minute and allow riders to leave them on popular street corners and near transit stops -- a controversial move that has upset some cities' officials and residents.

The company plans to launch the daily rental service in some of the 70 US cities in which it already operates by-the-minute rentals. Daily pricing hasn't been announced.

Generally, cities have restricted scooter companies to deploying only several hundred scooters. Bird and its competitors have asked cities to allow larger fleets but have seen little change.

However, direct rentals could open the floodgates for as many scooters and e-bikes as people wish to rent.

That's because Bird thinks a personal rental service should work differently. Caps on the number of scooters shouldn't apply there, the company argues. Bird may be limited to 300 shared scooters in a city, but it could deliver hundreds or thousands of scooters to customers' doorsteps, depending on demand.

"This should be viewed no differently than if you decide to rent a Hertz rent-a-car for a day," David Estrada, head of public policy at Bird, told CNN Business. "We don't think from this perspective cities would have a real motivation to want to regulate these any differently than they do cars."

It's unclear how city governments will react to this argument. CNN Business contacted 12 cities governments where Bird operates. Most declined to comment on whether Bird Delivery scooters would count against their caps. But three cities -- Santa Monica, California; Portland, Oregon; and Baltimore, Maryland -- said personal rentals would count toward their limits on scooters. Additionally, Denver confirmed direct rentals are not allowed under its pilot.

Bird may not be alone for long in challenging the limits of regulations. Jump, the e-bike and scooter sharing brand of Uber, is exploring a similar service called Jump+ that would rent e-bikes directly to consumers on a weekly basis. Uber would not comment on whether it expects these vehicles to be capped by existing city regulations.

These programs could raise new tensions between startups and governments, which have expressed concern over riding scooters on sidewalks or parking them inappropriately on sidewalks. Safety is another critical issue. Scooter companies have called on cities to build safer infrastructure, such as a protected bike lanes, so cars and scooters don't mix. Last month in Washington DC, a man riding a scooter was struck and killed by an SUV. Meanwhile, a Cleveland woman on a scooter was killed after she was hit by a motorist in August, according to local reports.

Related: Cities give scooter companies a second chance

Bird said it is launching a rental service because scooter dropoff points have generally been placed in downtown areas, making the service inaccessible to commuters who live farther out.

The move follows a United Nations report released Monday that called for rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes to society to avoid disastrous global warming. The scooter companies see themselves as part of the solution. Transportation is the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States. Scooters use dramatically less energy than cars.

About 400 mayors, who call themselves the "climate mayors," have worked for years to build political will for policies to address climate change.

But for Bird, the pledges have resulted in little progress. "In our interactions with cities, we do not see them treating the climate crisis as a crisis," Estrada said. "The one thing that's surprised us the most is how many cities have been interested in limiting fleets to such low numbers. In some cities, it's not going to help them reach their climate goals."

The Climate Mayors did not respond to a request for comment.

According to Meredith Hankins, an environmental law and policy fellow at UCLA Law School, cities are failing to seize the chance to change infrastructure to take cars off roads, given their huge impact on climate change. Roads that are more welcoming to pedestrians, cyclists and scooter riders will promote that shift.

"These changes can be implemented in the next 15 months," said Hankins, who noted there's sometimes a lack of political will. In Los Angeles, multiple "road diets" -- which convert a lane of car traffic to a bike lane and parking -- were abandoned due to a backlash.

But scooter and e-bike sharing is so new there's a lack of research on their impact. According to Aseem Prakash, founding director of the University of Washington Center for Environmental Politics, it's a good thing for the climate if scooters replace Uber or Lyft car trips -- but not if people gravitate away from public transportation.

"We're rushing into a technology without really thinking through it," Prakash said. "How do scooters impact my propensity to use my own car, or Uber or Lyft, or to take public transportation? These questions aren't getting asked."

Although many cities may be gunshy about allowing more scooters on streets, some cities such as Baltimore said they may loosen their caps after the pilots end. But how daily rentals fit into this future is unknown for now.

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