When I arrived in San Francisco early this summer, I marveled at the tech-forward presence of electric scooters all over the sidewalks. Much to my disappointment, the scooters were quickly banned. Residents had complained heavily about the scooters. Generally these complaints centered on the combination of scooters and the sidewalk: scooters ridden or parked on the sidewalk, zipping between hapless pedestrians or blocking their path. Poorly parked scooters can be especially problematic in that they create obstacles for people with disabilities.
In San Francisco, and in other cities, such scooter companies have employed the “ask forgiveness rather than permission” business model.
Across the country, municipal responses have ranged from suing Bird to tacit acceptance. Ann Arbor responded with a middle-ground reaction, reminding users to operate properly and confiscating scooters left on sidewalks.
Did the “ask for forgiveness rather than permission” business model work? Or did it backfire? Furthermore, should this “tech-bro” ask-forgiveness attitude be considered a normatively acceptable business model? Or should it be discouraged? If so, how?
After San Francisco banned the scooters, the city allowed scooter companies to apply for permits. Two scooter app companies were granted permits and allowed to operate in the streets. The “early disruptors” were not forgiven. Perhaps it is in the company’s interest to ask permission first, or at least proceed with caution:
[C]ities that saw a more gradual rollout have had a much smoother ride. “In San Francisco, you saw a lot of backlash,” said Sanjay Dastoor, CEO of Skip, of the sudden, unannounced scooter deployment in the city. “We didn’t see DC in the news with a scooter armageddon. The backlash depends on the way you do it.”
Then again, perhaps it was necessary for the public to develop an appreciation of these scooters before they were banned, or else the scooter companies would have to wait until a city had approved—which might be never. Considering the appeal of these scooters and comparing them to the introduction and evolution of ridesharing apps, it seems inevitable that the scooters are likely to become ubiquitous in many cities. To some degree, the “disruptors” got away with it. But then, the ultimate result may depend on New York City. As of now, the Big Apple has banned all electric scooters; even for personal use. New York is a great market for scooter companies, but there is so little space. Perhaps if the city ever grants permits, it may well be that to the most rule-abiding shall go the spoils.
Ultimately I think this technology is good, even if the disruptor attitude was not ideal. Scooter apps are beneficial because they: 1) allow cheaper commutes over short distances; 2) reduce automobile emissions; 3) relieve traffic congestion; and 4) provide affordable transit which may facilitate “a critical rung in the ladder out of poverty.” In fact, part of San Francisco’s permit process required an affordability program to facilitate use by people with low-income.
Still, if people do not operate these scooters properly, there are risks of injury, or even outright prohibition. Users will have to ride and park them properly. The trouble is, we haven’t quite developed norms for this type of transportation the way we have with cars and bicycles.
Another problem: are people actually going to wear helmets? Bird offers free helmets. But still, are people actually going to carry them around? Also, in regions with helmet laws, this scooter phenomenon has resulted in “a cool new way for the police to stop you.” Perhaps cities and states should revise their rules to prohibit the police from stopping you for not wearing a helmet on a scooter. Or perhaps we just need a more fashionable, portable helmet.
From the municipal perspective, what should the rules be? And how should scooter companies work with cities to prevent injury?
Washington D.C. has an idea to avoid obstruction: requiring scooters to be locked to a fixture at the end of a ride.
It seems that scooter companies will need to take responsibility and work with cities. For example, some “companies now ask riders for a photo to verify that the scooter is parked in an appropriate spot at the end of a ride.” In my experience, Bird requires that you take a picture at the end of your ride—but whether or not you take a picture or what you take a picture of doesn’t seem to matter.
Whatever the case may be, it is worth considering how much uninvited technological disruption can be tolerated. In transportation, we first had ride-sharing apps; now, we have scooter apps. Both seem like good technologies. But what’s the next thing? Will it be dangerous? Will its rollout prompt backlash that stifles good technology? Or will new tech always win?*
*Sean Magill is an associate editor on the Michigan Technology Law Review.