Oakland is just one of many cities across America that is trying to sort out how it will manage the rapid influx of shared electric scooters on its streets. A new permitting process is being discussed at forums held across the city, with a vote expected within months.
After all, tech startups have sprung up with essentially the same business model: via a smartphone app, unlock a scooter for $1, then pay $0.15 per minute afterward.
These companies—Lime and Bird being the largest among them—seem to be repeating the same business tactic that Uber and Lyft pioneered years ago. The startups are flooding cities with cheap rides, dominating the market, and making their presence unstoppable.
Riders are instructed to use the bike lanes and wear helmets, but very few actually do. Worse still, because the scooters are dockless, they are left literally anywhere, which can be hazardous. It has led to at least one lawsuit brought by a personal injury attorney whose clients say they tripped over scooters left on the sidewalk, among other allegations.
However, municipal officials like Ryan Russo, the head of Oaklands Department of Transportation, are trying to sort out how these e-scooters should properly integrate with the existing city infrastructure. Russo was the latest guest at Ars Technica Live, our weekly event held monthly at a local bar in Oakland.
Russo summarized his objectives in a pithy sentence: "We want to get Americans out of their cars and solve racism."
When I opened the discussion by asking if the e-scooters were good or bad for the city, he took a step back and reminded us all about urban history and city planning in America.
Theres extensive academic and journalistic work that demonstrates how the 1950s-era interstate highway system exacerbated racist housing policies, stomped local communities of color, and significantly contributed to poverty in many areas.
"We decided that the federal government would pay for interstate highways," Russo said. "Racist government officials would use freeways to destroy African-American neighborhoods with no public involvement and no public say, and wed have land policies: Hey white people, you can build a house in the suburbs and get a car and drive anywhere."
So, he explained, e-scooters should be best understood as a promising inexpensive, green, shared model that could be a mainstream alternative to owning, or even riding in, an inefficient metal box.
"For every car that someone owns, we have to have nine parking spaces for it," Russo said. "So we have to store it 95 percent of the time, and what that has led to is tons of sprawl."
Scooters for everybody?
California, and Oakland in particular, has experienced a major housing crisis in recent years. Many freeway overpasses and out-of-the-way streets in industrial areas in the city serve as shelters for growing homeless encampments that did not exist a decade ago.
"As we face these twin challenges of climate change, environmental degradation, and inequality, were going to have to—in this city and in this state in particular—grow more densely in order to be less racist and more sustainable," Russo continued.
"The only way to live densely is to not live with every single person over the age of 18 having their own car. When we see what we need to do in order to keep people here from being in homeless encampments under our freeways and keep Oakland Oakland, we have to give people options other than owning a $15,000 to $30,000 private piece of machinery that weighs 2,000 to 4,000 pounds. Thats the lens that we see this potential new annoying thing thats coming into our transportation landscape."
So given that backdrop, what can or should Oakland do to promote those goals, while also regulating the scooters appropriately?
Russo said that, given the citys commitment to social equity, it is particularly interested in making sure that there are adequate scooters in portions of the city that lack many mass transportation options—notably East and West Oakland.
The new rules will have three main components. First, half of the deployed scooters must be placed in "communities of concern," or neighborhoods that have many people who are low-income. Second, riders who are already certified as using state low-income programs like CalFresh or PG&E Care will be allowed to have the $1-to-unlock fee waived. Finally, the city is imposing a 15mph speed limit on the scooters themselves.
The bottom line, Russo concluded, is that the scooters are popular and are here to stay.
"[Here in Oakland], we have over 1,000 bike trips [on the Ford GoBike network] a day and over 3,000 scooter trips a day," he said. "The government bureaucrats worked for five years for the bike systems with stations and we worked and we worked and we got it, and then these scooters showed up and we didnt do anything!"
Yes! There is a transcript of this video! Read it here.
Interested in coming to our next Ars Live event? On January 9, 2019, Ars Editor Annalee Newitz and Senior Tech Policy Reporter Cyrus Farivar will be in conversation with Ashkan Soltani, a local independent privacy researcher and former technologist at the Federal Trade Commission who recently testified about Facebook before the British Parliament.
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