[By John Wilkens]
For more than a year, San Diego was all carrot and no stick when it came to electric scooters.
Now the stick is out, hitting both the scooter companies and their riders.
Three months after new city regulations went into effect, two companies, Jump and Skip, have left town. Another, Lime, may lose its permit because of repeated operating infractions. Almost 500 riders received traffic tickets, more than half of them for riding on sidewalks. The city impounded more than 3,700 scooters for parking violations.
The Wild West, it seems, may finally have a sheriff.
It’s too soon to say how effective or long-lasting the crackdown will be, or what it means to the future of dockless scooters here. Depending on the time and place, this can still look like a town that’s been overrun. When the New York Times did a story recently on the situation here it carried this headline: “Welcome to San Diego. Don’t Mind the Scooters.” And when Seattle started pondering how to regulate scooters, a TV station sent a crew here for a “what not to do” piece.
Still, the rules appear to be having an impact. Ridership is down, as measured by average daily trips, from 33,000 in July to 17,000 in the first half of September, according to city data compiled from the rental companies. Fewer scooters are in use, from a daily high in the 15,000 range three months ago to about 10,000 now, officials said.
Some of that may be seasonal, because a significant portion of scooter riders are tourists. Some of it may be the weather, summer turning toward fall and taking hours of sunlight with it. And some of it is the inevitable growing pains of an industry that is barely two years old — a toddler, with all the usual consequences.
“The idea is to get to the point where the operators are enforcing the rules themselves and self-regulating the size of their fleets,” said Erik Caldwell, deputy chief operating officer for the city, who oversees scooter issues. “I think we’re starting to see that happen.”
Self-regulating is not a trait ascribed often to scooter companies, which like a lot of start-ups favor the maxim that it’s better to ask forgiveness than permission. They are now in more than 65 cities in the U.S., and their mass arrival in San Diego, beginning in February 2018, is by many accounts a lesson in “disrupter” chaos.
Suddenly there were hundreds of scooters on street corners and sidewalks downtown and along walkways in the beach areas. Billed as environmentally friendly, and easy and cheap to use, they quickly attracted riders: residents on short trips to work, restaurants and stores, and tourists sight-seeing in Mission Bay or the Gaslamp Quarter. Lime, the first operator here, said it has logged more than 4 million rides, making San Diego one of five cities globally in its network to reach that milestone.
But the scooters also quickly drew complaints, mostly about sidewalk riding and wayward parking. Part of the attraction of scooters is that people can leave them where they want when they’re done riding, and leave them they do. That’s led to a lawsuit by disability rights activists over scooters blocking wheelchair access. It’s led to legal claims filed against the city by people who said they were injured after tripping over scooters. And it’s spawned a niche business: scooter removals.
Reports of injuries mounted, too, including three fatalities in the region. Scooter companies say safety is their top priority and that their vehicles have injury rates similar to bicycles. A recent 13-month study of cases at three trauma centers, including two in San Diego, showed a couple of key differences: Scooter riders are more likely to forgo helmets, and they’re more likely to be intoxicated. That’s prompted talk of the need for public-health campaigns aimed at preventing injuries.
When it comes to scooters, the dust is still settling.