Love 'em or hate 'em? Everything you need to know about electric scooters

Oakland is the latest Bay Area city to grapple with the influx of electric scooters permeating the streets and sidewalks, igniting a fierce debate about whether the two-wheeled mobiles are pesky nuisances or a fun and environmentally friendly way to zip around the Town.

After a mini-fiasco in San Francisco where city leaders issued a cease-and-desist order to the scooter sharing companies until they can comply with city fees and rules to reign them in, Oakland is now poised to vote on a series of similar rules to ensure safety and equity. 

Trying to avoid a scooter fiasco with "responsible rules"

And so, Oakland city councilwoman Rebecca Kaplan, along with councilmembers Lynette Gibson McElhaney and Noel Gallo, proposed a series of rules, from making sure companies like Lime, Spin and Bird don’t allow riders to discard the scooters willy-nilly on the sidewalk to requiring the companies to make sure at least half of their scooters are made available in “Communities of Concern,” such as East Oakland. Already, Lime alone has tracked 25,000 riders using scooters in Oakland over the last several months, making more than 70,000 trips and clocking 100,000 miles, resulting in 90,000 pounds of carbon dioxide saved, the company reported.

“These are responsible rules,” said Kaplan, a bicycle rider herself. “I’m a big fan of alternative transportation. What we don’t need is irresponsible behavior. Because if there is, the public will demand that they’re being taken away.”  

Once they were booted from San Francisco streets in late March, the scooters quickly appeared in Oakland and San Jose. For now, there are no laws on the books in the latter two cities regarding e-scooters.

Scooter rules in Oakland, San Francisco and San Jose

Oakland Public Works Committee approved the proposed set of rules on July 17, and the Oakland City Council is scheduled to take up the full item on July 24 at 5:30 p.m. 

San Jose is looking at voting on scooter and “shared micro-mobility devices” on Sept. 11. 

And of mid-July, San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency spokesman Paul Rose said the city is “still evaluating 900 pages of applications” from 12 companies hoping to put electric scooters back on the road. Rose said he hopes to “finalize everything in the next few weeks.”  For the first six months, 1,250 scooters will be permitted. If that goes well, the city will cap the number at 2,500. Any company in violation can get fined $100 per scooter per day. For now, Oakland's proposed rules have no cap.

Scooters are fun and environmentally friendly

To many, the shared electric scooters are wildly popular. Not only are they better for the environment than cars, but they’re also a lot of fun.

“When used responsibly, they’re just a great way to get around,” said Nick Josefowitz, BART director running to be a San Francisco County supervisor. He took a photograph of neatly parked scooters at the 19th Street BART station in Oakland to prove his point. 

“I’m a supporter,” he said. “They reduce greenhouse gases and help you get around to where they want to -- fast. I don’t think we should design rules to shut these companies down. And I also believe in common sense rules to make the companies accountable if they’re doing harm to others.”

There’s some star power behind the scooters, too. Football star Marshawn Lynch promoted a Lime scooter day with Oakland youth in June. The scooters are parked in front of his Beast Mode store on Broadway. 

Lots of everyday people seem to love them, as well. Just check out Lake Merritt, Telegraph Avenue, Jack London Square or downtown Oakland near City Hall on any day of the week. Countless riders are zipping about at speeds of up to 15 mph to get to their destination quickly, or simply as an afternoon outing. 

“I love them,” Derrick Williams Jr., 27, an Oakland UPS driver told KTVU one weekend while testing them out for the first time around Lake Merritt with his buddy, Imohteph Mbwana. “We just rode them here from downtown.”

But just as much as enthusiasts love the scooters, there are those who can’t stand them.

And the critics’ complaints abound:

Some scooter riders aren’t safe. Some people ride too fast, ride illegally on sidewalks, and don’t wear helmets, which are not provided by the companies.

A few hours after talking to Kaplan, KTVU spotted a woman who was struck by a young man riding scooter at Harrison and 19th streets. She fell and hit her head, police said, and was taken away in a gurney by fire paramedics. The rider had been illegally motoring along on the sidewalk. Under state law, motorized scooters must ride in the street or use a bike lane. They are not allowed in sidewalks, but are allowed on shared multi-use pathways. 

PHOTOS: Scooters take the Bay Area by storm

Under state law, e-scooter riders must have a California driver’s license or permit and wear a bike helmet. There can be only one rider on a scooter at the time.  

“The scooters have descended upon Oakland and they are incredibly obnoxious,” tweeted ReedNTweets. “I had to dodge about four of them today going the wrong way in the bike lane.” 

Scooters can cause collateral damage. Dr. Ronn Berrol, medical director of the Alta Bates Summit Emergency Department, said the e-scooters are too new in the United States to provide an accurate injury analysis. But he pointed to a study conducted by the Israel Trauma Registry of 795 e-bike and motorized scooter accidents. Researchers noted a dramatic, six-fold increase of injuries during 2013 to 2015. Most of the injuries were suffered by riders, but 8 percent of the injured patients were pedestrians, the study found. A total of 33 percent of the injured were scooter riders younger than 14 and 33 percent were pedestrians who were 60 years and older. 

Berrol is worried about scooter riders zipping in and out of traffic, especially if they're not wearing helmets and also about pedestrians who might not hear them because they're so quiet. "There could be a lot of secondary, collateral-type injuries," he said. 

In Berrol's opinion, cities must craft rules that also take into account new traffic designs. He said that if scooters are to take off in a safe and responsible manner, than cities must change the predominant car culture to welcome a "more comprehensive, transit approach to welcoming scooters and bicycles." 

In an interview, Lime community engagement director Megan Colford addressed many of these concerns by saying the company considers “safety a high priority” and it’s up to the company to educate riders about the laws. But ultimately, she said, “it’s the riders’ responsibility if they choose to break the law.”

Some scooter riders are sloppy. Scooters are often parked improperly and left in the middle of throroughfares. “LimeBike, please respect the people of the Bay Area by picking up your property,” someone tweeted to the company, showing a picture of a scooter strewn across the curb, which had been there for seven hours.  In the last two months, Lime, for example, has responded to these complaints with creative technology. In order to stop the trip, riders must take a picture of how the scooter is parked, and send it into the company to show proper procedures were followed. If they don’t, the credit card will continue to be charged.

Scooters are dumpied into Lake Merritt. An entire Twitter account has been devoted to this.  And at a Public Works meeting last week, Oakland councilman Abel Guillen asked whose responsibility it would be to scoop up the drowned scooters. A city transportation official answered that his department would work with operators to respond to complaints. Lime has 20 customer service agents who can be dispatched to respond within three hours during the week and up to 12 hours on the weekend to collect the machines. Kaplan warned that scooter permits can be taken away if companies don’t comply with the requirement. She added she does not want police officers called over errant scooters. 

Some scooter riders hoard the wheels. Kevin Hu of Oakland has been documenting dozens of scooters being parked in a private lot, inaccessible to users. Others have stories of people stashing the scooters inside their homes. If someone is hoarding or stealing the scooters, though, companies can track them easily by GPS and lock them remotely. 

The scooters shout out a menacing messages. There is a robot voice that shouts out it will call the police if anyone moves the scooter without paying, but threatening to call police over seemingly small indiscretions in Oakland is frowned upon. That's why Oakland’s ordinance is proposing that the companies have to turn off any loud, blaring messages emanating from the scooters. Lime has already dismantled the “calling police” alarm, replacing it with a generic alarm. 

California companies are behind the scooter craze

As with many out-of-the-box technologies, the three major scooter companies are all in California, two of those in the Bay Area: Lime, which is based in San Mateo, Bird, based in Santa Monica, and Spin, based in San Francisco.

They are all now now operating in dozens of cities across the United States, from Virginia to Wisconsin, from Salt Lake City to North Carolina. Most every city has reported the same pros and cons facing those in the Bay Area, which first appeared on San Francisco streets in March.

Crackdown, acceptance in other cities

Milwaukee sued Bird to remove its scooters from the city -- the first time a complaint against Bird will be argued in court, potentially providing the first judicial opinion for the cities scrambling to figure out how to deal with the startups.

Bird, which operates in about two dozen cities and is also refusing to comply with a cease-and-desist order from Indianapolis, contends their scooters are legal for street use, just like bicycles and other "mobility devices." 

Nashville, Tennessee, sued last month before impounding all of Bird's scooters. The city since dropped its lawsuit and is working on regulations for the scooters. 

Denver also ordered LimeBike, which is in 30 cities, to cease operations until regulations are in place.

In Europe, it's been easier to launch the scooters, company representatives say. Lime recently launched in Zurich, Switzerland and Paris, France, where Colford noted there wasn’t much debate or rancor over the “trottinettes electriques.” 

Money to be made

With the excitement -- and uproar – over scooters, there also is a lot of money being raised and made. Industry analysts note that even for Silicon Valley, the pace of funding is at a staggering speed, giving birth to scooter "unicorns," the term used for venture-funded startups hitting valuations of $1 billion.

Lime, which was born last year, announced in early July that it’s raising $335 million in funding. A company spokeswoman said Lime is valued at $1 billion. In May, Spin was valued at 43.2 million and Bird was valued at $400 million, PitchBook noted.

Some reports suggest a healthy profit margin for scooters which cost less than $500 and can pay for themselves in a few weeks with rental fees. Companies typically pay cities $5,000 per permit application plus $15 per scooter.%INLINE%

How to use them

To use them, riders must download an app, and locate where the scooters have been left – similar to finding a Lyft or Uber – and then pay for their use through a debit or credit card. Scooters can be left anywhere: They are dockless. That means they don’t have to parked at a particular location. Companies track them through GPS monitoring.

Scooters are charged overnight by a cadre of freelancers who take them home, juice them up and deliver them back on the streets.

The cost is $1 to unlock the scooter and .15 cents per minute. An hour’s ride costs about $8. Oakland wants to amend that price point for the low-income. Kaplan’s ordinance would mandate that low-income riders be offered a $5-a-year price cap and that people without credit cards or smartphones could pay for use at designated convenience stories, much like how people can pay for AC Transit Clipper cards.

Equitable distribution

The Oakland ordinance also proposes that if 100 scooters are placed along Lake Merritt, then 100 scooters will also be placed in poorer neighborhoods. San Francisco has a similar rule, but is less specific in how the companies should “promote equity,” other than mandating the companies provide a low income option and the SFMTA only “encourages deployment in Communities of Concern.”

Colford, of Lime, said she supports these regulations in general and in terms of the equitable distribution: “We think it’s awesome.”

Hoping for "high compliance"

She also added that the scooters are so new in the United States, that hopefully people’s behavior will be better over time. “We’re hoping for high compliance,” she said.

Back in Oakland, Ian Williams, 14, of Berkeley High and his stepdad, Miguel Viverios, parked the car and hopped on scooters around Lake Merritt on a recent weekday to put up posters around town to promote an event. It was their first time trying them out.

"I love it, especially around the lake catching the breeze," Viveiros said. "It's super fun." 

The pair were both riding without helmets.

"Oops!" Viverios said, also acknowledging his stepson was too young to technically be on a scooters.

"I wouldn't allow him to ride without me," he added.

But he said he’d be willing to change his behavior and he thought it was a good idea that Oakland, and other cities, were coming up with rules to help govern safety and civility.

“I'm not wearing a helmet right now but that would be a really good idea," Viverios said. "You have to be aware, just like you're driving. You have to make sure you're being aware of the crowds, and like any other vehicle, use caution."