Get Ready for the Electric Scooter Invasion
Los Angeles Downtown News
By Sean P. Thomas
July 3, 2018

DTLA – Electric scooters and bicycles that can be rented for short-term trips have popped up in cities across the country. They are frequent sights on the streets everywhere from Washington, D.C. to Chicago to Santa Monica.

They haven’t arrived en masse across all neighborhoods in Los Angeles yet, but they likely will soon. That includes Downtown, which is significant — just a month ago a city proposal sought to keep scooters and private bike share programs out of the Central City, so as not to compete with the existing Metro bike share.

On Wednesday, June 27, the City Council’s Transportation Committee approved guidelines for a one-year pilot program that would allow companies such as Bird Scooter, LimeBike and Ofo Bikes to operate within city limits. The city and the Los Angeles Department of Transportation have been working on guidelines for dockless vehicles since 2016.

Some guidelines approved last week run counter to proposals that had been discussed in May. A previous 2,500-vehicle cap on each operator in the city has been bumped up to 3,000, and it could go higher if certain conditions are met. Demands for specific parking requirements and a locking mechanism have been dropped.

Perhaps the most contentious element initially proposed — and one no longer on the table — was a three-mile buffer around existing or planned Metro bike-share stations. That would have kept sharable bikes and scooters out of Downtown and other neighborhoods.

Metro’s $11 million bike share program launched in Downtown in 2016 and has 65 kiosks with about 700 bikes than can be used for short trips (it also operates in Pasadena, Venice and other neighborhoods). Plans call for expanding it to neighborhoods near Downtown including Echo Park, Koreatown and Pico-Union.

The three-mile buffer proposal drew the ire of companies seeking to expand into Downtown, and sparked questions as to why the city should be so keenly interested in protecting Metro’s bike share program.

During a Transportation Committee meeting in May, Councilman Mike Bonin, whose 11th District includes Venice, requested that LADOT look into removing the no-ride zones.

“I’m not convinced we need buffer zones yet,” Bonin said during the meeting. “You would be taking away dockless in San Pedro, you would be taking away dockless in Downtown, you’d be taking away dockless in Venice.”

By the Minute

Dockless vehicle-share programs allow users to download an app and then unlock a bicycle or scooter by scanning a bar code with their smart phone. Rates vary, but often are similar to Bird scooters, which charge $1 for the rental and 15 cents for each minute of use. When a rider is done, they use their phone again and then leave the scooter or bike. As the name implies, no docking mechanism is required.

Dockless systems have been heralded as an option for short trips within a neighborhood, and as a potential solution to the so-called “first-mile, last-mile” dilemma, which involves helping mass transit users get from their home to a train station, or from the station to their job, so they can leave their car in the garage. Metro’s bike share operates on the same principle.

Under the guidelines approved last week, operators that deploy vehicles in a “disadvantaged” neighborhood, as outlined by the California Environmental Protection Agency’s Communities Environmental Health Screening Tool, can increase their 3,000-vehicle cap by an additional 2,500. If they meet specific guidelines outlined by the LADOT, including an average daily use of three rides, the numbers could increase even further.

LADOT General Manager Seleta Reynolds would have to sign off on any fleet increases.

Reynolds said the current guidelines were drawn from a recently approved 16-month pilot program for dockless operators in the city of Santa Monica. That includes a cap of 2,250 vehicles for each operator, though it can rise if usage requirements are met. The program permits a maximum of four rental companies — two electric scooter operators and two electric bike services — to operate in the city.

San Francisco approved a similar pilot program in April.

The Los Angeles guidelines require operators to pay an annual $20,000 permitting fee and $130 per vehicle; a company that deploys 2,500 vehicles would pay $325,000 per year. However, vehicles in disadvantaged neighborhoods face only a $39 fee.

The extra fleet size for underserved communities is intended to incentivize companies, said Marcel Porras, the LADOT’s chief sustainability officer. The goal is to ensure that operators do not just flood high-income neighborhoods such as Downtown.

The guidelines come in the wake of a March moratorium the city passed on new dockless transportation until a concrete regulatory system is established. Council districts that represent areas including Northridge, San Pedro and Wilmington have worked out pilot programs with companies such as Lime Bike. There are currently no pilot agreements in Downtown Los Angeles.

At the Transportation Committee meeting Wednesday, Bonin noted that the process is evolving.

“These regulations are not going to be final and permanent for all time,” Bonin said. “These are how Los Angeles is going to start governing dockless. We are a big city and we are a diverse city. We are not Santa Monica. We have a lot of different neighborhoods and a lot of different needs and a lot of different interests to consider. It will be changed over time. We are going to learn things from this.”

Congestion and Clutter

Dockless systems have sparked complaints about clutter, as users often leave them in the middle of a sidewalk or other locations. Controversy has arisen in cities such as Dallas and New York, where scooters and bikes frequently block the public right-of-way. Additionally, there are safety concerns, as many riders skirt the law and do not wear helmets.

Peter Hobans, COO for Bicycle Transit System, which operates the Metro bike share program, told the Transportation Committee in May that 10% of the bicycles in Seattle, or about 1,000 two-wheelers, block the public right of way; he cited a report completed by Portland, Oregon’s Department of Transportation.

Seattle has gone on to abandon a city-run, station-centric bike share effort in favor of private operators, and has painted specific locations where dockless vehicles can be parked.

Additionally, concerns have arisen over where riders use the electric vehicles. Under California law they are not allowed on sidewalks.

Bonin requested that each vehicle have a sticker noting that the scooters and bikes are not intended to be used on city sidewalks.

Many in Los Angeles see potential for dockless scooters and bikes in Downtown and other areas. That includes Jessica Lall, president and CEO of the Central City Association. She agreed that clutter should be a concern when drafting pilot program guidelines, but thinks dockless systems will help with the “first-mile, last-mile” issue and could complement Metro bike share.

“We hope to work with the city and DOT and the folks who provide these scooters to come up with proper enforcement mechanisms to prevent clutter from happening while focusing on the benefits,” she said in an interview with Downtown News.

City Councilman José Huizar, whose 14th District includes Downtown, has not taken a position on the dockless vehicles. During the Transportation Committee meeting, Huizar Transportation and Planning Deputy Kevin Ocubillo said the councilman wants the LADOT to address the cost and mechanisms associated with having public agencies respond to clutter.

According to the current guideline, city sanitation workers and the Bureau of Street Services staff would be responsible, in part, for removing scooters from the public right of way.

What happens in Downtown could be shaped by what works in other cities. In Chicago, which allows both a station-based and a dockless system, dockless vehicles are required to have a locking mechanism that allows them to be affixed to a structure. LADOT initially proposed the idea of requiring a locking structure, but has backed off from that.

“It’s a balance,” Reynolds told the committee. “It’s also a crawl, walk, run approach. LADOT has spent the last two years thinking carefully about how to change the way we manage and deploy private mobility operators because they are a precedent for everything that is going to come after it today.”

The recommendations still require approval from the full City Council. In a statement to Downtown News, a spokesman for Mayor Eric Garcetti said that he hopes to have a pilot program green lit in the coming months.

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