The electric, dockless Bird scooters are being used around Baltimore. (Jay Reed & Kim Hairston, Baltimore Sun video)
Across the country, the recent onslaught of electric scooters in urban spaces has been compared to a foreign invasion designed by teens. Dumped in large numbers on city sidewalks from San Francisco to Boston over the past year by Santa Monica, Calif.-based Bird and its competitors like Lime and Spin, they typify the gig economy — appealing to millennials and based on the ride-sharing concept of Uber and Lyft. It is a business plan that not only represents daring entrepreneurship but also a complete disrespect for local governance.
Here’s how they work. They are just like old-fashioned two-wheel scooters but with small electric motors that power the devices (usually after the launching foot kick), and users rent them through their smartphones. Download the owner’s app, pick up a scooter (they aren’t kept in a dock), ride it to work and then leave it back on the nearest sidewalk where someone else can find it. The average cost of a ride? Maybe $3 or so. Someone employed by the company worries about keeping the batteries charged.
Earlier this month, the scooters arrived in Baltimore courtesy of Bird. Perhaps we should be a little insulted that Charm City wasn’t in the first wave. Or maybe not. In many cities, they’ve raised hackles and understandably so. In San Francisco, a city that knows ride-sharing and hipness, they’ve been greeted by officialdom with all the enthusiasm one normally associates with fire ants and head lice. Bans and partial bans have been proposed from Miami Beach to Denver. In Boston, the mayor has threatened to “tow” any idle scooters left in public areas.
The problem: How do electric scooters safely fit in the traffic pattern? In some places, they are commonly driven on the sidewalk. In many others, they are restricted to streets or bike lanes. Both venues have their challenges, but surely the most problematic is on the sidewalks where devices that can move as fast as 15 miles per hour can pose quite a hazard to pedestrians traveling at far slower speeds. It is exactly the challenge that Segways would have faced had Segways become more than a novelty and sightseeing conveyance.
Baltimore has no special rules governing ride-share electric scooters. It had simply never occurred to the City Council or the city’s transportation department to even explore such a thing. So right now, there are no laws or regulations, city or state, that prevent anyone from riding a powered scooter in the middle of a sidewalk. And plenty do.
But here’s the rub: Maybe that’s what a lot of Baltimoreans want. Perhaps it’s possible that scooters and pedestrians can share space. After all, the non-electric, non-shared kind have been occupying sidewalks for as long as there have been Razors and skateboards. It requires some courtesy and judgment, of course, but after a couple of weeks with dozens of Bird scooters in circulation, The Baltimore Sun’s metro coverage hasn’t been dominated with accounts of serious scooter-versus-pedestrian collisions. This might be manageable and, in the process, allow Baltimore to actually seem supportive of start-up businesses and the technology sector. Let’s face it. Some people like to zip along their last mile to work on a scooter. There ought to be a way to accommodate those individuals and allow Bird or Spin or anybody else to provide that service.
Yet there’s something deeply troubling about a company that’s decided it’s better to simply leave their scooters in public spaces than take the time to get permission from the city. This wasn’t some oversight. Bird knows its approach has been controversial elsewhere, yet it went ahead and dumped its scooters in Baltimore. It’s like that famous Grace Hopper quote: It’s easier to ask forgiveness than get permission. (And by the way, if you have to ask who Grace Hopper is, you aren’t plugged in to Silicon Valley.) This is typical of the tech-venture capital culture, and it sets a bad precedent. Baltimore has enough problems with lawlessness to add personal transportation to the mix.
Here’s our suggestion: Let the city hold public hearings on how to treat the devices, explore how they are working out elsewhere and then come to a reasonable conclusion about best safety practices and implement them. Until then, treat any scooter left in a public area without permission as litter. Round them up and let the owner come and claim them. Ride-share electric scooters may have a future in Charm City, but it’s up to city residents to decide that, not Bird or its employees or its competitors.