E-scooters may be here to stay, but with concerns about accidents, underage driving, and even “jailbreaking” scooters for free rides, it seems there are still issues that need to be dealt with.
Everyone remembers Bird scooters… In the dumpster. In your yard. On fire. In a dumpster that was thrown into your yard that also happens to be on fire.
Bird are gone, their impounded scooters sold off at rock bottom prices by the city earlier this summer. But e-scooters are here now, for better or worse, and have continued to increase their presence in the city. They come out of nowhere, from companies we’ve never previously heard of. And while convenient, they have largely been a nuisance, causing injuries, vandalism, and accidents police don’t know how to regulate. If the City of Richmond had a plan for what transportation looked like in the city, E-scooters had never really been a part of it. Until Bolt.
Set up through a city ordinance last June, Bolt Mobility is the newest company to enter the Richmond market. Despite its promise to play by the rules, Bolt is now dealing with a problem far worse than occasional towing or lack of sidewalk space.
As it turns out, their scooters are pretty easy to hack.
Any iPhone user knows the term “jailbreaking,” which, through some warranty-violating programming hacks, eliminates all restrictions in the software and allows the user to essentially own the object — phone or scooter — free of charge, to use as they please.
It may be morally wrong, but for many it seems financially sound. Like other e-scooter companies, Bolt operates through a smartphone app that riders can use to locate scooters and pay to ride them. They’re not cheap: scooters cost $1 to start, 15 cents per minute, and require a security deposit of $5 per scooter (which gets refunded to the rider in 5-7 business days). In essence, according to Bolt, a 20 minute ride should cost no more than $4 (once you get your deposit back a week later). But four dollars adds up; it’s almost two gallons of gas, or the minimum price of an Uber ride.
Over the past year or so, scooter hacking has become a cottage industry around the world. In fact, the market for jailbroken scooters has become more enterprising and lucrative than that of the legitimate scooter companies.
Online forums and videos on YouTube itemize operation costs for use of the scooters, and demonstrate within six to eight minutes that any Richmonder will be financially better off hacking their ride instead of paying. Some even itemize the step-by-step process of hacking and selling the scooters.
And for riders who live outside of major cities, paying a flat fee of $200-$250 for their own scooter can be more convenient than spending the better part of the day searching for one to legally ride.
Another upside: when a different rider approaches the jailbroken scooter, they cannot access it the way they can a non-jailbroken scooter. Jailbroken scooters are personalized to each rider, and cannot be used by anyone other than the owner.
Richmond is the third city in Virginia, and the 13th nationwide, to allow Bolt to operate legally on their streets. Richmond was deemed a prime location to bring these e-scooters due to the tremendous growth the city is experiencing.
“Richmond will do this the right way,” Mayor Levar Stoney said in a press release, “We will implement a legal and appropriate dockless scooter and bicycle program, with proper safety regulations to protect scooter users, pedestrians, and other citizens.”
Bolt announced their summer arrival at a public ride event with Mayor Stoney in Monroe Park. Bolt paid the city $45,000 to drop an initial 500 e-scooters throughout city, and will continue to pay $1500 for every new scooter they register.
Will Nicholas, Bolt’s executive VP of operations, does all of the ribbon-cutting and hand-shaking.
“Bolt is super excited to take part in the massive and impressive growth that this city has gone through, in order to provide simple, sustainable, and safe transportation options for everyone,” Nicholas said.
The Department of Public Works oversees the pilot program, while the City Council is in charge of determining which neighborhoods should be targeted. According to Nicholas, Bolt offers discounted rides to people who apply and demonstrate a need based on enrollment in a federal safety net program or living in subsidized housing. However, Bolt not commented on which neighborhoods have been chosen for these programs, and whether scooters have been distributed to them or not.
“Bolt is committed to the positive, productive partnership it has with the city of Richmond,” Nicholas said. “We continue to collaborate with the DOPW and the City Council to provide affordable and reliable e-scooters to all neighborhoods throughout Richmond.”
Donna Chen, professor of engineering systems and environment at UVA, sees these scooters as the next variable in the ever-evolving transportation algorithm.
“We didn’t have a massive number of privately-owned scooters before these descended upon our city, so they are an interesting case, because they are giving people — cities in particular — a lot of headaches in terms of how we regulate these things,” Chen said. “Should we regulate them? What types of infrastructure should they use? Should the people who use scooters have some kind of training or license before they’re allowed to hop on them?”
Concerns with the scooters’ speed (which maxes out of 15 mph — still relatively fast depending on the neighborhood one is riding through), safety, and reports of underage driving could leave Bolt facing a California wildfire in its own right.
“The true problem is that they reside in this sort of grey space, somewhere between non-motorized modes [of transportation], such as bicycling or walking, and fully-motorized modes such as driving,” said Chen. “Driving is much more regulated than the non-motorized modes, because they travel at faster speeds — therefore [there] is a safety liability.”
According to Bolt, the age limit to operate these scooters is 18. An age restriction is set into place to help with safety issues, just as it is with motorized vehicles and bikes.
“We strive to ensure that not only are all riders above the age of 18, but that riders are educated on the proper use of our scooters,” Nicholas said in a statement to NBC12. “Helmets are available free of charge to anyone who requests one, and we have delivered hundreds in Richmond so far.”
According to Bolt, a self-certification process that allows Bolts to be operated without a driver’s license is in the works, but has not yet been implemented. Bird scooters required drivers to provide a picture of a valid driver’s license before operating a scooter — but Bolt uses a different monitor system.
Bearing in mind the mistakes of scooter companies past, Bolt has implemented its own form of security system with a warning signal that says it all: “Stop moving the e-scooter or I will call the police on you.”
The system, according to Bolt, is on from 5a.m. to 9a.m., seven days a week. The Richmond Police Department stated that the warning signal is handled by the Department of Emergency Communications. Bolt Mobility also has a 24/7 customer support service to address riders directly.
However, there’s still very little they can do to deter children from using the scooters.
“Our terms and conditions, printed on our scooters and in-app messaging, clearly state that anyone under the age of 18 is prohibited from using our service,” Nicholas said. “Unfortunately, Bolt does not have the ability to restrict use [by] the parents and guardians who choose to allow their sons and daughters to ride using their accounts.”
E-scooter companies like Bolt Mobility were founded to profit from gaps in transportation access in cities across the country. Emission-free and much smaller than any car, let alone the SUVs that are increasingly prevalent on our streets, scooters are a vital alternative for next-gen transportation. Unfortunately, the focus on bringing something new and different to Richmond’s streets seems to have resulted in some factors not being taken into consideration.
“No city wants to feel like it’s being left behind,” said Chen. “There’s a lot of transportation innovation happening, and every city wants what every city has. You don’t want to be that city that said no to scooters when everybody else is doing it, especially if it really is impacting mobility in a positive way.”
By working with the city rather than illegally invading our streets, Bolt has taken a more positive approach than any previous e-scooter company. However, it seems there are still a few bugs left in the system.
Written by John Donegan and Brea Hill.