Dockless scooters: Oh, the outrage. Oh, the pearl-clutching. Oh, the incredulity. This story would be equal parts comedy and tragedy if not for the actual tragedy of two mid-major cities feigning outrage that these scooters are an affront to the decent folks of the Commonwealth. Fact check, they’re not. Welcome to the gig economy. Welcome to the sharing economy. Welcome to the 21st Century.
These scooters arrived on the streets of Richmond on Aug. 16 and Norfolk on Aug. 29. Both cities made moves to promptly round them up and ruin everyone’s good time. Classic Virginia.
Richmond is trying to be conciliatory, however, with Mayor Levar Stoney blasting out a tweet on Aug. 17, signaling a willingness to work together, saying, “Hey Bird Ride! I like these scooters. How about we get our teams around the table and make this work the right way?” He’s Virginia’s cool mayor so that makes sense (in fairness, he is pretty cool).
The actual dirty work was left to the Department of Public Works, who in a letter to Bird said, “The unregulated and disorderly deployment and use of powered scooters has the potential to create a public nuisance on the city’s streets and sidewalks and endanger public health and safety.” Apparently, there is a timetable for putting a scooter ordinance before city council, but no one has actually seen it; so that’s probably on the same timetable as completing the 17th Street Farmers Market.
Norfolk, on the other hand, was not so conciliatory. City Councilwoman, Andria McClellan in a tweet, said, “I’ve seen these Bird scooters littering the streets all over LA this summer. Whether or not @NorfolkVA allows them in the future, this in-the-middle-of-the-night approach is totally unacceptable and does not make me inclined to support this company.” In a Facebook post, she also said, “Hey there, Bird. Bad first move. I’m looking for LIME’s number now…” Lime is a competitor in the dockless scooter game. Scooters are apparently litter.
McClellan’s observations are as petty as they are patronizing. Wanting a company to pay homage to a council member’s perceived idea of ethics (we’re talking about scooters, not North Korea) in the sharing economy at the expense of entrepreneurship in the 21st Century reeks of all the reasons why Norfolk, like Richmond, will never grow past mid-major status. Not to mention the idea of a guerrilla roll-out like this is as clever as it is emblematic of what young people are expecting from growing cities; cities that should be flexible enough to tap into the dynamism of the next-generation economy.
While McClellan selectively used San Francisco as an example to make her point, a more apt example would be Austin, Texas – a city that has a similar composition to Richmond and Norfolk – and currently boasts over 2,000 dockless scooters which zip along their city streets. Instead of threatening innovative companies like Bird, Austin worked out an interim ordinance that can be reviewed every six months, giving them the option of pulling licensing should their rules be broken.
According to CNN, each of the 2,000 scooters in Austin is now ridden over 20 times a day. Austin’s assistant director for their smart mobility program was also quoted as saying that their introduction has reduced cars on the road, congestion, pollution and are “bringing to the table discussions about developing a roadmap to deploy transportation that from the get-go has equity and access for all built into it.”
Alternatively, while Richmond is basking in the unrequited glory of managing to implement a bus that drives in a straight line, Bird has just agreed to give discounts to low-income communities in Baltimore; ensuring that part of their fleet can meet the transportation needs of mixed-income communities. The Baltimore Sun was quoted as saying this about dockless scooters, “City Hall saw an opportunity and seized it. In a town whose transit deficits are as widespread as they are neglected, companies developing leapfrog technologies like electric scooters are a beacon of hope. Baltimore is in desperate need of a few overnight, starter solutions.”
San Diego, on the other hand, is apparently just rolling with the times. Their mayor released a statement in June saying, “The mayor welcomes more transportation choices and options for people to get out of their cars. As this is still a relatively new business model in San Diego, we continue to monitor its effectiveness and believe that the market will dictate how the businesses continue to operate within the city.”
The arguments for and against this technology and innovation are not stacked evenly. To think so is to fall into a self-made ambush whereby a city council or mayor, bound by their lack of understanding about the sharing economy claims “public health and safety” or in the case of Norfolk just wants to be insulting about something they clearly do not understand.
While the public safety argument is a fair one, Virginia DMV already has baseline regulations in place to regulate motorized scooters under the rules for mopeds. And on any given day in Richmond, you can find any number of mobility devices from mopeds, motorized longboards, electric scooters, and electric bikes cruising around the River City without incident.
If a city thinks their residents are not capable enough to manage the risk in renting and riding a scooter, then they are engaged in the kind of nanny state tactics and over-regulation that kills innovation and stymies new forms of 21st Century economy. For a city to be against them on principle is to interfere with the free-market, determining and ultimately limiting which transportation options are best for their citizens. Either outcome should deeply concern and worry an informed citizenry who should be trusted to make their own decisions on transportation.
Richmond and Norfolk desperately need to court the next generation economy. Both cities need to offer more than wall murals, a handful of restaurants and breweries, and Confederate monuments. Offering smart amenities that excite young people, provide flexible mobility options for residents of all financial stripes, and taps into the sharing economy is only smart business. To think otherwise is to prove just how provincial cities like Richmond and Norfolk actually are.
Either way, Bird is the word.