SANTA MONICA, Calif. - The motorized scooters are staying in Santa Monica - at least for a while.
Santa Monica's City Council unanimously voted Tuesday night to approve a 16-month pilot program that will allow scooter rental companies such as Bird and Lime to continue operating in the city, as long as they meet certain conditions.
Under the rules of the pilot, which takes effect Sept. 17, companies will have to apply for a permit and pay an annual fee of $20,000 and a per-device fee of $130. That's a lot more money for the city: Currently, the companies are paying only for a permit that, according to the municipal code, starts at $50 a year, plus a $60 impound fee for each of its scooters that poses an immediate hazard or obstructs access to buildings.
Companies that receive permits will also have to agree to create interactive safety education for riders, such as sending push notifications to customers' phones to tell them if they have been riding unsafely. They'll also have to share real-time data with the city; ensure that their scooters are evenly distributed throughout the city; establish a 24-hour hotline to field complaints; and make sure that improperly parked scooters are promptly moved.
The city will also impose a "dynamic" cap on the number of scooters each company is allowed to deploy, which will be determined by whether the company's scooters are getting enough use. A company that can demonstrate that each of its scooters is being used at least three times a day may have its cap increased, while a company that shows lower ridership will be ordered to reduce the number of scooters it deploys in the city.
The pilot proposed by city staffers had called for an initial cap of 1,500 scooters across the entire city, with the option to increase that cap to 2,250. Cities such as San Francisco and Austin, Texas, have implemented scooter caps as part of their pilot programs. But the cap was a point of contention during the meeting, with council members Gleam Davis and Terry O'Day expressing concern that such limitations would encourage scooter companies to deploy their devices only in high-density areas, leaving outlying residential parts of Santa Monica without access to the scooters.
Scooter companies Bird and Lime had also opposed the cap. Bird even organized a rally Tuesday outside city hall to make its case. Around 50 Bird supporters showed up to the demonstration, many wearing shirts emblazoned with the phrase "Save our planet," and carrying colorful signs that read, "Let the birds fly," "More birds less traffic" and "Free the birds."
David Estrada, chief legal officer for Bird, was one of a handful of speakers to talk about how Bird can help Santa Monica achieve its goals related to climate change, and why the cap would hurt progress.
Estrada said around 1,500 to 2,000 Bird scooters operate in Santa Monica on a daily basis. The proposed pilot program would have limited Bird to 500 scooters.
Aside from the cap, "most of the proposal is reasonable," Estrada said.
Santa Monica's pilot program also places a limit on the number of such companies that can operate in the city: There can be two electric scooter providers and two electric bike providers. The original pilot proposal would have limited it to three total companies shared across both categories.
Electric scooter rental companies have posed a regulatory challenge for many cities.
People have been riding the scooters in the middle of the street and on sidewalks at speeds of up to 15 mph, often without helmets. The scooters have been parked in public spaces, blocking driveways and creating trip hazards. This has spurred public safety concerns, and many residents see the vehicles as a nuisance.
But the scooters also offer a convenient, eco-friendly and affordable transportation option. That's appealing to cities, which want to keep traffic and pollution down but have limited funds for public transit.
It's also appealing to riders, who can find the nearest available scooter by using a mobile app, then rent the scooter by scanning a code on the handlebar with their phone. Bird and Lime charge $1 to rent a scooter, plus 15 cents per minute of use. Riders can abandon the scooters anywhere when they're done, although the scooter companies' apps advise them to avoid obstructing sidewalks and doorways. The companies later collect the scooters and charge them overnight.
Start-ups such as Bird and Lime operate in dozens of U.S. cities and have attracted millions of dollars in venture capital funding. Bird recently raised $100 million, bringing its total funding to $115 million. The company is now rumored to be valued at more than $1.5 billion, although Estrada said of the valuation: "It's speculative."
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