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16th of November 2018

Automotive



Milking Scooters for Cash Helps Cities Build for the Future

They have landed in San Francisco, San Diego, Minneapolis. They have squeezed into Charlotte, North Carolina, Miami, and Phoenix. As shared, electric scooters took off some local governments panicked. Others moralized. A few shrugged their shoulders and let the people ride. But almost all of them whipped out the calculators.

A shared scooter service doesn’t work if its users can’t park the vehicles on public sidewalks. And it turns out that sidewalks aren’t free.

In Austin, officials are charging companies $100 a bike or scooter during its experimental phase, and could raise tens of thousands annually. Mobility startups operating in Santa Monica, California, have shelled out a $20,000 each for the right to operate, plus $130 per each device on the street, plus $1 per device per day for the privilege of parking on the public sidewalk. (That last charge is modeled off the way the city charges restaurants for outdoor dining.) Participants’ in Los Angeles’ soon-to-launch scooter and bike program will have a similar setup. Portland, Oregon, meanwhile, is charging the companies operating there a 25-cent per trip fee.

Cities insist this is not a bid to squeeze cash-rich companies for easy money. It’s the cost of doing business. In most places, the money goes to administering the program. City staff put real time into collecting data, purchasing software to crunch it, evaluating whether scooters and bikes actually helping people get around, and yes, impounding the ones that get in the way. San Francisco, for example, requires each of its two permitted e-scooter-share companies to pay $25,000 for an annual permit, plus $10,000 to an endowment fund for city property repair and maintenance.

Some officials, though, have added in something extra. A sprinkle of funding demands on top of the raw cost of handling scooters. And this model—charging fees per scooter to private companies that use public roads—just might be a template for other kinds of vehicles. Vehicles operated by companies like Uber and Lyft, maybe, who are now being charged per-trip taxes in places like Washington, DC, and New York City. Or private cars. Or maybe, someday, autonomous vehicles.

Seattle, the grand dame of dockless vehicle programs, is one of the places experimenting with those extra fees. Each dockless bike company operating in the city has to cough up about $50 per bike. More than half of those dollars go to administration. The rest goes to building infrastructure like protected bike lanes and bike racks. (If the city decides to allow scooters, it could use the funds to build dedicated parking “corrals” for them.) That means the mobility companies help pay for the street improvements that make their products easier and safer to use.

Plenty of other cities are using bike and scooter fees to fund bike scooter infrastructure—and to target specific neighborhoods that need help. Lawmakers in Indianapolis just voted to dedicate some of its scooter fees to improving street design. Portland, Oregon’s doing it too. And LA will lower its per-bike or -scooter fee by $91 for those deployed in areas disproportionately affected by pollution.

“I would certainly advise cities to think very carefully about the types of fees they impose on bikes and scooters, and make sure they don’t miss an opportunity to adequately manage mobility in their cities,” says Andrew Glass Hastings, who helped write Seattle’s rules as the former director of transit and mobility in the city’s department of transportation. (Hastings is currently a senior mobility strategist at the company Remix, which builds planning and analytics software for cities.)1

That means officials have to figure out what role they want scooters to play before they hit the streets. A way to connect far-flung residential areas to public transportation? A strategy to give traveling options to neighborhoods and communities with too few? Just an entertaining, recreational thing that people should be able to do safely? The answers will influence how to spend that money.

Here’s the (possibly) fun part: “What you’re seeing with bikes and scooters is setting the stage for what is to come with autonomous vehicles,” Hastings says.

Expect cities to continue to want to charge those automated vehicle companies fees to use the public street to make money, and to guide transit toward underserved communities, and maybe even to meet their climate goals. Expect a debate to ensue. But also expect some savvy officials to come into the conversation with companies knowing exactly what they want to extract from them—and how much to charge. As former Uber and Google strategist Anne Widera pointed out in Axios last month, “cities will shape the future business potential of AVs.”

This will be particularly important if shared, autonomous vehicles truly do cut down on parking fees and speeding tickets, which provide valuable revenue streams for many governments.

Some, including scooter companies themselves, are more skeptical. The problem with charging them is that other road players aren’t necessarily paying the same thing. “I do think there are benefits to operators, if we have better and safer infrastructure for micromobility,” says Regina Clewlow, CEO and founder of the transportation data and analytics startup Populus.ai. “But I think there are other sources of revenue we should be tapping.” She pauses. “Like charging vehicles.”

This is an argument that scooter and bike companies like to make, too. “Lime supports the assessment of reasonable fees to support our city partners in covering the costs of administering and enforcing bike and scooter permit programs,” Emily Warren, Lime’s senior director of policy and public affairs, said in a statement. “Currently, our transportation system tends to let cars off the hook by not charging them for their use of public space or contributions to congestion and emissions.”

Indeed, cars and trucks are responsible for a fifth of the nation’s carbon emissions. Why, critics wonder, would cities make it harder to scoot than to drive?

So governments muddle through, peeking at each others’ programs to see what the other kids are doing. Kansas City, Missouri, passed an emergency ordinance over the summer that allowed Bird and Lime to operate there, but it’s still hammering away at a more permanent pilot program. Officials are trying to figure out what its goals are—What can scooters do for us?—and what it would like from the companies operating there. Some city council members have suggested using more than $300,000 a year in scooter fees to support affordable housing in the area.

“We’re researching what other cities are doing, and working through different cost scenarios,” says Chris Hernandez, director of communications for the Kansas City. “We’ve always been a city that welcomes the entrepreneurial spirit and the tech scene.” And as any well-trained guest knows, it’s always nice to come bearing gifts.

1Story updated, 11/6/18, 3:30 PM EDT: This story has been updated to include Andrew Glass Hastings's current role at Remix.

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