How Santa Monica Established Order From Scooter Chaos (And What It Can Teach LA)

(Courtesy city of Santa Monica via Twitter)

In September 2017, Santa Monica became ground zero for a disruptive force that's been hailed as both the future of mobility and "the herpes of urban transit": dockless electric scooters.

Bird was the first company to start dropping hundreds of scooters in the tourist-rich beach city. Lime soon followed, and the companies' scoot first, regulate later approach quickly spiraled into chaos as Santa Monica leaders scrambled to put rules in place.

But while they rushed to restore order in the streets, city officials also recognized scooters' potential as a better mobility option in car-congested Southern California.

"Like everywhere else in Southern California, the highest percentage of trips are under two miles... there are lots of other ways to get around," said Francie Stefan, acting chief mobility officer and assistant director of planning for the city of Santa Monica. "That was sort of the mindset... we don't know, but we won't know if we don't try."

And scooters were a way to try.

In September 2018, the city launched a pilot program, embracing scooters and e-bikes as a viable transportation method, and studying how they were being used in Santa Monica. The city issued permits to four companies and set a vehicle cap for each, but allowed for fleet sizes to fluctuate based on the popularity of the devices. Here's the most recent fleet size:

  • Bird: 750 electric scooters
  • Lime: 750 electric scooters
  • Lyft: 750 electric scooters
  • Jump: 250 electric scooters, 750 e-bikes

That adds up to 3,250 devices, though on an average day, about 2,250 are available across Santa Monica, city officials said.

The 16-month pilot was set to expire on Dec. 30, but the Santa Monica City Council voted last week to extend it through May 2020. With that added time, city staff "will be developing a pilot 2.0," Stefan said, to explore enhanced regulations and improvements to streets.

City officials also published a report looking at the first full year of the scooter experiment, which offers the clearest picture to date on how scooter use can exist — and maybe thrive — within the region's transit ecosystem.

"Santa Monica has a relatively stable system... that can demonstrate to other parts of Southern California what might be possible," said Juan Matute, deputy director of UCLA's Institute of Transportation Studies. "The worst fears of people who said, 'oh scooters are going to ruin the city' haven't come to fruition."

The 60-page report includes surveys of more than 4,200 riders, a separate communitywide survey, plus data collected directly from scooter and e-bike operators. It highlights the progress Santa Monica has made to understand how the devices are being used and wrangle them into a manageable system — but also notes plenty of room for improvement moving forward into the next phase of the pilot.

Here are several key takeaways from the report:

SCRATCH 1.3 MILLION CAR TRIPS

(Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images)

In the 12 months from October 2018 through September 2019, more than 2.67 million scooter and e-bike trips were taken in Santa Monica, according to the city's report. The average trip lasted 14 minutes with a distance of 1.3 miles.

Most notably, rider surveys showed 49% of those trips "replaced trips that would have otherwise been made by car, either driving alone or ride-hailing using Lyft or Uber." And nearly a third of the 2.67 million rides were work-related, according to the report.

Stefan said that makes it clear that dockless vehicles can play a key role in improving mobility — and reducing air pollution caused by car emissions.

"The macro narrative has been that these are toys and that they're not legitimate transportation," she said. "When we actually have data that shows ... that 1.3 million [trips] would have been by car — so we effectively reduced that many car trips — [that's] very significant."

Scooter and e-bike trips also replaced more than a third of walking trips in the city, according to the report. However, most surveyed riders reported that they still walk, bike and use transit "about the same as before shared mobility devices arrived in Santa Monica."

THE DESTINATIONS

So, where are people going on the vehicles? According to trip data collected by the city, the common "hotspots" include downtown around the busy Third Street Promenade, office spaces at the Water Garden, Santa Monica College and the beach (duh).

Trip starts, in blue, and trip ends, in orange, show the hotspots for scooter and e-bike use in Santa Monica. (Maps courtesy city of Santa Monica; Composite image by Elizabeth Robinson/LAist)

"This suggests that shared mobility is filling gaps in the transportation network to fulfill short trips between activity centers, potentially meeting new mobility needs that were unmet or underserved," the report states.

RIDERS ARE BEHAVING BETTER (BUT POLICE CAN'T DO MUCH)

A common complaint about dockless vehicles — mostly scooters — is that bad behavior on the part of riders creates a dangerous environment for everyone moving around city streets.

Santa Monica officials reported that rider behavior has improved over the course of the pilot, but they also made one big concession: unsafe riding and irresponsible parking will continue to plague pedestrians and cannot be solved through enforcement from police because there are simply too many devices zipping around city streets.

Santa Monica police officers wrote just over 1,000 tickets to scooter and e-bike riders between June 2017 and early September 2019. City officials say they can't solve bad rider behavior through enforcement because of how spread out the devices are and how quickly riders are zipping around. (Courtesy city of Santa Monica)

And the data suggests that plenty of scooter scofflaws were indeed able to get away with shenanigans.

Santa Monica police wrote just over 1,000 tickets over the course of the pilot program (plus a few months before its official start). That works out to fewer than two citations per day in a city that saw more than 7,300 scooter and e-bike trips per day on average.

Common violations included riding without a license, riding on the sidewalk, running red lights and riding without a helmet, though that law no longer applies to riders 18 or older as of Jan. 1.

(Courtesy Rick Cole via Twitter)

PARKING PROBLEMS

The city did make efforts to improve parking issues, including designating 107 parking and pick-up zones across the city. Stefan said a strong focus on education campaigns to promote responsible riding and parking will be vital to improving safety for everyone.

"You don't have to use [scooters], but everyone has to be friendly and polite to each other ... continuing to educate and discuss it in a way that helps to build stability and respective safety on the road just can't be underestimated," she said. "It's a critical part of creating the culture of mobility that we want."

It wasn't just bad riders. Scooter operators were initially slow to address operating issues like improper deployment and maintenance requests. The city singled out Bird specifically for "a higher number of complaints and observed issues" compared to the other operators, along with "consistent anomalies" in the data Bird was sending, which made it hard to monitor the company's fleet.

But Bird and other companies started to clean up their act when the city ramped up enforcement.

During the pilot, city staff issued nearly 300 of its own citations, and impounded more than 1,200 devices for violations including "blocking access for people with disabilities, being parked in the street [and] slow operator response time," the report states.

As the graph below shows, stronger enforcement put the pressure on Bird, Lime, Lyft, and Jump to respond to service requests quickly and keep their vehicles in order in public space.

(Courtesy city of Santa Monica)

CRASHES AND INJURIES

So parking and sidewalk riding issues are not solved, but improving. But how often are people crashing on scooters and e-bikes?

The report showed that from January 2017 through September 2019, there were 122 collisions reported to Santa Monica police involving dockless vehicles.

That works out to a crash rate was roughly .015 per 1,000 trips, according to the report, though city officials note that their data does not paint a complete picture, since many crashes go unreported to police.

Nearly half (47%) of the collisions that were reported involved "a conflict with a motor vehicle," the report states, followed by:

  • 21% caused by falling off the device
  • 18% involving a fixed object
  • 7% involved pedestrians
A man rides a shared electric scooter in Santa Monica on July 13, 2018. (Robyn Beck/AFP via Getty Images)

In total, "10% of the collisions resulted in severe injuries, while 80% of collisions resulted in a minor visible injury or complaint of pain," according to the report.

Crashes spiked in spring and summer months, but the collision rates have declined over time, according to the report.

The report also states that there have been "no fatalities on shared mobility devices during the pilot period." In March 2019, however, a man riding a privately-owned scooter fell off his vehicle and was fatally struck by a driver who then fled the scene.

To put those122 collisions into a little context, there were more than 2,600 traffic collisions that did not involve scooters reported in the city from 2017 through 2018, according to police data. Nine people were killed in crashes during that period.


RELATED: The Scooter Wars Sound A Lot Like The Early Days Of Automobiles


ARE DOCKLESS DEVICES EQUITABLE?

Currently, no, according to the report. Scooter and e-bike operators are for-profit companies that have raised their rates over time.

Initially, devices cost $1 to unlock, then 15 cents per minute to ride. Companies are now charging about 23-30 cents a minute.

"While overall, these devices have shifted trips from auto modes to support sustainability goals, the cost may be a barrier to serving communities equitably," the report authors wrote. "For low-income individuals, a series of short trips may quickly add up, and may not be financially accessible."

The report highlighted this "ridership imbalance" and the need to make the devices more accessible to city residents and visitors "regardless of home location or income level."

Based on user surveys, the typical scooter or e-bike rider in Santa Monica is male, under 34 and higher income. In fact, 34% of riders surveyed reported income of more than $100,000. Roughly 27% earned between $50,000 and $100,000. About 17% reported making $30,000 or less.

A man rides a shared electric scooter in Santa Monica on July 13, 2018. (Robyn Beck/AFP via Getty Images)

City officials presented several factors that likely undermined equity efforts, including a lack of access to smartphones and digital banking services, language barriers, and the availability of scooters and e-bikes near low-income communities and job centers.

Santa Monica did require each operator to create a program that offered reduced rates for riders who qualified as low income and allowed them to access scooters without the need for a smartphone and credit card.

More than 10,000 Santa Monica residents live below the federal poverty line, according to the city's most recent demographic data (and that doesn't include low-income riders who visit or work in Santa Monica from nearby communities). But of the tens of thousands of riders that used the devices in the past 12 months, just 253 people enrolled in the low-income programs.

The report cites limited marketing efforts and a confusing enrollment process for that low enrollment, and city officials vowed to step up engagement efforts.

The report also states the city should consider targeted deployment in underserved areas and create a formal pathway for operators to develop and deploy "ADA accessible devices" like hand cycles and tricycles.

SANTA MONICA VS. LOS ANGELES

Santa Monica was the first SoCal city to launch a pilot program, but L.A. followed in the spring of 2019 by launching the biggest dockless mobility experiment in the U.S. Eight companies were granted permits to put more than 36,000 scooters and e-bikes on city sidewalks. Compare that number to the 3,250 devices permitted to operate in Santa Monica.

According to UCLA's Juan Matute, one piece of Santa Monica's success is that officials scaled the experiment at a manageable level and invested in quality over quantity.

"Santa Monica is a better-resource city in terms of revenues (and) employees per capita, and so it could have more people to it," he said. "Los Angeles, by contrast, it would be hard for any group of people to regulate that many devices."

Another key factor, Matute said, is the fact that Santa Monica has better, smoother roads than L.A., and has invested in bikeways in recent years to make those roads safer.

Santa Monica's bikeway system reaches 130 miles of city streets. Bike lanes are shown in green and bike paths (along the beach and public transit routes) are in purple. (Courtesy city of Santa Monica)

Santa Monica is a city of just over eight square miles with about 130 miles of bike lanes, Stefan said. Los Angeles, by contrast, covers more than 500 square miles and the map of its current bikeway system demonstrates one reason why L.A. was recently dubbed America's worst city for bikes.

Santa Monica has also painted 19 miles of bike lanes green so far during the pilot period. Stefan thinks the city's commitment to improving street safety is one reason scooter companies came to town in the first place.

"We thought the next step from that was to increase the visibility of that infrastructure," she said. "So the green lanes really popped... it not only signals to the rider where they should be, but it also signals to the cars to be looking for someone."

Green bike lanes are a great step in the right direction, but Matute said that "for this type of category to have expanded use in the future you really need more protected bike lanes or segregated bikeways."

That's in the works in Santa Monica, Stefan said, explaining that she and her team are exploring how to reconfigure streets to create "protected two-wheeled vehicle lane infrastructure" (she coined that new name since "bicycle lane" is now an incomplete term).

WILL SCOOTERS USHER IN THE NEXT MOBILITY EVOLUTION?

Santa Monica officials acknowledge there is still a lot of work to be done to improve its program and address the valid concerns many city residents have voiced about the volatile vehicles. But another layer of change is happening through a shifting public perception of what urban mobility is — and what it could be.

"One of the biggest things we're dealing with is just people's lack of familiarity with what it's like to be traveling outside of their car," Stefan said. "That's what excites me... when people experience things differently, it opens up their their willingness to think about transportation in a more diverse and complex way."

For Stefan, Santa Monica's efforts to understand scooters are part of a larger "evolution" of how people get around in the city — and the rest of the region.

"Public streets are 20 to 25% of a community's land area, and we've dedicated most of them to parking someone's personal car, or moving their personal car," she said. "Maybe there's more room for space to be used for people and for landscaping and for social spaces, and I feel like that's our next evolution."