Scooters, Scooters Everywhere. Here's How LA's Grand Experiment Is Going
Los Angeles is in the midst of an experiment on 72,340 wheels. You've likely seen test subjects zipping down streets (or more likely sidewalks) in or near your neighborhood.
Yes, we're talking about e-scooters. Turns out they're on a lot of Angelenos' minds lately.
In the nine days from April 25 to May 3 this year, L.A.'s 311 service request system received more than 1,200 reports related to scooters -- from bad parking to broken vehicles. That averages out to about 133 scooter complaints per day, or more than five an hour.
The city is six weeks into its one-year Dockless Mobility Program, in which eight companies -- including Bird, Lime, Lyft and the Uber-owned Jump -- have been permitted to drop tens of thousands of electric scooters and bikes on sidewalks across L.A. Similar pilot programs are underway in Long Beach and Santa Monica, and another is in the works for unincorporated L.A. County.
The mission of the program is to study how the dockless vehicles are being used, understand safety concerns and figure out how the devices might fit into local governments' wider vision for mobility. Cities have struggled to draft rules to catch up with the spread of e-scooters, which first appeared in Santa Monica in September 2017.
Approximately one million rides were taken on e-scooters and e-bikes in the first month of the program (April 15 to May 15), according to Marcel Porras, chief sustainability officer for the Los Angeles Department of Transportation.
Porras, whose office is leading the pilot program, said the city is managing the largest dockless vehicle fleet in the country. That puts L.A. in a unique "leadership role," he said, as other U.S. cities take note of how the scooter craze plays out here.
"(There are) all these subtleties that we're really looking forward to exploring," he told LAist, "so that we can continue to educate our policymakers, and then also educate the operators themselves and figure out together how best to leverage this huge private investment that we're seeing on the streets of L.A."
So, as scooters continue to spread across Los Angeles, how is the city managing them? How many are even out there? And how often are people getting hurt?
L.A.'S EXPERIMENT BY THE NUMBERS
Just how many scooters are out there? Here's a full breakdown of the maximum number of scooters LADOT is allowing each company to operate on city streets:
That adds up to more than 30,400 scooters in L.A. if each company reaches its cap. Electric dockless bicycles are also part of the program, with 2,750 permitted to Jump and 3,000 for the company Wheels.
LADOT officials said about 20,000 total vehicles (including e-bikes) are on the streets so far, but more than 16,000 can still be deployed.
WHO'S IN CHARGE OF MAKING SURE RIDERS AND COMPANIES BEHAVE?
That gets a little complicated. Scooter-related responsibilities are spread among a few city departments -- and technically the scooter companies themselves.
LADOT is attempting to control the general scooter chaos by collecting and analyzing data, developing a public education campaign, and making sure Bird, Lime and all the other operators are following the rules. The department even created parking zones for scooters (and e-bikes) in an effort to keep sidewalks from becoming obstacle courses. So far there are roughly 30 of them, mostly downtown.
The Los Angeles Police Department is tasked with writing tickets for bad rider behavior, namely sidewalk riding. If a scooter is parked in the same spot more than five days straight, the L.A. Sanitation Bureau is responsible for removing it. We asked if that means there's a scooter jail but a bureau spokeswoman said city sanitation workers have not removed any loitering scooters to date.
The other check on scooter companies is everyday citizens (like you!). LADOT is tracking scooter-related issues through the city's 311 system, which now includes a specific category for the public to report badly parked or broken vehicles -- or any scooters they notice up a tree, in a trash can or thrown in a local waterway (the hate is very real).
When LADOT receives a service request and identifies which company owns the scooter in question, they alert that operator -- and the company is required to respond within two hours. LADOT officials said they have the right to suspend or revoke a company's permit if they don't comply.
"The burden then on the city is really reduced, because we don't have to then go out and respond to dozens of service requests a day," an LADOT spokesperson said. "That onus is on providers, but we can track how quickly they're closing out the requests."
So far, the response from the public has been "significant," the spokesperson said, referring to those roughly 1,200 scooter complaints filed in one nine-day period.
HOW IS L.A. MAKING SCOOTERS ACCESSIBLE TO EVERYONE?
Locally, scooters and e-bikes have traditionally been placed in tourist-heavy hubs like Venice and Santa Monica. But LADOT put incentives in place for companies to deploy scooters in "disadvantaged communities" (DAC) throughout the city, with a particular focus on the San Fernando Valley.
LADOT designates those zones using data from California's Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment and the state's environmental protection agency, which identified communities "disproportionately burdened by, and vulnerable to, multiple sources of pollution." Companies are allowed a higher vehicle cap and sharply reduced fees for the portion of their fleets operating in these neighborhoods.
The majority of Spin's scooter fleet (8,000) is operating in disadvantaged communities, which explains why the Ford-owned company has the largest fleet in the program. About 3,500 Limes and 2,500 Birds are also deployed in DAC zones, LADOT officials said, adding that nearly a third of scooters citywide are in the Valley.
An LADOT spokesperson said that investment fits within the department philosophy "that everyone in L.A. deserves safe and affordable transportation choices."
Scooter companies are also required to maintain equity programs that offer low-income residents discounted access to their vehicles without requiring a smartphone (since not everyone has one).
Spin offers free, one-time rides under 30 minutes to riders who "provide proof of low-income status, such as enrollment in EBT, First Five, reduced or free lunch benefits, or any low-income utility program," according to a company spokeswoman.
But as Juan Matute, deputy director of UCLA's Institute of Transportation Studies, explained, just because scooters and bikes are dropped in these areas doesn't mean the people who live there are riding them.
"It doesn't necessarily mean that people who have more limited mobility options (or) lower incomes are using them," he said. "What other places are finding (is) that it's actually necessary to do a user survey to try to figure out the sociodemographics of the users... and then compare that with those who are living in the neighborhoods (and) working in the neighborhoods to get a better idea of how effective the equity programs are."
WHAT ABOUT ALL THE SAFETY CONCERNS?
It should shock no one that a new mode of human transportation means a new way for humans to hurt themselves and others. There's plenty of social media evidence showing that people are getting injured on scooters, but it's hard to say just how often it's happening, since local governments and public health agencies are just beginning to study rider behavior and ER visits.
Late last year, the Los Angeles Fire Department started tracking the number of times its firefighters respond to scenes where an e-scooter is involved, department spokesman Erik Scott said.
So far in 2019, LAFD personnel have been called to 74 scooter-related incidents, according to Scott. In 55 of those calls, someone was transported to a local hospital, but LAFD officials could not speak to the nature of their injuries.
The LAPD monitors and publishes traffic collision data through its traffic division, but the city's public records office could not provide specific scooter-related data because "there isn't any tracking [system] that differentiates electric scooters from other two-wheeled vehicles," according to a city official.
- The most common rider injuries are to the head
- A notable share of the injured are minors
- Hardly any riders wear helmets
A study out of Austin, Texas published in early May showed more of the same. The city's public health department found that 190 people were injured while riding e-scooters over a 3-month period. Nearly half sustained head injuries and 15% suffered a traumatic brain injury. Just one percent of riders were wearing helmets.
In both studies, researchers said they likely underestimated how often scooter riders are getting hurt. But health officials and firefighters have roughly the same message to reduce the risk of injury: slow down, pay attention and wear a damn helmet. It may not be the law anymore, but it could mean the difference between a headache and a skull fracture.
Porras said his office plans to work closely with the city's Vision Zero team, along with LAPD, LAFD and city planning officials "to understand root causes to severe scooter crashes."
So far, one scooter rider death has been reported in the city of L.A. During a police pursuit in Hollywood last month, a suspected DUI driver struck a 31-year-old man riding in a crosswalk. The man, who was visiting from Dallas, died at a local hospital.
In March, a man riding a scooter in Santa Monica fell off the vehicle and was fatally run over by a passing car. The driver fled the scene.
To put those deaths into perspective, preliminary LAPD data showed 127 pedestrians and 21 bicyclists were killed on L.A. streets last year.
ALL EYES ON L.A. -- AND ITS DATA
L.A. might be leading the quest to harness the potential of dockless mobility, but Porras said it's just one piece of "the larger ecosystem of cities" working to understand how the scooters and bikes fit into their larger vision for getting people around.
"In order for us to be at the table investing in (mobility) decisions, we have to understand what's really happening," Porras said. And that means collecting data.
LADOT created a data specification which each operator is required to implement, giving cities immediate access to raw, live location data on every scooter and e-bike trip in L.A.
"We don't have to rely on each of the companies pitching us and telling us what it is they need -- we can see it," Porras said. "We can see where they're deploying, we can see where the hotspots are (and) we see where the pain points are for community stakeholders."
About 50 cities are regularly accessing those datasets from operators, according to an LADOT spokesperson.
City officials said they're taking steps to "de-identify" the data so that riders' personal information is not made public, but privacy experts have voiced concerns. In a letter to LADOT General Manager Seleta Reynolds, the nonprofit Center for Democracy and Technology urged the department to put more safeguards in place to protect riders' information.
"Taking rider privacy seriously will help Los Angeles lead the way for other cities adopting similar pilot programs," the letter reads.
City officials said they "will make no data available to law enforcement agencies through this process that is not already available to them from Operators now."
At least one scooter company, Jump, pushed back against LADOT's data-sharing requirement, but eventually agreed to the terms to stay in the program.