Much less than a “thing” or a “place,” a Smart City is the concept of integrating technology into the public realm and built environment. The deployment of sensors or other data-generating tools, and the collection, monitoring, processing of that data, will increasingly impact cities across multiple domains, from transportation, housing, and water to health and education. This blog series explores recent policy developments in the march towards smarter cities, with a special focus on transportation and information and communication technology (ICT).

The deployment of dockless transportation services across U.S. cities, from bikes to e-scooters, has elicited widespread excitement from early adopters, transportation wonks, and city governments alike. Each in their own way see dockless services as a promising solution to the nagging problems of congestion, vehicle emissions, and limited transportation options in low-income neighborhoods.

Yet dockless e-scooters, in particular, have also been met with considerable public and political opposition. E-scooters took advantage of a gap in the market, aided by the lack of regulatory barriers to dockless technologies. Cities, provider companies, and the public are now struggling to achieve an acceptable balance between an e-scooter Wild West and regulations that would threaten their very existence. The path forward lies in collaboration among all interested parties. As with any new technology being deployed in the public realm, robust public engagement and public-private cooperation is essential to address concerns and find an optimal solution. There is evidence that the policy process is moving in this direction, but not without growing pains.

The Rise of E-Scooters

Initial regulatory action against e-scooters was swift and severe. In the cases of Denver, Colo.; Richmond, Va.; and San Francisco, Calif., e-scooters were banned within days of deployment. There were three main reasons for this.

First, the paucity of existing restrictions or permitting requirements for e-scooters meant their introduction on city streets was sudden and unexpected. The absence of licensing or permit requirements for deployment meant companies could legally deploy without approval from city governments. For the companies, this was a perfect window of opportunity to introduce a new innovation. But this angered many municipalities, leading to vehicle impoundment and the formulation of permit requirements.

Second, traffic and motor vehicle laws did not account for e-scooters, and therefore no enforcement rules existed. As a result, many users did not follow conventional rules applied to pedal bicycles or other, smaller motorized devices, causing safety issues and public opposition.

And third, the underlying model and concept of dockless services encroached upon ‘sacred’ sidewalk space, creating negative perceptions and experiences for nonusers. The sidewalk, as Jane Jacobs eloquently describes in The Death and Life of Great American Cities, is “an intricate ballet in which the individual dancers and ensembles all have distinctive parts which miraculously reinforce each other and compose an orderly whole.” When walkers have to dodge speeding scooters, Jacobs’ romantic vision of sidewalks as an “orderly whole” is disturbed, and conflicts arise.

How Cities Are Responding

E-scooters have nonetheless been embraced by cities desperately seeking solutions to their transportation woes. Thus, despite some false starts, e-scooter usage rates have been encouraging overall. Over the months following their introduction, many states and cities have made or begun making adjustments to their legal codes and creating pilot programs to test e-scooters in designated areas. Virginia has been a leader in transportation innovation, for example, welcoming automated-vehicle testing, docked bike sharing, and innovative delivery methods through public-private partnerships. In fact, Virginia is the state with the most cities piloting e-scooter programs, including in Arlington (launched Oct. 2018), Virginia Beach (Aug. 2018), Alexandria (Nov. 2018), Charlottesville (Dec. 2018), Richmond (Jan. 2019), Roanoke (June 2019), and Norfolk (July 2019). The state legislature also passed Virginia HB 2752, a bill that amended the motor vehicles code to define motorized skateboards and scooters, impose certain operational restrictions, and place authority to regulate the operation of such vehicles at the local level.

Delegating the authority to regulate locally has led to varied responses, and a clear set of best practices has yet to emerge. In general, local authorities in Virginia have followed three approaches:

  • Initial ban, followed by negotiated policy to allow operation;
  • Acceptance, followed by regulations imposed during operations;
  • Proactive, crafted pilot programs to introduce the devices into the community.

The first response was observed in Richmond, Norfolk, and Roanoke. The first e-scooters touched down in Richmond in August 2018. With no explicit restrictions on operations, e-scooters were not illegal, but also not looked kindly upon by the city.  Even with rapid adoption by users, the city began to impound the e-scooters quickly. More than 6 months later, the city has officially welcomed e-scooters back to the streets, led in part by the Mayor Levar Stoney.

As with many innovations, a “champion” is often needed to lead policy development. In the case of Richmond, Mayor Stoney introduced legislation creating a regulatory framework for motorized dockless devices that integrated e-scooters within the existing public transportation system. Similar stories can be told of Roanoke and Norfolk. When e-scooters were banned after initial deployment, a year of deliberation followed, resulting in a positive policy outcome for e-scooter operations in each city.

The second response — acceptance followed by regulation imposed during operation — was observed in Virginia Beach and Arlington. In Arlington, e-scooters were allowed to continue to operate thanks to the city’s broad acceptance of innovative transportation options, in which Arlington has been a national leader, while the city developed a pilot program and gathered information on ridership.

The third response, observed in Alexandria, was more unique, as the city benefited from observing its regional neighbors. Recognizing e-scooters were soon entering the area, the city implemented an early pilot program for scooters in November 2018. Prior to the pilot program, e-scooters were not present in Alexandria, save for orphaned e-scooters driven in from Arlington and D.C.

Even though Alexandria condoned the introduction of e-scooters, as in other cities, the factors fueling opposition remained. Public discontent quickly grew as the narrow sidewalks of Old Town became cluttered. The launch corresponded with the opening of a new dockside area. Soon after the opening, tourists and locals were scooting through pedestrian-only areas and riding on the narrow brick sidewalks, usually without helmets. But even as public discontent grew, usage rates continued to steadily increase. With a scooter, the 20-minute walk from the Potomac River to the King Street Metro stations is cut by more than half — a strong incentive for commuters on a balmy Virginia day. A vocal minority is currently pressuring the city government to cancel the program, but ridership numbers continue to grow, signaling a wider adoption and trust in the technology. The city is actively engaging with all sides and seeking advice to understand the best way forward. Indeed, public engagement is occurring throughout Virginia as these pilot programs play out, which is a good thing.

There is also evidence that city governments and companies are learning from each other. In a normal business environment, the market could arguably address the externalities created by an e-scooter free-for-all on its own, but transportation is already a highly regulated sector at all levels of government. Providers who abruptly introduced e-scooters without alerting local governments failed to take into account their role in managing those externalities. At the same time, the gut reaction of many cities to ban e-scooters failed to take into account the latent demand for the service they provide. Once these competing factors were understood, cities typically opted for successful pilot programs, with cities and e-scooter companies working together.

Consider the case of Roanoke. After it initially banned e-scooters, Lime, the second largest e-scooter company, approached the city, rather than pursuing the “ask for forgiveness” model used by its competitor, Bird. Lime was then able to start a process of cooperative policymaking, supplying the city with the requisite information needed to take into account the needs of both the public and private sectors. This resulted in a lower permitting fee than in many other cities, the use of geofencing to slow down and stop scooters in off-limit areas, and the adoption of clear safety rules and reasonable enforcement mechanisms. For example, riders are now required to snap a photo where they park the e-scooter to deter bad parking practices. These collaborations are resulting in similar rules in many new markets, including Chicago, where e-scooters just deployed in late June.

E-scooters: A New Normal

Growing pains occur with the introduction of any new technology. A similar process unfolded with the introduction of ride-hailing, along with many other legacy technologies that we now use without a second thought. There will no doubt be further regulatory intervention and corresponding pushback from the private sector until a stable policy equilibrium is found. The sudden introduction of a novel technology upsets the status quo. But for cities struggling with congestion and a lack of transportation options for underserved populations, the example of e-scooters shows how forward-thinking leaders can embrace change while balancing the interests of the broader public through thoughtful public-private collaborations. The cities that react to new transportation technologies with bans and stiff penalties, on the other hand, are more often left playing catch-up once what’s scary and new becomes trusted and commonplace.

Lauren McCarthy is a Google Policy Fellow at the Niskanen Center. She is pursuing a PhD in Public Policy at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University, and researches the role of emerging technology in urban development.