Scene: Downtown Raleigh, 2018. There’s a new feature on the roads and — though they’re not supposed to — sidewalks. Young men and women in professional attire zipping by at lunchtime in electric-powered scooters. People out on the town in the evenings, laughing and riding scooters in groups, even — though they’re not supposed to — doubling up. Families on the weekend, even — though they’re not supposed to — kids.
Such was the e-scooter dynamic. Fun. Urbane. Cool. But it was sometimes a little too flagrant in flouting the rules. Scooters are rented via a smartphone app, and they don’t even have specific docking stations (they’re collected nightly and recharged). When the ride is finished, the rider parks it, snaps a photo, and submits it through the app, through which payments are processed as well. Very 21st century, quick, fuss-free, and fun.
The regulations were pending, Raleigh riders were told. As many people loved the scooters as detested the very sight of them. In the interim, scooter riders were everywhere, transportation rebels without a clause.
I worried that city leaders wouldn’t be able to resist the call of overregulation. But what Raleigh dumped went beyond trying to rein in the rider excesses and work with the companies in good faith to keep a new, “green,” enjoyable technology on the roads. (For a while, even, Raleigh saw estimable numbers in their otherwise barely used bicycle lanes!)
Personally, I liked them even though, as of this writing, I haven’t ridden one. I thought the concept was brilliant. It’s an example of the sharing economy monetizing underutilized capital. The scooters give the city a youthful, breezy feel. They have that indefinable aura of freedom. They’re convenient and also seem to relieve some congestion and parking issues in the evenings. They even offer a good side hustle for those who collect and recharge them overnight.
But I worried someone might hit my car with one when I pull out of the office. And some of the riders were obnoxious and managed to break seemingly every bit of the user agreement at once. Sometimes, well, they just looked ridiculous.
Criticism was warranted. Death by regulation wasn’t.
The scooter companies, Bird and Lime, got both. They both announced on March 28 that they were leaving the Raleigh market for good. Why?
Bird: “Unfortunately, burdensome city regulations and fees made it impossible to continue to offer our service affordably and equitably.”
Lime: “Despite our efforts to partner in good faith, the city has decided to impose some of the most onerous regulations in the country and unfortunately we cannot continue to operate under such restrictive rules.”
Other cities, including Durham and Charlotte, have managed to incorporate e-scooters into their mix. What Raleigh did, however, was poison-pill the scooters’ business model.
I’m not talking about such things as bonding and insurance; stipulations that riders do sensible things like keep off sidewalks, wear helmets, not be intoxicated, etc. (many if not all items that are already listed on the scooters); docking and parking rules; or providing ways city officials can contact scooter company staff.
No, the restrictions that seemed to go beyond the pale were such things as:
- Huge fees — $300 per scooter (in addition to application and administrative fees)
- Capping the total number of scooters a company could provide at 500, which the city could change whenever it wanted
- Requiring the scooter company to give city officials monthly reports on rates, discounts, trips, distances, instances of vandalism, complaints and resolutions, uses, and users (“anonymized”)
- Requiring scooter companies to furnish additional data to a third-party researcher of the city’s choice, which would include even more information, including customer demographics (gender and age)
- Demanding “diverse payment options” to “reduce barriers to low-income persons to rent” the scooters — including a way to make scooters available to people who lack a “smart phone and/or a bank account”
- Requiring 20 percent of the scooters to be placed in city-designated “Communities of Concern”
So it’s not surprising that the scooter companies are hitting the road. What’s disappointing is that so many of the people who dislike the scooters (for understandable reasons) also seem to be just fine with Raleigh using unjust means to get rid of them.
Using government to force your preferences on people comes in different forms. This form is passive-aggressive and intended to induce people to choose your option by removing alternatives they might prefer. There’s no indefinable aura of freedom to an artificially constricted choice. It has the definite stench of autocracy.