Venkata: With Bird taking flight and Lime trickling into the Twin Cities, regulation of services is left to catch up

New electric scooter and dockless bicycle companies are expanding quicker than expected, while leaving public safety in the dust.

Uma Venkata

My friend walked into the room the other day and said: “You know those adult scooters? There have been two of them on my front yard. They’ve been just laying there, for days. Going nowhere.”

At the time, I did not know anything about those adult scooters. But on my walk home that day, I saw two of Lime’s electric scooters and dockless bikes in motion. There’s also been a Lime bike camping out at the Dinkytown Target for a few days.

When he was telling me about his new neighbors — the scooters — my friend presented the premise of Lime. The scooters and bikes are dockless. You can pick them up and leave them whenever you want by paying with a smartphone app. To say the least, I was surprised. These bikes and scooters just hang out, wherever, unchained and for the taking. But I, a human, have to be careful not to get robbed?

On July 10, while Minneapolis began working on regulations, the dockless-scooter company Bird deposited its scooters in the cities anyway. St. Paul did not take this lightly, and removed them until Friday, when the city will likely release a final decision. 

But this isn’t Bird’s first rodeo. Cincinnati, Nashville, Indianapolis and San Francisco are some of the cities that have been invaded with Bird vehicles overnight and without prior notice. Nashville impounded Bird scooters that were parked in right-of-way areas — which is a major safety hazard — and San Francisco banned them completely until the city came up with the proper permissions. Milwaukee sued Bird, on the grounds of violating their vehicle laws. Bird disrupts cities.

Lime takes almost a calmer, less combative approach than Bird. In Minneapolis, they did apply for a permit, instead of Bird’s method of entry first, forgiveness later. Then — without a license, yet —Lime put 100 scooters on the ground. Two of which then found a campsite on a residential yard. 

Cities have a responsibility to regulate traffic for the end goal of safety. Scooters are new territory. They don’t have lights or seat belts, and they don’t fit neatly into the vehicle classification. They are scooters, so they can’t keep up with cars as well as bikes can. If Bird, Lime and their competitors will make adult scooters commonplace, there will have to be new laws to accommodate them. This is for everyone’s safety. A gamble with public safety and the law is not a good one to take.

My reception to dockless adult scooters and dockless bikes is not cold, per se, but completely caught-off-guard. They seem difficult to regulate, unwieldy and an aesthetic gamble. What happens when someone throws them in the river? Or leaves them like litter in alleys or on roads? 

Companies like Bird try to slip under the radar to bypass routine ordinances and governance, and the only reason it seems they do is to profit more, what with the workers in the gig economy who charge their devices overnight. If scooters want to be more than a passing fad, their companies should be sure to remain in full compliance.