If 2011 was the year of the ride-hailing app, then 2018 is the year of the scooter. But in the seven years since Uber began launching in cities without permission, regulators have learned an important lesson: it’s better to play offense than defense. There’s no better example of the shifting dynamic between city officials and transportation tech companies than Seattle.
Uber launched an early iteration of its car service in Seattle in 2011 without getting approval from city officials, as was the company’s modus operandi at the time. Cities around the world were caught on their heels, and in many cases, it took years to enact regulations to deal with the disruptive technology.
The Seattle Department of Transportation is learning lessons from that experience as scooter companies attempt to follow Uber’s path, launching in cities without regulatory approval.
“We have notified all scooter share companies that are currently operating in the U.S. of that fact that scooter share is not allowed in Seattle, and they cannot operate, and if that they did operate in Seattle without a permit, we would confiscate all the equipment in the right-of-way that’s on the streets and sidewalks and additionally issue fines to the companies,” SDOT bikeshare program manager Joel Miller told GeekWire in an interview this summer.
Scooter startups are facing similar pushback in other cities where they launched without authorization or attempted to. As Recode’s Johana Bhuiyan points out, the “ask forgiveness, not permission” model is proving less effective for this new mobility service than it did in Uber’s day.
Scooter share companies Bird, Lime, and Spin learned that lesson the hard way in San Francisco last week. In the spring, the companies deployed scooters in the Bay Area without permission. The city responded with a show of force, outlawing scooter share companies that don’t obtain permits. On Thursday, San Francisco transit officials granted permits for a one-year scooter share pilot program to just two smaller companies: Scoot and Skip.
Bird’s hometown, Santa Monica, also announced a scooter and bike share pilot program last week. Lime, Bird, Lyft, and Uber-owned JUMP will be permitted to participate. Uber and Bird launched their scooters in Santa Monica without city approval, which led to a dramatic series of events that almost excluded them from the pilot.
San Francisco and Santa Monica appear to be taking a page from Seattle’s playbook, taking a hardball approach to new mobility companies and testing their services before committing to long-term programs.
Washington, D.C., officials this week announced a new plan to require shared bikes to be locked racks and poles, and to more clearly define where scooters and bikes can be parked.
Seattle was a pioneer in dockless bike sharing, allowing three companies to deploy bikes during a one-year pilot launched in the summer of 2017. This July, the city adopted permanent bikeshare regulations and $250,000 annual permit fee. The new rules do not allow for scooter sharing.
“Right now we’re focused on our free-floating bikeshare permit and we don’t have any plans right now to launch a scooter share permit,” Miller said.
Despite that hardline stance, scooter companies are flirting with the possibility of a Seattle launch. GeekWire spotted Bird job listings for scooter chargers and a local community manager back in July. Last week, one of Lime’s electric scooters appeared at Seattle’s University Village shopping mall but the company later confirmed an employee had been riding it and the scooter was not available to rent.
During our interview in July, Miller seemed unconcerned about scooter companies eyeing Seattle. “What the companies say is that they’re just getting the mechanism in place,” he said, “so that if and when Seattle does allow a free-floating scooter share program, they’re ready to operate.”