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Why the rise of the electric scooter has been a bumpy ride

It began with just 10 electric scooters in Santa Monica, California, but soon sidewalks and streets were flooded with thousands of them. Essentially skateboards with handles that can be picked up and dropped off anywhere, they've been rolled out in scores of U.S. cities, where local officials have struggled to cope and residents have mixed feelings. Special correspondent Catherine Rampell reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    In dozens of cities, the electric scooter has taken off as a popular novelty, for sure, and, for many, an environmentally friendly and economical alternative to driving.

    Last week, Ford Motor Company got into the act, buying its own scooter start-up. But there's a big backlash building as well over this new fad.

    Special correspondent and Washington Post columnist Catherine Rampell has our story for our weekly segment Making Sense.

  • Catherine Rampell:

    Sunny Santa Monica, California, home to the fitness enthusiasts of Muscle Beach, the high-tech start-ups of Silicon Beach, and, for the past year, righteous fury about an invasive species.

  • Man:

    What's next? When Domino's has their pizza bot, robot, tooling down the sidewalks? When the mythical Amazon drones want to park someplace? Are all these things going to reside on our public right of way?

  • Catherine Rampell:

    Martin Resnick is mad about dockless electric scooters. They're essentially skateboards with handles that can be picked up and dropped off anywhere with the help of an app.

    They have been rolled out in scores of cities around the country, where local officials have struggled to cope.

  • Juan Matute:

    There's been cities that have just said anything goes.

  • Catherine Rampell:

    Transportation expert Juan Matute.

  • Juan Matute:

    Then there are cities who have said nothing goes, Milwaukee. And then there are cities like Santa Monica.

  • Catherine Rampell:

    Where the whole craze began.

    It started last fall with just 10 scooters from one company, but soon sidewalks and streets were flooded with thousands of them. We visited to see, a year later, how the ride has been.

    Assistant City Manager Anuj Gupta admits that at times it's been bumpy.

  • Anuj Gupta:

    It suddenly became an unexpectedly emotional issue.

  • Catherine Rampell:

    Now, many of the emotions are positive. Tourists here seem to love them.

    What made you decide to try the scooters?

  • Woman:

    It just looked so, I don't know, easy and reliable and fun. Yes.

  • Woman:

    Lots of fun.

  • Catherine Rampell:

    Lots of fun?

  • Woman:

    Yes, absolutely, a great way to see the sights.

  • Catherine Rampell:

    Some locals are also enamored.

  • Man:

    I get a little rush out of it, like, adrenaline. It makes me feel good that I accomplished something that's almost impossible.

  • Catherine Rampell:

    Plus, they're a green alternative to cars, at least for short distances.

  • Woman:

    It's a great idea to be able to get to and from work when you need to or just to go, like I am right now, to the Third Street Promenade, going to go hit a VIP event.

  • Catherine Rampell:

    Oh, very exciting.

  • Woman:

    So it's taking me there.

  • Catherine Rampell:

    And they have created a network of gig economy jobs.

    Sean Besser works for one of the companies, Lime, as a so-called juicer scooping up dead scooters at night for recharging. He puts in less than an hour a day four or five days a week, and says he earns about $1,000 a month.

  • Sean Besser:

    This is real money. I feel like I'm doing a scavenger hunt where I'm actually getting paid as part of the scavenger hunt.

  • Catherine Rampell:

    But as the initial novelty faded, problems have emerged, as the Santa Monica City Council heard at a seven-hour meeting in June.

  • Woman:

    On February 15, 2018, I was struck by a Bird scooter rider who ran into me from behind on the sidewalk. I contacted Bird three times asking for help in tracking the suspect. They have been unresponsive and unhelpful.

  • Man:

    I have been hit twice. I have got two herniated discs in my neck.

  • Woman:

    I stepped out, and one slammed right into me.

  • Man:

    Basically, pedestrians have become the bowling pins of Santa Monica.

  • Catherine Rampell:

    Pedestrians aren't the only ones getting injured.

  •  William Kairala:

    I wasn't even going fast. I was just — I had a distraction.

  • Catherine Rampell:

    William Kairala says he'd dropped his bicycle off for repair and decided to ride a scooter.

  •  William Kairala:

    This is one of the C.T. scans.

  • Catherine Rampell:

    He woke up hours later in an emergency room.

  •  William Kairala:

    I hit the pavement with my head. I didn't have a helmet. And I had a crack behind the ear, and it went all the way up to here. I broke my head over here. In the forehead is like a throbbing pain.

  • Catherine Rampell:

    Kairala is thinking about joining a class-action suit filed recently against the scooter companies. Others have sought vigilante justice, documented on an Instagram account called Bird Graveyard. Bird is another scooter firm.

    It shows angry people giving new meaning to the term Bird droppings. They're running them over with cars, setting them on fire, and siccing dogs on them, in more ways than one.

    Aaron Rovala runs his own scooter rental company, the sit-down kind.

  • Aaron Rovala:

    It just blows my mind how like all these young people are just — they just leave them everywhere.

  • Catherine Rampell:

    Kids these days, huh?

  • Aaron Rovala:

    Oh, yes. Yes.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Catherine Rampell:

    You seem too young to be making this complaint.

  • Aaron Rovala:

    Yes. Yes. No, no, I'm not necessarily making complaint. I'm just saying approach it in a different way.

  • Catherine Rampell:

    Some people love them, some people hate them. Clearly, they're not going away. In fact, they're spreading to cities all over the country. Santa Monica had to figure out how to fit this new technology into its city without either squelching a brand-new industry or letting it scoot roughshod over the town.

    Not so long ago, Uber and Lyft fought similar battles with local officials. They moved aggressively into new markets, asking forgiveness, rather than permission. Some scooter companies, like Bird, whose founder had worked at both Uber and Lyft, took a page from that book.

  • Aaron Rovala:

    I know how they play the game because I'm an entrepreneur myself. So they break the rules and they apologize later.

  • Catherine Rampell:

    Juan Matute says Bird didn't have a choice.

  • Juan Matute:

    They wouldn't have been able to get a license because there wasn't a category for what they were doing. They wanted to demonstrate something, show that it worked, and then attract additional rounds of financing.

  • Catherine Rampell:

    They did attract financing. Bird is now valued at $2 billion. But, in the process, they also attracted a criminal complaint for operating without a license.

  • Anuj Gupta:

    That ultimately resulted in a plea agreement in which Bird committed to a significant amount of money for public safety spending and a public safety awareness campaign.

  • Catherine Rampell:

    Meanwhile, Lime entered Santa Monica lawfully, with a permit, but to the dismay of many, Lime too released over 1,000 scooters.

  • Juan Matute:

    Their incentive is to saturate the market with as many as possible, make it as convenient as possible to use, get people trying it.

  • Catherine Rampell:

    Santa Monica decided to put the brakes on the expansion. Officials developed a pilot project to tighten regulations and cap the number of scooters. Other cities did the same, sometimes banning specific companies altogether.

    Andrew Savage is a Lime V.P.

    We're in your headquarters in San Francisco.

  • Andrew Savage:

    Yes. Yes.

  • Catherine Rampell:

    But you are not currently allowed to operate in San Francisco, right?

  • Andrew Savage:

    Yes, so we were disappointed not to receive a permit. We're actually currently appealing that decision.

  • Catherine Rampell:

    Scooter companies have learned they need to take a more conciliatory approach with government officials. That's true even for Lyft, which has recently entered the scooter business, including here in Santa Monica.

    Lyft's David Fairbank.

    It seems like your strategy is different from how Lyft rolled out its ride-sharing business. Why is that?

  • David Fairbank:

    What's right in this in this context is to — is to work closely with the cities, get permits and launch once we have — once we have permission.

  • Catherine Rampell:

    They're also working hard to sell local governments on what benefits they bring to the community.

  • Andrew Savage:

    We know that ride-sharing companies have increased congestion in our cities around the country. Congestion is a huge, huge challenge that cities face, a cost implication in the hundreds of billions of dollars.

  • Catherine Rampell:

    And they're pitching cities on how scooters can reduce their local carbon footprint, which many committed to after the Trump administration pulled out of the Paris climate accord.

  • Andrew Savage:

    So that's 350 cities that are cash-strapped already that are making climate commitments that often come with costs. And so what we're able to do is come to cities and say, we can offer this program for free and we can help reduce the carbon impact of your transportation system.

  • Catherine Rampell:

    The assumption is that scooter rides will replace car rides.

    So what problem is it that these scooters are intended to solve?

  • Juan Matute:

    Mobility in cities.

  • Catherine Rampell:

    I got feet, you know? There are bikes.

  • Juan Matute:

    Yes. It kind of remains to be seen what types of trips the scooters are displacing.

  • Catherine Rampell:

    That's what Santa Monica's pilot aims to find out, because city officials want to make more room for greener transportation.

    Santa Monica mobility manager Francie Stefan.

  • Francie Stefan:

    We spent a lot of time designing our streets for cars. Most cities are 20 to 25 percent street space, and that is space that we can give back to people to move around safely in our city.

    It doesn't happen overnight, just like we didn't create the freeway system overnight. But it's important we start doing it now, if we're going to really address climate change seriously.

  • Catherine Rampell:

    But, meanwhile, some companies haven't quite abandoned that aggressive streak. Just as news was breaking of scooter-related deaths elsewhere in the country, Bird convinced the state of California to repeal a law requiring helmets for adults.

    Not that everyone or even most people we saw scooting through Santa Monica had been abiding by the letter of that law. Scooters may be conveniently available everywhere, but helmets are not.

  •  William Kairala:

    If I had a helmet, nothing would have happened to me, nothing.

  • Catherine Rampell:

    Clearly, encouraging adoption, while also protecting public safety remains a balancing act.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Catherine Rampell reporting from Santa Monica.

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