Not Exactly One Bill to Rule Them All

A state bill on e-scooters would create consistent basic regulations, leaving other concerns to local jurisdictions.

Lime e-scooters in Santa Monica. Photo by Joe Linton
Lime e-scooters in Santa Monica. Photo by Joe Linton

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A state bill, A.B. 2989, focuses on defining stand-up electric scooters and safety regulations that apply to them, but does not weigh in on questions about rental or shared e-scooter business permits, leaving that–and other rules–to cities. The bill mirrors current electric bicycle regulations, and would create a new category of vehicle with a top speed of 20 mph.

Pedestrian advocates are not happy with it. They say current regulations are enough, and they specifically don’t like the speed limit and the fact that A.B. 2989 would not prohibit e-scooters from riding on sidewalks.

“We were quite surprised that the bill included sidewalk riding, as well as an increase in speed to 20 mph. It was shocking to us,” said Cathy DeLuca of Walk San Francisco. “We are definitely strongly opposed to this change.”

The speed limit for “motorized scooters,” under which stand-up scooters are currently included, is set at 15 mph, and motorized scooters are also not allowed on sidewalks at all. A.B. 2989 would change that to match the law for e-bicycles, which allows cities to decide whether and where they can be ridden on sidewalks.

This acknowledges that local context matters–a lot. Crowded urban sidewalks are certainly not a good place for any vehicle going 20 mph. But in other areas, requiring people to ride in the midst of car traffic on tiny, limited-speed e-scooters, where there are relatively unused sidewalks nearby, makes no sense.

While many cities have adopted ordinances on sidewalk riding—by bikes—advocates say they may have to adopt new rules that apply specifically to e-scooters. There seems to be a fear of being caught off-guard, the way regulators were when Uber and Lyft came along to upend urban transportation.

Esther Postiglione of California Walks worries that the bill “will require cities to go back and rewrite ordinances, because it creates a new category of vehicle that would not be covered by existing regulations.” The bill could, she said, “create a potential loophole for businesses to deploy e-scooters before cities can catch up” with new ordinances. Given the way that e-scooters suddenly appeared on city streets, there is merit in that argument.

At the same time, current law is inadequate. It includes restrictions—requiring helmets and drivers’ licenses—that A.B 2989 would eliminate. Those restrictions could hamper the adoption of what is a clean, easy—and fun–way to cut pollution and congestion by providing quick and easy connections, especially in urban settings. And a blanket ban on any sidewalk riding could bring an end to the entire project.

An amendment is being floated to allow sidewalk riding only where there is no parallel bikeway for e-scooters to use, but that isn’t good enough, say advocates. “Our concern is for the safety of pedestrians,” said Postiglione. “At this speed–20 mph–we don’t want them on sidewalks.”

“Every single person walks,” said DeLuca. “And pedestrians seem to have the least infrastructure and are the least unobstructed as they move about. Their portion of the right of way is very small—to take away from that doesn’t seem right,” she said.

“As a pedestrian advocate, I’m not willing to cede that space,” she said. “E-scooters could be a great mobility solution, but we also need to protect space for pedestrians.”

The problem is that there aren’t adequate safe bikeways for people to use, and DeLuca acknowledges that we’ve been reduced to fighting for scraps.  “If you want to be innovative,”she said, “then help design better infrastructure—help us figure out how to reallocate public space. That’s where we need to shift.”

While sustainable transportation advocates would probably prefer to see this kind of energy focus on transportation modes that create negative impacts like congestion and pollution, the fight for sidewalk space is not trivial.

E-scooters have the potential to transform mobility for a lot of people, especially in dense urban cores, and good regulations are needed. “E-scooters could have a great benefit for mode choice and greenhouse gas reduction, and even equity,” says DeLuca.

Also, the California vehicle code spells out that getting it right is actually kind of required:

“This state has severe traffic congestion and air pollution problems, particularly in its cities, and finding ways to reduce these problems is of paramount importance”; electric scooters do not contribute to emissions or congestion, and it is “the intent of the Legislature … to promote the use of alternative low-emission or no-emission transportation.” (section 21220, emphasis added)

A.B. 2989 has passed the Assembly and will be heard some time in the next few weeks in the Senate Transportation and Housing Committee, chaired by Senator Jim Beall.

Meanwhile, California cities are struggling to solve a number of policy questions raised by the introduction of shared e-scooters, including whether and where they can be deployed, by which companies, and under what types of permits. San FranciscoSanta Monica and Los Angeles are exploring caps on the number of operators and the number of devices permitted. Downtown Los Angeles and San Francisco have temporarily banned e-scooters while they are figuring out what approach to take. Santa Monica’s newly-adopted e-device pilot regulations were justified in part to protect its city-run bike-share system from better-funded competition.

They are also confronting larger questions about the use of public space that go way beyond e-scooters. “There’s a value to public sidewalks,” said John Brazil, Bike and Pedestrian Program Manager for the city of San Jose. “Should cities be monetizing that space?–whether that is for picking up and dropping off rides via Uber and Lyft, or parking e-scooters, or something else.”

The cities also want operators to share the trip data they collect—something that Uber and Lyft have been uncooperative about, which has hampered cities’ abilities to plan for and adapt to their presence. And San Francisco and San Jose are exploring ways to make sure that e-scooters are available to more than just the well-off techies in their midst, pushing for a low-income program similar to the Bay Area’s Bike Share for All.

Next week, San Jose will host a public meeting to talk about residents’ e-scooter concerns. They have also invited several companies to bring a few e-scooters to the meeting so that people can try them out.

Judging from a current journalistic mini-trend (“How I learned to stop worrying and love e-scooters” “I tried to hate them” “Unfortunately, scooters are fantastic“), offering test rides could potentially have a dramatic impact on the outcome of that meeting.

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  • I haven’t ridden many of them at all, but I don’t recall seeing speedometers on them.

  • crazyvag

    Not debating your argument, but scooters I’ve ridden also have speedometers. Have you ridden one that didn’t have one?

  • But cars also have speedometers and require that the driver be licensed, yet we STILL can’t get them to drive an appropriate speed. Most of these e-devices have no speedometer and under the e-bike Class system, would also not require a license to operate. As such, limiting their speeds isn’t completely irrational.

  • crazyvag

    I don’t think top speed should be a factor. Just like cars have sensible speed limits, we can can say no faster than 10 mph on sidewalk or 20 mph on bike lane. It’s not really a new concept.

  • crazyvag

    Max speed shouldn’t be a factor on sidewalk riding. Cars are capable of going 100+mph and yet we permit them on residential streets with limits of 25mph.

    Similarly, nothing wrong with having a scooter capable of 15mph on a sidewalk at slower speeds.

    There are even laws today to tackle such situations where a driver can be cited for operation that’s too fast for conditions in cases where the like congestion call for slower speeds.

  • It’s worth pointing out that while the Bird and Lime versions are garnering all the attention, these devices can also be owned personally and that’s probably the cheaper way to go anyway. Therefore, the conversation really needs to be split between talking about the scooters themselves and the shared system that some of them operate on. For the former, the best course of action really would be to just expand the the Class II or Class III e-bike categories to also cover these other e-devices based on if they have a top speed of 20 MPH or 28 MPH and call it a day. Doing that means that we don’t have to reinvent any wheels and any jurisdictions that have already passed additional regulations based on e-bike categories wouldn’t have to repeat their work for these e-scooters as the expanded class would automatically cover it. That should be separate from the rental companies, which could be perhaps instead regulated like Uber/Lyft or just left entirely to local agencies to deal with as they see fit.

  • There are plenty of places, especially in newer developments, where sidewalks exist along arterials that have no driveways, parking, or similar conflicts at all. Sometimes they have a bike lane, sometimes they don’t. But most of the time, hardly anyone is walking there anyway, so there are for all practical purposes, basically no conflicts. Of course, those places tend to be out in suburbia and I haven’t heard of many being deployed in those locations, but it’s certainly on the way.

  • Exactly. I think the best solution is just to classify them (and other similar e-wheeled devices like e-skateboards) to be either the same as a Class II or Class III e-bike, depending on if the top speed is < 20 MPH or < 28 MPH. The roll-out of services like Bird and Lime has everyone thinking about the shared variety, but they can and will be bought by people and personally owned too. Those people shouldn't face regulatory uncertainty just because of the shared varieties.

  • Actually, I do remember heated debate over Segways when they first appeared and IIRC, some cities actually did ban them.

  • Ziggy Tomcich

    I still love scoots and I want to see more of them in a carefully regulated fashion. Just don’t delude yourself into thinking that they’re all safe, because we tend not to be as careful when we’re ignorant of the risks.

    You should try one of the Jump e-bikes. It’s like a scoot on steroids; as easy to ride as a stationary bike on its lowest setting and yet able to keep up with traffic and travel up hills and in strong headwinds. One of the scoots I rode couldn’t even chug through the Polk street wind tunnel!

  • LazyReader

    A standing electric scooter is a few inches wide and less than 3 feet
    long; plus folds to be carried. In other words it takes up no more or less space than what an
    adult man occupies in his walking stride. Average walking speed is 3
    mph, so an e-scooter going 6 mph is no terrifying threat to public
    safety, People jog at 6 mph and they bypass slowpokes frequently; the
    only thing e-scooters need is a mandated speed limit. No one expressed hatred
    over Segway’s when they were all over the sidewalk though that dorky trend died fast. And you can go nearly as fast in a rubber tire manual scooter you push with
    your feet. Roller blades, skateboards, bikes, scooters, Segways show no
    signs of political finagling of trying to get rid of them; a speed limit and public manners can solve the problem. They’re going
    after e-scooters because they cant charge congestion or parking fees
    like they do with auto drivers and doesn’t collect any transit fares
    like BART. Electric scooters on the sidewalk are a public nuisance but bums pooping, puking and peeing threatening public with their pitbulls and offering oral sex for drug money isn’t. The only reason that scooters are a hazard, is because they are always swerving around feces and needles. https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/48d99ab1d17ec81debb2b1b8e6cf23948d862f0b0067c8b7cd13b8e19e11746c.png

  • Ziggy Tomcich

    I love riding scoots, but don’t fool yourself into thinking they’re safe. At 15mph, any impact will have the same effect on your body as being dropped at a height of 10′ in the air and landing head first on the ground. The wheels are so tiny that potholes, railroad tracks, and bart grates can easily become lethal. But most importantly, when you’re riding a scoot at 15mph on the side of the road or through an intersection, you are effectively invisible to every driver because they won’t notice you until they’re about to run over you. Bicycles offer superior performance; better braking, faster acceleration, more agility and a way faster top speed. Bicycles are superior in every facet to scoots, except the chafing issue which is easily solved with the right clothing and a properly fitted saddle!

  • LazyReader

    What a load, a standing electric scooter is a few inches wide and less than 3 feet long, in other words it takes up no more or less space than what an adult man occupies in his walking stride. Average walking speed is 3 mph, so an e-scooter going 6 mph is no terrifying threat to public safety, People jog at 6 mph.

  • EC

    I agree that motor vehicles should not be in the sidewalk. Why you should consider that an extreme or chicken-little-like view is beyond me. I’d go further and say that no vehicles at all should ever be on the sidewalk, except for those carrying disabled persons or children.

  • Asher Of LA

    Easy remedy Part 1: state in the bill that scooters on sidewalks defaults to local rules on bicycles.

    Easy remedy Part 2: forbid scooters from using the sidewalk when the speed limit on the road is 15 mph or less, and when bike riding is banned (eg highly pedestrianized areas).

  • Asher Of LA

    I tweeted about this and it got tons of exposure. The funny thing is, all the haters were from SF and wanted to ban them from sidewalks – which may suit SF, but certainly not Los Angeles. But they’re pretty intent on co-opting rules for the rest of the state.

  • LazyReader

    Banning scooters, another attempt to deride a practical solution to urban congestion the government cannot. Their solution, Spend billions to expand BART out to the boondocks rather than fix it’s current stock that’s dilapidated and broke. E-scooters are great. THEY WORK,

    – They can be parked virtually anywhere….even taken indoors and out of the way of vandalism and theft.
    – They’re cost effective, granted it’s no car but the typical battery life is 15 miles, so there’s nowhere you cant go with the downtown radius.
    – Unlike bicycles they don’t ride up and chafe my reproductive organs.
    – They use far less energy than an electric car.

    – They’re safe, you might get hit with a scooter at best bump your head or a laceration, most scooter incidents happen at intersections, MORE intersection safety enforcement is needed.

    – Since they have no license requirements. I can bet that if the city government tries to license they’ll cost as much as a car license.
    They require only modest safety enforcement, encouraging the police to Scoot and carry out public safety can better patrol.

    Even better E-scooter manufacture/maintenance can be a local business just like biking is for Portland. Not to mention Racing. E-scooter proliferation may encourage the city to pursue expanding and repair; smooth and clean sidewalk initiative after the infamous Fecal fiasco when San Francisco streets tested positive for fecal borne diseases not seen since the 19th century.

  • Ethan

    You wouldn’t. You’d be driving on the freeway and just because a driver tailgates you, you’d get home, go on a Disqus comment section, and falsely say ALL drivers tailgate, because you choose to use absolutist phrasing and over-generalize such as this lie about bike and scooter riders:

    “They all force walkers out of the way.”

    The point you missed is just because SOME cyclists run red lights and SOME drivers tailgate on the freeway doesn’t mean they ALL do. Some cyclists already ride on sidewalks. Not all do. So you can stop lying and speaking in over-generalizations.

  • Cynara2

    Why would I have a bumper on the sidewalk?

  • Mountain Viewer

    Also very telling that the bill has some consideration for bicyclists safety when escooters use a bike lane: “This section does not prohibit the use of a motorized bicycle or a standup electric scooter in a bicycle lane, pursuant to Section 21207.5, at a speed no greater than is reasonable or prudent, having due regard for visibility, traffic conditions, and the condition of the roadway surface of the bicycle lane, and in a manner which does not endanger the safety of bicyclists.” ….but has not a word for pedestrian safety when escooters use a sidewalk.

  • John French

    Treating e-scooters the same as e-bikes seems totally reasonable. If the concern is that they’re a new category and every local law banning bikes on sidewalks would need to change to also ban electric scooters, then just categorize electric scooters *as ebikes*, not as a second category which is treated similarly.

  • Cynara2

    Elderly, blind and disabled walkers become shut ins and rely on others for rides. More car journeys for short walks. And we cannot say anything to them. Law enforcement advises us to not even look at them. They are looking for a fight.

  • Ethan

    I never said they are nor do I think they are.

  • Cynara2

    Nobody cares. Cyclists are not the moral beacons of the world. Nothing makes them better than walkers.

  • Ethan

    “so what”

    So it’s been my observation that discussions are usually more productive with fewer over-generalizations and absolutist language that is demonstrably untrue. That goes for walkers, cyclists, drivers, everybody.

  • Cynara2

    Thank you torquemada. Geez, walkers can do no right.

  • Cynara2

    Well, if that were true, so what…it is not against the law. But, forcing walkers out of the way is.

  • Ethan

    ” it is always the response”

    Another absolute over-generalization and overstatement.

  • Ethan

    You’re making absolute over-generalizations like:

    “all of these vehicle drivers of bikes and e scooters refuse to yield the
    right of way to walkers. They all force walkers out of the way.”

  • Cynara2

    Is your statement intended to convince readers that cyclists and e scooter riders do NOT bully walkers?? If so, fail. Ridicule is abuse and it is always the response of cyclists to walkers. Ridicule and mockery are forms of bullying.

  • Cynara2

    Wut??

  • Ethan

    Even worse, the sky is falling!!! Your overstatements are stunning.

  • Ethan

    Just like all cyclists run red lights and all drivers tailgate right off your bumper on the freeway, right??

  • Cynara2

    Those are the very same sites where it is very dangerous for someone to walk in traffic. And now, the sidewalks are too dangerous for walkers. That is why they are vanishing.

  • Cynara2

    It’s not like these riders care what the law is, anyway. They are just going to force walkers out of their way.

  • Cynara2

    Motor vehicles on the sidewalk destroy the sidewalk. It is no longer a refuge from vehicular traffic for walkers. It’s a freeway. And walkers have nowhere to go. Also, all of these vehicle drivers of bikes and e scooters refuse to yield the right of way to walkers. They all force walkers out of the way. We should just cut right to the chase and ban pedestrians. Walking is slowly becoming eliminated as it is. Might as well just outlaw it. Walkers are not fighting for scraps, we have been invaded and our infrastructure has been stolen. And we are defenseless. Our sanctuary no longer exists, in effect. Why pretend that any of these “riders” care about the law…they don’t. It costs them nothing to force pedestrians off of sidewalks and out of crosswalks. Even where it is legal to ride on the sidewalk, it is the law that they give over the right of way to walkers. They almost never, ever do.

  • Mountain Viewer

    Food for thought regarding that line of argument “There’s many places where it’s very dangerous for someone to ride in traffic”. What happens when sidewalks become too dangerous for someone to walk? Where do pedestrians go for safety?

  • It is nuts, but not every place is dense like SF. There’s many places where it’s very dangerous for someone to ride in traffic with one of those things, and sidewalks nearby that are hardly ever used.

    This bill allows cities to make exceptions. There’s nothing stopping SF from passing a law that disallows sidewalk riding *here*.

  • Ethan

    Sidewalks and setbacks are not the same everywhere in the state. Just because parts of some cities have front doors right up to the sidewalk doesn’t necessarily mean a statewide bill should overly limit what’s appropriate in places where sidewalks and front doors are separated by ten foot paths or longer.

  • Mountain Viewer

    Going 20mph with any device on a sidewalk is just plain nuts. Even if sidewalk is clear, there are too many potential conflicts (car getting out of driveway, people leaving their home/store….)

  • com63

    I agree they should be treated like bicycles at the state level. Sidewalk riding should be regulated on a local level.

    Street safety advocates should put together a model state level law for things like this so that other states would have something to work with.

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