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Scooters are a huge problem for cities. No one knows how to solve it yet

In the Wild West of transportation, no one knows what to do about scooters.(Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images)

(CNN) — Stewart Goodwin tried to put a stop to the constant flow of scooters into the plaza he oversees. He spoke to the government and scooter companies, but to no avail.

“We still find scooters in our fountains,” Goodwin, executive director of the Indiana War Memorials in Indianapolis, told CNN Business. “We find them in the canal. We find them strewn all over the sidewalks.”

In the Wild West of transportation, no one knows what to do about scooters. They appeared suddenly in many cities, triggering complaints of clutter and blocked sidewalks. When ridden, scooters emerged as sidewalk bullies — fast enough to unsettle pedestrians and create safety issues. But force scooters into the streets and they are slow and vulnerable amid two-ton vehicles, not to mention potholes that can swallow small tires.

Now, governments, communities and businesses — even the scooter companies themselves — are playing catchup on finding the right rules for scooters, and how to enforce them. Debates have emerged over when and where scooters should be ridden, and if the form of scooters needs to evolve, with bigger wheels, brighter lights or even a seat.

“It’s definitely a learning experience,” said Noelle LeVeaux, executive director of Uptown Dallas, a business improvement organization that manages the neighborhood’s public spaces. “We don’t have a lot of good data. So much is anecdotal, that’s the biggest issue.”

None of this is what was supposed to happen.

The inconsistent rules of the road

As urban populations swell, cities and startups have been searching for fresh transportation solutions. Scooters are an obvious mode for experimentation: They offer an affordable and quick way to make short trips in congested cities, much like bicycles, but without anyone breaking a sweat.

LeVeaux’s group initially welcomed scooter riding on its sidewalks. They seemed like a safe place for new riders to use the scooters, LeVeaux said. But Uptown Dallas soon saw the pedestrian safety issues of sidewalk riding and flipped its position. Now it’s reconsidering if scooters, which can reach speeds as fast as 15 mph, should be ridden at night. Atlanta banned nighttime riding this summer following a string of scooter deaths.

Other cities have totally banned scooters, with lingering memories of how Uber stormed onto their streets and created long-lasting challenges for local governments.

Scooter rules vary widely by city, and even by company. You may be able to ride to the art museum or football stadium in one city but not another. In Denver, you can park a Lyft scooter at the pro hockey or baseball stadiums, but not pro football. To park at pro football, you’ll need to be on a Bird or Lime scooter.

The restrictions are made by the companies, with input from governments and communities. Companies are quick to restrict sensitive or crowded areas, such as federal government buildings and large event spaces. Cities vary in their requests. Bolt, a scooter company, said Portland, Oregon, gave it a list of 400 areas to restrict.

Some businesses nationwide that were contacted by CNN Business, including an art museum in Baltimore and a hospice in Raleigh, North Carolina, said they weren’t even aware scooters had been blocked near them.

Scooter companies enforce riding restrictions via GPS. If you go outside the bounds, your scooter may slow down and not allow you to end your ride. These restrictions impact businesses, sports stadiums, museums, even transit stops.

Scooter companies sell themselves as an equitable form of transportation that connects residents to traditional public transit by addressing the “last-mile problem.” Public transportation generally doesn’t take people to their final destination, so the last leg of a trip can be slow or expensive. The companies view scooters as ideal for this final stretch.

But that’s not always how things have played out.

Where the streets have no scooters

Earlier this year, Scoot, a San Francisco-based subsidiary of Bird, restricted parking in Chinatown and the Tenderloin, a neighborhood with a significant homeless population. It said the decision resulted from narrow sidewalks, and concerns raised by the local community groups.

Groups were divided over a ban. Fernando Pujals, spokesperson for the Tenderloin Community Benefit District, said he reached out to Scoot about crowded sidewalk concerns, but didn’t want a ban.

“People should be given just as much access as somebody in an affluent neighborhood,” he said. “Our recommendation was how to bring scooters into the neighborhood in a thoughtful way that would encourage ridership.”

Charlotte, North Carolina’s government has tried to juggle promoting scooters as a complement to transit, while making sure scooters don’t end up clogging stations full of pedestrians — or falling on tracks. It’s had scooter companies use GPS to block off the stations. Some have gone further, including blocking nearby streets. Bird has even restricted parking around the city’s downtown transportation center, which takes up an entire block and is adjacent to a light rail stop. Bird declined to explain the policy.

Just because there are restrictions, doesn’t mean they’re actually enforced. Bird’s app warns riders when they’re in a no parking zone, and urges them to move out of it. But a rider can override the suggestion and still end the trip.

Another limitation is GPS accuracy, which tall buildings can distort. Plus, if a scooter is moving at 15mph into a no-ride zone, the scooter may not realize and slow down until a rider is deep into a restricted area.

Some organizations who have requested restrictions described the GPS technique as ineffective.

Do scooters need to be regulated?

One question in managing scooters is whether to treat them like bicycles or regulate them more strictly. Increasingly, distinctions are being drawn in response to more complaints and concerns about scooters than bicycles.

Denver’s 16th Street Mall, a pedestrian zone, welcomes bicycles on weekends, but not scooters.

The Wharf, a waterfront development in Washington, DC, opened in 2017 with public spaces designed especially to welcome bicycles and pedestrians. Several roads are built without curbs, so that all forms of transportation mix on level ground, a European tactic proven to slow down cars.

But then the scooters came.

Monty Hoffman, CEO of Hoffman & Associates, which co-developed the Wharf, likes scooters enough to place two in his company’s office for employees to ride to meetings. Scooters add to the city’s “urban theater,” Hoffman said. But that theater has turned too dramatic, and he’s asked for speed restrictions of 6 mph, and no-parking zones a the Wharf’s piers.

“We embrace [scooters] and we want more, but we want it done the right way,” Hoffman said.

In classic scooter regulation form, company responses vary widely. Some have taken no action. Others have placed no-parking and no-riding bans over the entire Wharf, and nearby streets.

All of these scooter problems are playing out at the same time investor interest has cooled as companies burn through millions. On top of regulatory woes, scooters aren’t lasting long enough to make good business sense.

Either companies find fixes that win over investors and the public, or history may remember shared scooters as a fad.

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