Bird and Lime scooters are caught in a legal limbo

The gist: Dockless electric scooters landed in Lafayette in a flash in December and immediately stirred controversy. Consolidated government is scrambling to figure out legal ambiguities that leave the scooters’ future here in question.

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Local law is silent. State law is unclear. That was the message from Mayor-President Joel Robideaux to the council Tuesday night. “I believe it’s going to be one of two solutions,” he said. “We’re going to have to wait for them to be allowed … or we’re going to present something locally that dictates how they’re used.”

Legal answers are a long way off. City-parish attorneys have been working to draft a comprehensive ordinance that would address shared mobility products — scooter-shares, bike-shares, etc. — in general. Such an ordinance is still at a minimum two months away. Robideaux said the state is working on new legislation to accommodate the scooters, which would set the parameters local governments could use to regulate them. Of course, a new statute wouldn’t be in place until after the Legislature drafts one and the governor signs it into law.

LCG has given a cautious welcoming to the scooters. LCG’s legal team is in talks with scooter reps and DOTD to sort out an interim answer. Without a solution, the city could face liability issues. Council members raised concerns about LCG’s exposure to a suit if someone got hurt riding the scooters.

“The law is not specifically clear that’s our responsibility — there’s a lot that goes into where the liability lies,” Robideaux said. “I’m not interested in having LCG at risk.”

Meanwhile, complaints continue to pile up. Scooter skid marks have scuffed up Downtown’s sidewalks — Bird and Lime explicitly tell users not to use sidewalks — which were powerwashed last year.

“It’s an all-hands-on-deck approach to this,” LCG Communications Director Cydra Wingerter tells me. “We have not come to a level of comfort where we’re sure where we’re going with it.”  

Bird and Lime scurry up this kind of legal scramble wherever they go. The companies have a tendency to drop in overnight and work out the details as they go along, drawing plenty of scorn for the tactic. Local laws generally don’t exist to regulate the scooters, so cities and towns across the country face a similar scramble with varied results. Some cities like Memphis, Tenn., have embraced them as a welcome option for short trips, folding scooter-sharing into comprehensive policies. Bird promotes using the scooters on bike lanes. In Portland, Ore., 17 scooters have been thrown into the Willamette River.

New Orleans said no to writing local ordinances for a scooter pilot program before Bird showed up in Lafayette last year. New Orleans Mayor Latoya Cantrell said in a statement at the time that the scooters’ “potential complications for public safety are too high for us to move forward." Lawmakers there have cited unsuitable infrastructure and hostile drivers as a reason for concern.  

What to watch for: If the scooters stay or go. While it’s clear the administration is interested in finding a solution, it’s possible the law won’t allow it.

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Lafayette is now the site of a scooter skirmish

The gist: First, Bird flew in 100 scooters overnight. Now, Lime has rolled 25 of its custom-made scooters into town this week, making Lafayette the latest skirmish in 2018’s dockless scooter war.

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Dockless electric scooters are the rage of 2018. At least among urbanists and alternative transportation enthusiasts. And the trend has really only just become a thing this year. Bird alone has reported 10 million rides in 2018 and exploded from five cities in May 2018 to more than 100 worldwide in the last couple months. Lime, Bird’s chief competitor, operates in 60 cities domestically and internationally. The overnight success has come with growing pains, particularly for the often unwitting cities that host the scooters.

Lime, like Bird, was something of a surprise arrival. Both companies are sort of notorious for that. Kate Durio, an assistant to the mayor-president, says Lime had contacted city-parish government, but the arrival was nonetheless earlier than expected. Overnight drop offs have triggered contention between the companies and local governments, with some locales ousting the scooters as quickly as possible. See Lafayette, Ind., where the government is impounding the scooters to get them off the streets. The tow-truck company hired has called it a “nightmare.” New Orleans reportedly blocked Lime’s entry.

“They were a surprise but a viable solution to moving around the central areas of Lafayette,” Durio told me last week, when it was just Bird around. “But we still have to figure out how we work with them in a safe and responsible manner.”

So these things are just a nuisance? Sure, to some. But proponents argue kinks are normal to any advance in how people get around. A key plank of the pitch is that scooter sharing addresses what policy-makers call the last mile problem, the long distance between public transit routes and homes that makes travel by bus or train inconvenient. Depending on which research you cite, around 40 percent of all car trips happen within a three-mile radius. The thinking is, if people use scooters for those trips, it can relieve congestion and reduce carbon emissions.

LCG is taking a cautious but open-minded approach. The administration is working with city-parish attorneys to craft guidelines for other rideshare companies that want to enter the market. An interim agreement with Bird is in the works while the details of a future ordinance are worked out. That legislation would target specific issues raised locally and nationally, i.e. whether there is a minimum or maximum number of scooters required or where they can be parked. Bird is working with LCG to add stands, responding to complaints of the scooters laying about.

Does this make sense in Lafayette, though? A sensible question. Lafayette transit ridership is low, generating only about 2,500 trips per day. Durio says Bird was attracted to Lafayette because it has three relatively dense districts within a three-mile radius: Downtown, UL’s campus and the Oil Center. Scooters could chip away at vehicle trips between the three. Bird will share its scooter data with LCG to track usage anonymously; theoretically we should be able to see just how true its claims are. The company wrapped up a week of free rides last Friday, so the novelty may wear off. We’ll know in the coming weeks if the scooters have any traction and could make a measurable impact.

“In some ways Lafayette is starving for alternative transportation,” Durio tells me. “It actually is probably better positioned than places like Austin or Seattle, because quite frankly, there’s more of an open market.”

What we’re watching. How many scooters end up in the Vermilion and how long it takes for someone to make a website about it. That’s happening in Portland, Ore.

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