Touting the advantages to commuters and the environment, representatives of four dockless bike/scooter rental companies got an earful of complaints and concerns at the March PB Town Council meeting.
With the opportunity to finally confront the app-driven businesses in the flesh, about 100 people packed the Crown Point Jr. Music Academy auditorium to register reoccurring problems of encroachment on the public right-of-way and private property by the rented vehicles, as well as unsafe driving by users.
Yet despite the outright hostility of many in the audience, a significant number realized the benefits in a City and world plagued by traffic and parking congestion, and threatened by air pollution and a changing climate. The very fact of the company agents’ appearance offered promise that the problems could be resolved, even to business people directly affected like Matthew Gardner, owner/operator of Cheap Rentals.
“When facing potential threats to my business, I always try to look at the positives as well as the negatives,” said Gardner, who rents bikes and electric scooters out of his location in Mission Bay. “A lot of the issues we’re facing right now can be dealt with, in open, honest and actionable communication between the folks we have here and you guys. Them coming here at all is a good faith effort to show that.”
The panel of presenters came from four major players in the relatively new industry: ofo and MoBike, which rent traditional bicycles; Bird, which rents electric scooters; and LimeBike, which rents all the above as well as electric bicycles. To use any service, the company app must be downloaded onto a smartphone to set up an account. Using the app, renters can locate the nearest bike or scooter, unlock it and ride for a fee, and then just leave it where their journey ends.
The last bit of the process was one of the major bones of contention. Although reps argued that their apps prompt users to park their vehicles legally, grievances were lodged about vehicles blocking sidewalks on Garnet Avenue, entrances to businesses like the Crystal Pier Hotel, and even private driveways.
“I think they’re great ideas, but everybody’s real complaint is it’s like pollution,” said Bill Marsh, Honorary Mayor of PB. “It’s like trash. There’s Bird scooters here, LimeBikes there. They’re everywhere.”
Not that everyone is satisfied with the vehicles during operation. With bicycles long a fixture on the Boardwalk and throughout the community, most of the vitriol was aimed at the electric scooters for dangerous driving, often on prohibited locations such as sidewalks, at high speeds.
“The motorized vehicles are out of control and you guys have no idea unless you’re down here watching what’s happening,” said resident Brian Curry, who advocated a moratorium on electric vehicles until the City enacts regulations.
The helmet issue
Also noted repeatedly was that electric scooter drivers were driving without helmets in contravention of California law. According to San Diego Police Officer Larry Hesselgesser, of the more than 100 citations already written to motorized scooter renters, most were for driving without helmets.
While Bird ships free helmets to riders who request one, resident and business owner Pamela Taylor noted that the effort was too little too late.“By not providing a helmet at the time of rental, it’s like Hertz or Avis renting a car without seatbelts,” she said. “It’s against the law.”
In the same way that automakers can’t be held accountable for drunk driving, Carl Hansen of Bird countered that his company is committed to finding solutions to the myriad safety concerns, but blame for the problem had to be shared. “All I want from you is to understand that absolutely we’re going to do the best we can to address issues, but that the user has to be culpable, too, when there’s bad behavior,” he said.
Many in the audience were skeptical to company assurances. Noting that the scooter rental companies were offering a variation of privatizing the profits while socializing the costs in their replies, resident Marcie Beckett said the theoretical debate might come to a realistic head in the near future.
“Somebody is going to die,” she said. “It could be a rider. It could be a bystander. Guess who’s going to pay for it? We pay for it all. You guys get the money. We get the bad consequences. You need to take responsibility and not just put it off on everybody else.”
Of the 19 comments put forward, 11 took an unfavorable view of the rideshare rentals in their current form (particularly the electric scooters), and three were favorable, leaving five seeking actual solutions to the present morass.
In addressing concerns over unfair business advantages of the dockless rentals over storefronts, resident Kevin Gurgess gave voice to the thinking the panel dared not say. “In terms of not paying [rent] and property taxes, yes, they’re getting around something that traditional businesses have to deal with, but that’s what innovation is about,” he said. “That’s what technology is and you can’t stop technology in this day and age. Sorry, but that’s what’s happening.”