SAN DIEGO — The first thing you notice in San Diego’s historic Gaslamp Quarter is not the brick sidewalks, the rows of bars and the roving gaggles of bachelorette parties and conferencegoers, or even the actual gas lamps.
It’s the electric rental scooters. Hundreds are scattered around the sidewalks, clustered in newly painted corrals on the street and piled up in the gutters. In early July, one corner alone had 37. In the area around Mission Beach, one of the city’s main beaches, a single side of one block had 70. Most sat unused.
Since scooter rental companies like Bird, Lime, Razor, Lyft and Uber-owned Jump moved into San Diego last year, inflating the city’s scooter population to as many as 40,000 by some estimates, the vehicles have led to injuries, deaths, lawsuits and vandals. Regulators and local activists have pushed back against them. One company has even started collecting the vehicles to help keep the sidewalks clear.
“My constituents hate them pretty universally,” said Barbara Bry, a San Diego City Council member. She called for a moratorium on the scooters when they arrived, saying they clogged sidewalks and were a danger to pedestrians.
San Diego’s struggle to contain the havoc provides a glimpse of how reality has set in for scooter companies like Bird and Lime. Last year, the services were hailed as the next big thing in personal transportation. Investors poured money into the firms, valuing Bird at $2.3 billion and Lime at $2.4 billion and prompting an array of followers.
The scooter companies distribute their electric vehicles around cities and universities — often on sidewalks — and rent them by the minute via apps. At the end of a rental period, a rider leaves the scooter for the next customer to retrieve. Scooter speeds vary by company, model and city, as do helmet laws, although helmets generally are not required.
But now, skepticism about scooter services is rising. Some cities, including San Francisco, Paris, Atlanta and Portland, Oregon, have imposed stricter regulations on scooter speed limits, parking or nighttime riding. Columbia, South Carolina, has temporarily banned them. New York passed legislation that would allow scooters to operate in some parts of New York City, but not in Manhattan.
Safety has become a big issue. A three-month study published in May from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Public Health and Transportation departments of Austin, Texas, found that for every 100,000 scooter rides, 20 people were injured. Nearly half of the injuries were to the head; 15% of those showed evidence of traumatic brain injury.
Bird, Lime and Skip are trying to secure new funding, according to three people familiar with the talks, who declined to be identified because the discussions were not finished. In May, Lime replaced its chief executive; several other officers also left. In July, Bird’s chief executive called a report about the company’s losses “fake.”
The scooter is “a fun and convenient mode of transportation that really does put people at risk and introduces significant spatial challenges to the civic commons,” said Adie Tomer, a metropolitan policy fellow at the Brookings Institution. “Those tensions are not going anywhere anytime soon.”
Bird declined to comment.
Many scooter companies miscalculated how long the scooters would last — often not long enough for rental fees to cover their costs — and are struggling with profitability, acknowledged Sanjay Dastoor, Skip’s chief executive. His company has designed a way to produce more durable scooters that can be repaired more easily and last long enough to turn a profit, he said, allowing it to “run a safe fleet that we are proud of.”
Lindsey Haswell, Lime’s head of communications, said new industries often faced regulatory challenges, “but our investors are willing to take the long view.” She added that the issues in San Diego did not reflect the global scooter market. Lime has provided more than 3 million trips in San Diego, she said, and has “as many supporters as we have detractors” there.
Hans Tung, an investor at GGV, which has backed Lime, said he was encouraged by the company’s progress and was confident it would make its scooters safe and profitable. “I don’t see how that couldn’t be achieved,” he said.
Bird and Lime deployed their scooters in San Diego in February 2018, followed by other companies. The startups pitched themselves as environmentally friendly, a message that jibed with San Diego’s goal to reduce greenhouse emissions.
San Diego initially took a hands-off approach. The scooters became popular, with an average of 30,000 riders per day, according to city officials.
“Millennials and post-millennials want to live in a thriving, bustling city that has dynamic choices for mobility,” said Erik Caldwell, San Diego’s deputy head of operations for smart and sustainable communities.
But as more scooters flooded San Diego last summer, local business owners and residents began objecting. Alex Stennet, a bouncer at Coyote Ugly Saloon in the Gaslamp District, said people tripped over the vehicles and threw them around. He said he had witnessed at least 20 scooter accidents in front of Coyote Ugly.
Dan Borelli, who owns a bike rental shop called Boardwalk Electric Rides in Pacific Beach, said the scooters frequently blocked the entrance to his store. In July 2018, he teamed up with John Heinkel, owner of a towing company, to haul away scooters that they deemed to be parked on private property. They charge Bird, Lime and others a retrieval fee of $50 per scooter, plus $2 for each day of storage.
Their company, ScootScoop, has essentially turned them into scooter bounty hunters. They said they have struck deals with 250 local businesses and hotels and have towed more than 12,500 scooters. Some scooter companies have paid to get them back, they said.
In March, Lime and Bird sued Borelli and Heinkel for the scooter removals. ScootScoop countersued last week.
Other cities have called ScootScoop for advice, Borelli said. Heinkel said the scooter companies underestimated them. “They assumed we were two hillbillies in a pickup truck, as opposed to business owners,” he said.
Lime’s Haswell said Borelli and Heinkel “are opportunistic businessmen who troll the streets stealing scooters, with no respect for the law, trying to make a profit at San Diego’s expense.”
Late last year, the scooters turned from annoyances into hazards. In December, a man in Chula Vista, a San Diego suburb, died after he was hit by a car while riding a Bird scooter, according to the Chula Vista Police Department. A tourist died a few months later after crashing his rental scooter into a tree. Another died of “blunt force torso trauma” after his scooter collided with another, the San Diego Police Department said.
The department said it counted 15 “serious injury collisions” involving scooters in the first half of this year. Last month, three separate scooter-related skull fractures happened in one week.
As the injuries piled up, Safe Walkways, an activist group, amassed hundreds of members in a Facebook group to oppose the scooters and file complaints to government agencies. In April, around 50 protesters gathered on Mission Beach’s boardwalk with signs bearing messages like “Safety Not Scooters” and “BoardWALK.”
Lawsuits have also piled up. Clients of Matthew Souther, a lawyer at Neil Dymott, filed a potential class-action suit in March that accused Bird, Lime and the City of San Diego of not complying with disability rights laws to keep sidewalks clear. He said he was working on a dozen other injury lawsuits against scooter companies.
San Diego has started cracking down. In July, the city enacted rules restricting where they could be parked and driven and issued permits for 20,000 scooters, across all companies, to operate. In three days that month, authorities impounded 2,500 scooters that violated parking rules.
Last month, San Diego told Lime that it planned to revoke its permit to operate in the city because of the violations, pending a hearing.
Christina Chadwick, a spokeswoman for San Diego’s mayor, Kevin Faulconer, said the scooter operators had been warned that the city would aggressively monitor them.
To deal with critics and improve safety and costs, the scooter companies have upgraded their fleets with sturdier scooters. Bird has said its Bird Zero model, which makes up a majority of its fleet, lasts an average of 10 months, compared with three months for past models. Skip recently announced a scooter with modular parts, which makes repairs easier.
And after a year recalling scooters with cracked baseboards and batteries that caught fire, Lime has introduced new vehicles with bigger wheels and baseboards, as well as interchangeable batteries and parts.
Haswell said Lime was eager to show the progress it had made. “We admit that we haven’t always gotten it right in San Diego,” she said.