Riding on the Edge: Will the Electric Scooter Rental Boom see a Reversal?

In 2017, it was fidget spinners; in 2018, it’s electric scooter rentals. If you’ve recently been in a major city, you’ve surely seen them parked along curbs, breezing through intersections, or even strewn about in unexpected locations. But the popularity of dock-free scooters offered by companies like Bird, Lime, Skip, and Spin has coincided with many difficulties, including overnight inundation with no notice to city officials, frustrating pedestrians, and serious injuries. On September 21st, a man riding a Lime brand electric scooter in Washington D.C. died after colliding with a car, which is the second confirmed death from an electric scooter crash in the United States. Despite the scooters’ apparent popularity, the risky business model casts doubt on the long-term viability of the fad if the rental companies continue to operate without regard for the consumers they’re serving and the cities they’re invading.

A sampling of various companies’ rental agreements reveals that most of the risk is placed on the consumer. For example, Bird’s rental agreement section 3.3 (Helmets: Safety) states that “[r]ider agrees that none of the Released Persons is liable for any injury suffered by Rider while using any of the Bird Services, whether or not Rider is wearing a helmet at the time of injury. Rider assumes all risk of not wearing a helmet or other protective gear.” Although an agreement like this is not unexpected, it is problematic considering the general electric scooter rental business model. The scooters are widely available, can be cheaply rented (most rides cost $3 or less), and are geared towards consumers that are trying to save time. Relying on consumers to (1) read a lengthy agreement, (2) have a helmet with them for whatever occasion they may decide to utilize an electric scooter, and (3) waive liability for the rental company, introduces significant safety and consumer protection concerns.

Inherent to the much maligned “Terms of Service Agreement,” expecting consumers to read and understand the risks involved in using the app to hop on an electric scooter is a challenging prospect, to say the least. Furthermore, the vast majority of rental companies require riders to be at least 18 years old, with a valid driver’s license, wearing a helmet (as required by law), and park the scooter legally after use. Notably, some of the rental agreements do not explicitly state that a driver’s license is required.

Due to the inherent safety risks, and perhaps more significantly the lack of communication that seems to accompany the scooters’ arrivals, several cities have removed and banned the scooters until the rental companies comply with permit requirements. Cities such as Beverly Hills, West Hollywood, Seattle, Saint Paul, Nashville, Boston, and Miami have banned electric scooters. Other cities, including Denver, Portland, Oregon, Salt Lake City, San Francisco, Kansas City, and Charlotte have limited the access of rental companies and number of scooters as a part of pilot programs. Some cities, such as Durham, have even preempted the scooters’ potential arrival by proposing a revision to a city ordinance to define motorized scooters as mopeds. Although it’s difficult to predict the path ahead for scooters in cities, the prevalence of pilot programs suggests that scooter popularity will overcome the blowback as rental companies fall in line with municipal regulations.

Beyond municipal efforts to stem the tide of electric scooter overload, there have been efforts to make it even easier to ride unrestricted. On September 19th, California Governor Jerry Brown signed a bill bringing electric scooters under the same legal requirements as motorized bicycles, specifically removing the requirement to wear a helmet and authorizing scooter use on streets with a 35 mph speed limit. The bill, backed by Bird, shows that rental companies are trying to put more scooter riders on the road, and are taking steps to shift even more risk from themselves onto consumers.

We have certainly not seen the end of electric scooter rentals – this is likely only the beginning of their role in modern urban transportation. But until the rental companies follow proper permitting procedures and go to greater lengths to ensure the safety of their riders and the pedestrians they mingle with, the future will remain uncertain.