Beverly Hills Puts the Brake on Shared-Mobility Devices

Beverly Hills City Council adopted a total ban on shared-mobility devices effective immediately. The sweeping action came at a special meeting called 24 hours prior. The ad-hoc regulation targeted device companies like Bird and Lime but would ban all ‘dockless’ devices (including motorized bicycles). The action prohibits any device from being placed in any public right-of-way or on public property, operated in any public-right-of-way or on public property, or offered for use anywhere in the City. Penalties include impound and fines. Read the press release.

City Council is ambivalent about shared-mobility devices. On one hand, nearly all councilmembers acknowledge that emerging devices like scooters could be a means to reduce auto trips and get the city to a more environmentally-friendly footing. They are also less impactful where congestion is concerned, councilmembers say.

But there was some concern that scooters simply displaced walking trips (rather than substantially change a traveler’s mode choice). Councilmember John Mirisch observed that walking was a “healthy intervention” in the context of Westside mobility, and wondered if scooters are helpful in that regard. In a discussion punctuated by no data but plenty of anecdotes, the one recurring theme was of underage teens joyriding on sidewalks without helmets.

Of somewhat greater concern was that dockless devices present a clutter problem if not properly regulated. As the user can simply leave a device anywhere, including on sidewalks and private property, they can pose a hazard for pedestrians. Clearly that problem was already on the mind of councilmembers and the community members who spoke of the need for regulation. There was concern expressed about danger to dogs on the sidewalk. The latter anecdote was a reminder that the discussion is really animated by device use in our most congested areas like the business triangle and south Beverly Drive.

How to manage these devices when much of the responsibility falls to the user? As the Traffic and Parking Commission’s earlier discussion touched upon, the introduction of dockless devices outside of a regulatory framework suggests no obvious answers to key questions that would concern a municipality. Can scooter ‘chargers’ enter private property to retrieve them? What is the city’s authority to impound scooters when left on public property? What is the city’s liability for a carelessly-discarded Bird?

Of greatest concern was safety: what recourse would a pedestrian have if a scooter operator caused an injury and simply fled? Is that a hit-and-run? And even if the operator didn’t flee, who’s covering medical expenses, if any?

None of these questions occasioned by a haphazard rollout of shared-devices is unique to Beverly Hills. Indeed other cities have grappled with the unexpected presence of a novel mode that is catching on quickly. Complicating the issue is that Bird, for its part, says it has not rollout out service in Beverly Hills. The company claims it does not deposit scooters on city property. It holds a business license, but claims not to do business here. That was a matter of some dispute as trips can originate and end in Beverly Hills (at least until the ban took effect).

Then again, that’s precisely why there was such vehement pushback from all of the councilmembers. The problem of managing (to say nothing of regulating) a shared-mobility device like a scooter falls to City Hall. And the associated impacts and safety hazards were not addressed beforehand by the companies even though the issues and hazards were already known to the device providers.

Ambivalence Yields to a Ban

Mayor Julian GoldThree of five councilmembers appeared ready to slap a ban on operations at the outset of the discussion. They revealed their position with no uncertainty at the top of their comments. “six months, a year, forever, whatever it takes,” said Mayor Gold of a proposed ban. Clearly he was leading the charge. There were two votes to hold off on a ban. John Mirisch didn’t favor a ban for practical reasons, he said. Can the city ban the use of scooters while only passing through the city? The supporter of autonomous vehicles didn’t see how a ban would meet the city’s goals for multimodal mobility either.

Councilmember Bob Wunderlich is also a supporter of multimodal mobility (and was the third needed vote to stripe Santa Monica Boulevard with a high-visibility bicycle lane). He initially opposed a ban, but ultimately supported one because the city had been given no time to prepare, and because our infrastructure is not ready. Wunderlich’s vote was the necessary 4th (an swing) vote the urgency ordinance needed. But his was no hasty capitulation; his positions are always well-considered and his position on the ban evolved over the course of the 2-hour special meeting.

The greatest opprobrium was heaped on Bird and Lime (as prominent examples) by Mayor Gold and councilmembers Lester Friedman and Lili Bosse. Gold stressed safety but appeared as incensed that the devices were deployed without any company reaching out to the city prospectively. There was no talk about an agreement, or a business license, or even an inquiry as to how these devices, and the technology, would find a place in the city’s mobility plans. Beverly Hills is currently undertaking a complete streets plan process which includes an emphasis on ‘networked’ vehicles.

The Council’s shared view in this regard was not helped by Bird’s representative who acknowledged that this kind of rollout is part of the business model: to force the hand of the locality. Councilmember Friedman picked up on the theme. “You can call that disruption, I guess,” he said, arching an eyebrow at the handle that has attached to shared-mobility rollouts in the past (think: Uber). “The city can be disruptive to your business model.” He liked the ban.

(Indeed Bird used the Uber playbook that same day: the company’s users generated several hundred emails to City Council, with one hundred and thirty of them coming in the 12 hours after City Council signaled a ban might be forthcoming, and those emails were mostly alike. Council was not persuaded.) Friedman, an attorney himself, was concerned with user liability. He asked a question not raised earlier: do such devices mandate the state minimum for property damage and bodily harm? (No answer was forthcoming.)

Councilmember Lili Bosse was as offended about the rollout and as vocal in seeking a ban. Commerce and tourism are her twin constituencies. After a video aired at the meeting showed a blizzard of scooter-users descending on the triangle late at night, unmolested by police, it was not a far leap to imagine our international visitor-shoppers similarly accosted during daytime. It wouldn’t be tolerated at Century City mall, be sure, and the prospect is a non-starter here too.

Both the Council’s afternoon study session discussion (video) and the evening session where the ban was adopted aired many questions presented by the marriage of cheap, plentiful devices and app-driven ride-share technology. The City Attorney did his best to address questions about city liability, damages for injury, and broader concerns about safety when devices are carelessly operated, or left, on the sidewalks. But in the end the discussion really boiled down to regulation.

The three councilmembers most in favor of the ban all had served on the city’s Traffic and Parking Commission. There the remit includes oversight of ‘general traffic conditions’ as well as regulation of taxi franchises. The regulatory framework, they said, was a necessary first step.

I also attended the Traffic and Parking Commission meeting where shared-devices were first discussed (watch the video). My take from that meeting was that these billion-dollar corporations tend to take a casual approach to the problems posed by their devices. For example, when problems were suggested they said fixes were underway or about to be taken; there was evidently no effort to take lessons learned elsewhere and apply them in the device rollout here.

More problematic was these companies simply not anticipating the politics of the issue. The tone and tenor of the  City Council discussion reflected the divide. As the Mayor said, shortly after calling for a long, “even punitive,” ban on the devices, “You can ask for forgiveness later, but that doesn’t mean you’re going to get it.

Read the staff report and watch the Council video:

Here is the full text of the city’s press release.

Beverly Hills, CA – During a special meeting tonight, the Beverly Hills City Council voted 4-1 to prohibit certain shared mobility devices, specifically motorized scooters, within City limits.
The ordinance prohibits the devices from being placed in any public right-of-way or on public property, operated in any public-right-of-way or on public property, or offered for use anywhere in the City.
The majority of the Council cited concern for public safety and a lack of any advanced planning and outreach by the motorized scooter companies as the primary reasons for the new ordinance.
Beverly Hills Police will enforce a zero-tolerance policy on the use of motorized scooters throughout the City. This will include impounding the devices and issuing citations related to vehicle code violations resulting in fines.
The majority of the Council expressed an interest in meeting with representatives from the motorized scooter companies to establish clear guidelines for possible future use of the devices within the City.
The use of motorized scooters in Beverly Hills has dramatically increased in recent weeks with the Police Department issuing warnings and citations for riders not wearing helmets, driving on sidewalks in a business district or not possessing a valid driver’s license. Police have responded to several injury involved vehicle collisions involving motorized scooters. Police have also removed scooters from sidewalks and streets that obstructed the normal movement of traffic and created a hazard.

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