Nation & World

Scooter companies conquer with a simple strategy: act first, answer questions later

A scooter rider and bicyclist make their way down through downtown Washington on June 13, 2018.  CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Robert Miller
A scooter rider and bicyclist make their way down through downtown Washington on June 13, 2018. CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Robert Miller

At first glance, it looked like a painful defeat.

Mere weeks after they’d blanketed Miami streets, electric scooter companies disappeared overnight, sent packing by city attorneys with cease and desist letters in hand.

Their preemptive approach in some ways resembles Uber “disruptive” playbook. That plan involves bum-rushing markets, ignoring local regulations, turning riders into voters, as well as acting first and apologizing later.

In Miami - like San Francisco, Austin, Texas, before it - electric scooter companies were able to prove a market existed before they could be shut down, quickly creating loyal customers and amassing valuable transportation data before coming to the table to negotiate with city officials.

The same sequence of events has played out in cities targeted by scooter companies across the country, often with victorious results.

With typical Silicon Valley self-assuredness, Bird - a popular scooter start-up banished by frustrated Miami authorities - portrayed their recent clashes with city officials as less a fight than an inevitable part of the process that accompanies the introduction of innovative technology.

Each time they arrive in a new city, the company admits, they’re not sure whether they’ll encounter resistance or open arms.

“We enter markets where scooters aren’t prohibited and we follow the laws on the books,” Kenneth Baer, a Bird spokesman, said, noting that most cities don’t have laws regulating electric scooters. “But in most cities the laws never anticipated this technology.”

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“I’m a big fan of the electric scooters,” Miami Mayor Francis Suarez said, noting that he considers himself a technology-friendly mayor. “I think they’re a first-last mile transit alternative.”

“In a city as hot as Miami,” he added, “having a device that allows you to travel and get a significant distance with the breeze on your face could be a key to unlocking a transit system that has been a little bit underwhelming, to put it mildly.”

From their critic’s perspective, electric scooter companies arrive like invading Mongol armies. They roll into virgin territory overnight, unleashing chaos and fear before eventually recruiting amenable locals to their ranks, filling their coffers, and moving on to the next conquest.

For the perspective of their fans, electric scooter startups are a desperately-needed supplement to incomplete transportation systems. Their futuristic technology takeover is inevitable, fans maintain, and city officials need to catch up, even if initial launches feel abrasive.

However bullish it seems, the act-first-answer-questions-later strategy seems to be working. After companies deposited 2,000 scooters on San Francisco streets in March, furious public officials responded by impounding the scooters and issuing cease-and-desist orders. The city is currently considering a pilot program that would allow companies to deposit 2,500 scooters on city streets beginning in July, according to the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Authority.

During their first 30 days in San Francisco, Bird claims 32,000 riders went on 95, 418 rides, traveling 143,725 miles total.

During their brief time on the streets of Miami, more than 10,000 Miami residents and visitors took 30,000 trips on Lime Scooters, saving almost 32,000 pounds of CO2, the company said.

The company is operating in more than 30 cities around the country.

Darren Weingard, head of government relations for Skip Scooters, told USA Today that his company decided not to launch after they learned San Francisco was planning to regulate the new form of transportation. His rivals did not, he noted, unleashing a preemptive strategy that looks awfully familiar.

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“Some of what we were seeing (with rivals) seemed out of the old Uber playbook” he told USA. “We didn’t want to follow that.”

Similar struggles have played out in Denver, Santa Monica, California; Washington, D.C; Nashville, Tennessee; and Austin, where scooter companies have swooped into town with little warning before engaging in constructive dialogue after city officials forcefully push back. After being pulled from the streets, scooter companies say they often expect to be back on the market in a few weeks, sometimes less as cities rush through permits to meet the sudden demand for their services.

The smoothest scooter roll-out to date, by most accounts, has been in Memphis, Tennessee, where local leaders introduced a 30-day operating agreement ahead of the scooter’s launch, according to the Commercial Appeal. The city council is expected to vote an ordinance regulating scooters next month.

“This is just something that can prove to the world that Memphis is ready, that Memphis is open to business, and that Memphis makes accommodations for things we want,” council chairman Berlin Boyd told the paper.

Memphis leaders said they’d decided to get ahead of the scooter wave after watching it crash into their in-state neighbors to the north in Nashville. In Nashville, after scooters appeared on sidewalks, city officials threatened to impound scooters, arguing that they represented illegal obstructions of rights of way, according to the Commercial Appeal.

Bird’s attorney initially pushed back, arguing that the city was “grossly exceeding” the parameters of the city code before the company decided to remove its scooters and work with city officials on permitting, the paper reported.

Even if Nashville had refused to negotiate with Bird, the question is how long they could’ve held out before incurring public pressure to bring them back. The city is home to music festivals and sporting events, the paper noted, ideal venues for alternative forms of transportation.

Hundreds of scooters had already been deposited across town, giving the public a taste of cheap, electric mobility.

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“It goes viral very quickly,” Baer said. “People like it, it solves a problem for them and it’s fun.”

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