The electric scooter may prove just disruptive and transformative enough to challenge the automobile from primacy on South Coast roadways, but it’s not clear whether South Coast governments can agree on what to do about the popular new form of bipedal micro-mobility. That was one of the takeaways from last week’s “Scooter Summit” organized by the Santa Barbara County Association of Governments to explore the potential of electrified two-wheelers to reduce automotive vehicle miles traveled, road congestion, and greenhouse-gas emissions.
In recent months, the County of Santa Barbara has embraced the new devices; Carpinteria, Goleta, and UCSB have banned them; and the City of Santa Barbara has drawn a thick “not yet” line in the sand. Representatives from each of these jurisdictions were on hand to explain why. More eye-opening was the different range of scooters on display by the Granada parking garage by some of the less well-known companies seeking to establish a toehold in a market dominated by Lime and Bird. An Oxnard-based company builds and markets a device that looks like a skinny Vespa; the rider sits rather than stands. Another company represented builds a three-wheeled contraption — one in the front, two in the back — for greater stability and safety. All denounced the rogue launch operations for which Lime has become infamous, dropping hundreds of cheaply built devices on city streets without permission or coordination.
Francie Stefan, mobility czar for the City of Santa Monica, explained why that city embraced “scooter disruption,” despite obvious risks. With more motorists on the road these days driving longer distances, she said, the greenhouse-gas emissions Santa Monica attributes to transportation had increased from 40 to 64 percent. For short trips, the scooter has proved wildly popular. A recent survey indicated 26 percent of scooter riders had previously driven cars. More than 35 percent used scooters to get to work.
Stefan acknowledged risk to life and limb as unschooled riders took to the new devices, but she said accidents are endemic to all forms of transportation. As scooters are better engineered and made safer, she said, they can play a positive role. Santa Barbara County’s 3rd District Supervisor Joan Hartmann waxed enthusiastic about the scooter’s potential to “take back the streets.” But she also challenged the industry to be a partner, not a parasite. As for safety, Hartmann’s assistant Gina Fischer demonstrated a collapsible bicycle helmet that can be comfortably folded into a purse. “They could be as transformational as solar power or electric vehicles,” she said, but “much sooner — within a year or two.”