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A program gone south

Daniel Fontaine on a cautionary tale about a municipal program gone very, very wrong.

During a recent business trip to San Diego, one of my favourite American cities, I was surprised to see what was being discarded on the streets everywhere.

They were all over the sidewalks, back lanes, public green spaces and just about anywhere else they could be dropped off.

What am I referring to? Battery powered short-term rental scooters and bikes.

To set the record straight, I’m a fan of providing the public with multiple options to get around that don’t require you to license a personal vehicle. In Metro Vancouver, we have two high-profile examples of this type of ride and bike share programs.

With the Mobi by Shaw Go program, bright blue bicycles can be found throughout the downtown core. By all accounts, they appear quite popular with locals and tourists alike since the program first launched in the summer of 2016.

We also have several car share programs like Car to Go and Evo which allow you to have access to a vehicle when and where you need it in places like Vancouver, North Vancouver and New Westminster.

These initiatives all have something in common: they went through rigorous scrutiny by city hall before they were launched. Unlike their San Diego counterpart, they also appear have been effectively operationalized and have buy-in from the public and municipal politicians.

Contrast this to how San Diego has handled their electric scooter rental program. I had the opportunity to observe how several companies are operating them in southern California.

To say they have made a mess is a huge understatement.

Unlike Vancouver’s car and bike share programs which have designated spots to park them after use, in San Diego this was clearly an afterthought.

During a short walk around my hotel in Pacific Beach, I snapped dozens of pictures of scofflaw scooters – many left not in designated areas, but discarded like used cigarette butts. Many were abandoned in the middle of the sidewalk.

If you are sight impaired or travel in a wheelchair, abandoned scooters can quickly translate into a dangerous obstacle course. While city officials are trying their best to put the genie back in the bottle, they appear to be fighting a losing battle.

According to a news release from Mayor Kevin Faulconer earlier this year, they are proposing new regulations to “…cover six primary areas – limiting the maximum speed of motorized scooters in designated zones, vehicle staging and parking, rider education, data sharing, fees and legal indemnification for the City of San Diego.” Whether these proposed measures have any impact remains to be seen.

To give them credit, they have designated some spots on the street for scooter parking, but for the most part this appears to be ignored. As for the companies profiting off these scooter rentals, you can only wonder if a day of reckoning will ever come.

The ability to easily rent an electric scooter – in principle – is an excellent idea. It aligns with the goal of tackling climate change. But what I witnessed in California is a cautionary tale to any municipal jurisdiction thinking about implementing them without thinking through the operational requirements first.

Daniel Fontaine is the Chief Executive Officer for a non-profit seniors care organization based in Burnaby. A former weekly civic affairs columnist for 24 Hours Newspaper, Fontaine has been a political commentator on Global TV and CKNW radio. In 2008 he co-founded one of Canada’s most popular civic affairs blogs. In 2012, Fontaine was awarded the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Medal for public service.