Bird scooters on the sidewalk in downtown Santa Monica. Photo by Frances Anderton.
FROM THIS EPISODE
Last fall a battery-powered, adult-size variant on a Razor scooter appeared on the streets of downtown Santa Monica.
It’s called Bird, it powers it along at a top speed of 15 miles an hour, it is booked and located via an App; and after arriving at his or her destination the rider simply leaves the Bird on the sidewalk or in a parking lane (rather than seeking a parking station like Breeze Bikes). The company gathers them up and recharges them overnight. Judging by the number of them now whizzing along the streets of downtown Santa Monica, these motorized scooters have been an instant hit. But the Birds, founded by an Uber alumnus named Travis VanderZanden and headquartered in downtown Santa Monica, have also raised concerns at City Hall. On the face of it, Birds appear like a perfect solution to the First Mile Last Mile problem, and provide an easy, sustainable, space-saving mode of transportation, but the city’s justice department has filed a criminal complaint against the company. Why?
DnA talks to Anuj Gupta, deputy city manager, and learns that while, yes, the City does embrace Birds for all these reasons, “the challenge is that they have been operating in our city without a business license to operate,” they present a “public safety concern because of the fact that these scooters are in the public right of way,” and “they are operating in the public right away without a permit to do so.”
One of the other problems is that Birds are classified in California vehicle code as electric motorized scooters, meaning you have to be over 18 to use them and have a driver's license. And yet middle and high schoolers have taken to them like proverbial ducks to water.
Gupta says the City hopes to arrive at a mutually beneficial arrangement with Bird. “We as a city I think are very excited by the notion of Bird, particularly because they are a homegrown business and because Santa Monica is a place that is a hotbed of innovation. We stand ready to sit down and partner with them on a way to get their devices onto the streets.”
He adds, “This is just the beginning of a whole new series of devices that we're likely to see. We may need to develop new regulatory approaches to these devices. But we need to do that and then partner with the companies to invite them in and design systems that accommodate their models.”
VanderZanden told DnA in an email: “We are looking forward to working with the city so that we can create sensible, modern regulations for new kinds of technologies like ours that are helping to solve the last mile transportation problem.”
What this means for the teens who love this new mode of transit, however, is unclear. DnA also talks to transportation expert Juan Matute and four Bird users, named Rose, Nemo, Ruby and Kalea.
A Bird scooter left on the Santa Monica boardwalk. Photo by Avishay Artsy.
You don’t have to be Elon Musk to pitch an idea for improving mobility in Los Angeles. Say you have an innovative idea for helping Angelenos get around the region. Who do you talk to?
Well, if you have major Silicon Valley venture capital support, or if you are a solo inventor, you could pitch your idea to Joshua Schank.
Schank is Chief Innovation Officer at Metro, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, and he heads a department there called the Office of Extraordinary Innovation. DnA visited Schank at his downtown office and learned about their three-pronged program for private-public partnerships, which seeks outside ideas for: faster, cheaper delivery of major transportation projects; strategic planning of the network; and improvements through technology of transportation in Los Angeles.
He explains some of the 90 unsolicited proposals so far received, including drones that would inspect facilities and track; better provision of parking for bikes at stations and an Uber-style partnership for taking people to and from stations.
We also talk about how these private-public collaborations work as well as “ordinary” innovations that might make the system extraordinary: easier access to TAP cards (soon to be available via an app), amenities at stations that might make them more attractive and safe.
An Orange Line Metro bus. Photo by Steve Hymon/Metro.
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Late last year the beachside neighborhood of Playa Del Rey got into a road rage over a road diet. Some car lanes were removed to slow traffic, and bike lanes were added.
Drivers were not happy, and even launched a recall effort targeting Councilman Mike Bonin. The city backtracked and got rid of the bike lanes and restored the car lanes. But
they added a number of features to better protect pedestrians, including new crosswalks with flashing lights, and “pedestrian head start” traffic signals. These compromises incensed road diet advocates in LA -- and chilled politicians.
In December 2017 Councilman David Ryu rejected a full road diet on 6th Street in midtown, which had been sought by a coalition of advocates and neighborhood groups. He said the majority of his constituents wanted more traffic safety features but did not want vehicle lanes turned into bike lanes.
All of this has called into question the future of two initiatives shaping LA’s transit future. One is the city’s Mobility Plan 2035, which calls for 100s of miles of street redesigns aimed at encouraging alternative transportation, and improving pedestrian safety. The other is a related effort called Vision Zero. That’s a city plan to reduce traffic fatalities to zero by 2025.
One of powerful advocates for these goals is Seleta Reynolds. She’s general manager of the Los Angeles Department of Transportation. We visited her in her downtown LA office recently and asked what’s the future for road diets, after Playa del Rey.
She says the outlook is still bright: “This one particular incident happened in a very specific part of the city under very specific conditions and has not changed that desire in many other neighborhoods around the city to come back and tackle those same questions. The outcome might be a road diet or it might be something else.”
She poses the question: “who is the street for and how can we balance creating a street where people can get from A to B but also can protect everybody who's trying to use that street? And a street that moves at a human pace is also good for the neighborhoods through which through which those streets pass.”
The road diet on San Pedro Street. Photo courtesy LA Department of Transportation.
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