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Not long ago, motorized scooters began appearing in a variety of places throughout San Diego. They appeared overnight, it seemed, and certainly caused a sensation. They also caused a litany of unlawful activity.
Many people are bothered by the fact that these scooters are left in various areas of the city, blocking sidewalks, on people’s private property, and so on. Clearly, the owners of the businesses care little about that. Part of their business model appears to be spreading the scooters far and wide, on city property and wherever else anyone chooses to leave them.
The larger problem, though, is that the business model depends upon allowing — encouraging, really — unlawful operation. The California vehicle code states that it is unlawful for the operator of a motorized scooter to do any of the following:
• Operate a motorized scooter without wearing a properly fitted and fastened bicycle helmet that meets state standards.
• Operate a motorized scooter without a valid driver’s license or instruction permit.
• Operate a motorized scooter upon a sidewalk, except as may be necessary to enter or leave adjacent property.
• Leave a motorized scooter lying on its side on any sidewalk or park a motorized scooter on a sidewalk in any other position, so that there is not an adequate path for pedestrian traffic.
San Diego is clearly aware of these requirements, because the assistant chief operating officer informed the operators of some of the businesses of them in a letter.
The San Diego municipal code also states, with respect to parks, “Motorcycles or any other motorized vehicles are prohibited except on roads designated and established for automotive traffic.” In other words, scooters are not allowed on park walkways or boardwalks within parks.
It is normal to see these scooters operated by people without helmets, in violation of the California vehicle code. I also regularly see children who don’t look old enough to get a driver’s license on a scooter, apparently provided with one by an adult. And they are commonly operated — unlawfully — on the Mission Beach boardwalk, which has a huge potential impact. We’re in the off-season now, but summer is coming, and police rarely work the boardwalk.
How might the owners of these businesses ensure lawful operation? They probably can’t and don’t want to. Since the rentals are done by an app, there’s no one to make sure the renter has a helmet or a driver’s license. Since the scooter is left by the renter wherever they wish, there’s no one to ensure they are parked properly. And so on.
Presumably, at some point, the San Diego Police Department will begin enforcing the helmet law, threatening the motorized scooter business model with collapse. After all, how many people walk around with a bicycle helmet in anticipation of renting a scooter?
I don’t disagree with City Attorney Mara Elliott, who recently determined that San Diego can allow competing companies, opening the door to our current situation. But it would help if the city provided some clarity on where exactly these scooters can be left and repercussions for the businesses whose clients don’t comply with local and state law.
We are at a juncture in our technological advancement in which many businesses are now based on algorithms and apps. They depend upon very low-cost business models in which the cost of paying humans to run the business is minimized, to the benefit of large profits for venture capitalists and business owners, along with fewer jobs. We should embrace technology, but we should hold technologists accountable.
B. Chris Brewster, a San Diego resident, is president of the Americas Region of the International Life Saving Federation and editor of American Lifeguard Magazine. See anything in there we should fact check? Tell us what to check out here.