The immediate future of dockless electric scooters in Los Angeles landed in a gray area today when a Department of Transportation official said any company operating scooters outside of established pilot programs in the city will be receiving a cease-and-desist letter by next week.
The problem is -- the DOT says there are no established pilot programs for scooters in the city, only for dockless bicycles. That means technically every company that has electric scooters operating anywhere in the city will be receiving such a letter.
The announcement of forthcoming cease-and-desist letters came during a meeting of the City Council's Public Safety Committee, which rejected a proposal that would have banned scooters outright until regulations governing their operation are adopted.
The City Council is scheduled to vote on such regulations next week, potentially rendering the DOT letters moot.
But Councilman Mitchell Englander, who chairs the Public Safety Committee and is pushing for the cease-and-desist letters, said he believes the vote next week is just a first step and it could take at least six months before the regulations become law.
Englander pointed out that the City Council approved a motion in March imposing a moratorium on all dockless transportation programs unless they are part of an existing pilot program until a regulatory system can be established.
Englander aggressively questioned Marcel Porras, the chief sustainability officer for LADOT, as to why LADOT was not enforcing the language of the motion. The back-and-forth was tense.
"Do you think we just put motions in and just take our time to do this for some other reason?" Englander asked Porras.
"No, sir," Porras answered.
After being pushed for a time and date LADOT would issue the letters, Porras finally said the department would issue the letters by next week.
Englander -- who said he strongly supports the technology but wants the law to be enforced -- told City News Service that pilot programs can still be expanded, so the move by LADOT to issue letters "does not cap the amount of pilots we have until we have the framework, rules and regulations in place."
When asked what impact the letters would have on companies operating in Los Angeles, Englander said "it shouldn't have any impact whatsoever because if they're already operating in areas that they don't have an approved pilot, they are already breaking the law.''
Oliver Hou, a spokesman for LADOT, told City News Service there are no pilot program active for dockless scooters in the city, only for dockless bikes.
City Councilman Mike Bonin, a vocal supporter of the scooters, confirmed there are no active pilot programs for the devices in his district, where both Bird and Lime have large-scale operations, with hundreds of scooters on the streets each day.
Bird and Lime officials did not respond to a request to comment.
The cease-and-desist letters would not prevent the city from establishing new pilot programs at any time to allow scooters to continue operating.
If LADOT issues the cease-and-desist letters, their impact remains unclear. LADOT does not have the power to impound the devices, since that responsibility falls to the Bureau of Sanitation. Elena Stern, a spokeswoman
for the Department of Public Works, said the department has not received any direction to impound scooters through the Bureau of Sanitation, which it oversees.
Meanwhile, only the Los Angeles Police Department can issue citations to riders, but LAPD Cmdr. Martin Baeza told the Pubic Safety Committee he did not believe any citations had been issued yet.
The scooters work through a phone app that allows people to find and unlock the devices and drop them off anywhere they are allowed, with no docking station or kiosk required.
The devices have proliferated in Westside communities this past year and have proven to be divisive, with some advocates saying they are a safe and environmentally friendly way to travel, while opponents argue they are a
nuisance cluttering up sidewalks and streets with careless operators who often fail to obey safety laws, including riding them on the sidewalk.
LADOT actually issued a full cease-and-desist letter to Bird in June after it dropped scooters into the Arts District, where they had not previously been located. The company quickly removed the scooters from the neighborhood. The letter specifically mentioned the March motion and pointed out that Bird is not part of any sanctioned pilot program in Los Angeles, and said the cease-and- desist was ordered for the entire city.
The regulations going before the council next week would allow for controlled growth of the devices, with a cap of 3,000 devices per provider.
Operators would have the opportunity to add up to 2,500 more devices if they are located in disadvantaged communities, and they can add an additional 5,000 in disadvantaged communities in the San Fernando Valley.
If companies can demonstrate at least three rides per day per device and adhere to all rules and regulations, the general manager of LADOT each quarter could allow for providers to add 5,000 more devices, according to the proposed regulations.
Bonin said he is anxious to get the regulations in place.
"If electric scooters are going to succeed at being the convenient and environmentally-friendly transit option they have the potential to be, instead of a neighborhood nuisance, we need to adopt smart, comprehensive, enforceable regulations as soon as possible -- hopefully next week," he told CNS. "The sooner we get these rules in place and bring companies into the new program, the sooner the city will have the tools necessary to require companies to operate their fleets safely and considerately."