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Politics

Electric Scooters Slowly Return After Pandemic Slump

Bird, Link and Spin scooters are seen by an MTS bus stop in Mission Bay Park, March 30, 2021.
Andrew Bowen
Bird, Link and Spin scooters are seen by an MTS bus stop in Mission Bay Park, March 30, 2021.

Shared electric scooters are gradually returning to San Diego streets after a long dip in ridership amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Six scooter companies are now authorized to operate in the city, including mainstays Bird, Lyft, Spin and Wheels along with newcomers Link and Veo.

Electric Scooters Slowly Return After Pandemic Slump
Listen to this story by Andrew Bowen.

VIDEO: Electric Scooters Slowly Return After Pandemic Slump

The devices took the city by storm in 2018 along with several bike sharing companies that have since left the city. Trips on the "shared mobility devices," as the city officially calls them, peaked in July 2019 with more than 793,000 rides, according to city data.

Trips plummeted in April 2020 immediately after the COVID-19 shutdown orders but had rebounded to more than 250,000 by September, the last month for which the city provided trip data. The data suggest users are spending more time on the scooters and riding them for longer distances.

As of January 2021, companies were authorized to keep up to 9,750 scooters in the city, down from 11,050 at the beginning of 2020. Companies must pay a fee for each device they keep in circulation.

RELATED: How COVID-19 Is Changing San Diego’s Transportation Planning

Colin Parent, executive director of the mobility advocacy group Circulate San Diego, said the city's relatively lax regulations of the scooter industry have created a hypercompetitive market. Companies would flood the streets with their own devices to win over market share, he said, making it particularly expensive to do business here.

Several scooter companies have abandoned the San Diego market, including Lime, Skip, Razor and Jump, which is owned by Uber. Parent said the high turnover rate in the city has not necessarily benefited consumers.

"I think one of the things the city is going to have to examine is doing some sort of request for proposals to have a limited number of scooters and have a more regulated market so that it's more functional and permanent," Parent said.

Parent added that the city should also consider requiring the companies to put scooters in low-income communities to ensure equitable access to the devices. Now they are concentrated in downtown, Hillcrest, North Park, Pacific Beach and Mission Beach.

Most of the companies offer discounted or free rides to residents enrolled in government assistance programs such as the state’s CalFresh program, which distributes federally subsidized food stamps.

RELATED: Pandemic Brings More Biking And Fewer Crashes — But Can It Last?

Shared scooters can offer low-income residents an affordable alternative to driving a car, said Stephanie Hernandez, transportation and planning program coordinator at the City Heights Community Development Corporation. But she said disadvantaged communities often lack safe roads.

"(Scooters) really provide communities like City Heights, Southeast (San Diego) ... access to everyday destinations," Hernandez said. "But also that comes into safety as well. Like bikes, scooters should be in protected bike lanes, spaces where people feel comfortable."

The San Diego City Council approved regulations for shared mobility devices in April 2019 with the intent to re-evaluate their effectiveness later on. Councilmember Marni Von Wilpert, who chairs the Council's Active Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said she would take the issue up this year.

"One of my biggest priorities is ensuring public safety, while pursuing alternative transportation options for residents of San Diego," Von Wipert said in an email. "We are currently reviewing scooter regulations to ensure riders and pedestrians are safe and ensuring our sidewalks are ADA compliant, while maximizing community benefit."