Imagine driving a rental car in any city on a Friday night. The clock hits 9 p.m., and the engine shuts off. As you roll to a stop, a text message on your phone informs you that cars are not allowed to operate in the city between 9 p.m. and 5 a.m. You will need to find another way home.
That’s a real scenario for micromobility users in some U.S. cities where shared e-scooters and e-bikes are banned from operating at night (starting as early as 6 p.m. or as late as 1 a.m.) and in certain neighborhoods. These bans are enforced by geofencing, GPS technology that stops or slows a vehicle within certain geographical boundaries, and, in the case of a curfew, if riders try to operate a shared vehicle during restricted hours.
While cities say they implement these bans for safety reasons, micromobility operators argue that the limits and bans harm socially and economically marginalized people by cutting off access to a more affordable mode of transportation, especially when public transit options are limited.
“I do think it's strange,” said Miriam Pinski, research analyst at the Shared-Use Mobility Center. “I mean, we don't ban drivers from coming in and using public streets to drive on after a certain time.”
Regulations heat up as the industry matures
When dockless e-scooters first hit city streets in late 2017, there were no curfews or geographical limits because there were no regulations, period. Companies like Bird simply dropped vehicles in the public right-of-way, and cities were forced to rapidly adapt, adopting new policies to address behaviors like riding on sidewalks and parked or abandoned scooters blocking sidewalk access for wheelchair users.
Last year, multiple cities cracked down further on shared e-scooters. Detroit implemented a weekend summer curfew in its central business district from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m.; Cincinnati set a 6 p.m. curfew in April before rolling it back to 9 p.m. in August; and St. Louis banned e-scooters from its downtown entirely in early June — a ban that extended into 2023.
According to Lee Foley, director of government relations, Midwest, for Lime, some new restrictions might be driven by the end of pandemic-era behaviors as people began to return to previously empty city streets.
“And now, what people who live downtown see, they may see groups of students gathering downtown, and it makes them uncomfortable.”
In St. Louis, e-scooters were banned after a drive-by shooting injured several juveniles. Transportation advocates were puzzled about why someone shooting a gun from a car would lead to a ban on e-scooters. The city cited increased violence and groups of teenagers and young people congregating downtown.
“Scooters, it seems, are becoming something of a scapegoat for a range of city safety problems,” wrote Streetsblog USA Senior Editor Kea Wilson in a Streetsblog opinion piece.
Who pays when e-scooters are banned?
A study on Atlanta’s 2019 ban on scooter rides between 9 p.m. and 4 a.m. found that it increased the average commuter’s travel time by 10.5%. But there’s no data available on the effects of e-scooter bans on underserved populations.
“So much of our systems are oriented around a 9-to-5 commute, which is just not the reality for so many people,” said Anne Brown, an assistant professor at the University of Oregon, who studies transportation equity and shared mobility. “Especially when we’re thinking about people who are living in marginalized communities or earning lower wages.”
Micromobility companies, meanwhile, say that the image of the “tech bro” as the default type of e-scooter rider is no longer accurate. According to Lime, rider data shows that people use scooters to get from neighborhoods that are historically underserved by public transit to job and educational hubs like downtown, precisely the area of a city most likely to ban scooters.
“When scooters are banned, it can leave third-shift workers — those working outside of 9-to-5 — without other options,” said Austin Marshburn, senior director of city and university partnerships for Bird, in an email. “They may not have a car, and public transit, if it’s running, could mean a long walk in the dark.”
Brown noted that underserved groups often don’t have a voice when cities make transportation policy decisions.
“It's not like a malicious intent, but the effects mean there’s a lot of gaps in the system.”
In St. Louis, the ban was a temporary measure, said Nick Desideri, communications director for the mayor, in an email. “The city paused operations, took in feedback from stakeholders, and released a modified permit, similar to what other cities like Milwaukee and Chicago have done.”
Alternatives to bans
In January, Cincinnati announced it was returning to its original scooter curfew of 11 p.m. while working with Bird and Lime to implement new safety and parking protocols. E-scooters will also return to downtown St. Louis this year with a new curfew of 7 p.m. to 7 a.m.
As cities roll back some of the restrictions on micromobility, they’re looking at technology-based alternatives to bans, such as geofencing to prevent sidewalk riding and enforce correct parking and facial recognition technology to verify identity and prevent underage riding.
However, advocates and e-scooter companies say there is no substitute for better street infrastructure. Foley noted geofencing entire neighborhoods can be a “blunt” solution to nuanced problems.
Bird’s Marshburn recommends “more protected bike lanes, improved street lighting, and better-targeted enforcement of speeding and reckless driving [by cars].”
In a car-centric culture, targeting driver behavior rather than e-scooter rider behavior might be a tough sell.
“For sure, the most dangerous vehicle — it's cars,” said Brown. “And there's no curfew on cars at night.”