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The Issues and Laws Surrounding Dockless Bikes and Motorized Scooters in California

You’ve probably noticed those bright-yellow or bright-green bikes recently popping up on the streets of Southern California. Perhaps you’ve even tripped on one of them as they lie on the sidewalk. These are dockless bikes. They don’t require the usual locks or docking stations because they are electronically locked and unlocked using a smartphone app. And now that private companies are renting out these bikes for cheap, they are taking over the streets and sidewalks.

Dockless bicycles – as well as their cousins, dockless scooters – are undeniably convenient. For as low as $1 paid via the app, a user can unlock a two-wheeler, ride it, then just leave it at any point in the city. But despite the convenience of this bike-share system, people are complaining. Dockless bikes and scooters seem to invite safety issues, and the accidents they are involved in aren’t always minor.

The History & Development Of Dockless

The earliest versions of dockless two-wheelers were actually low-tech: they were regular for-rent bikes that had combination locks. You would call the vendor to get the lock’s combination, and then call them again to say where you parked and locked the bike after you were done. In 1998, the German company Deutsche Bahn changed all this when they introduced digital, automatic locks. Naturally, the technology caught the world’s attention.

China was one of the countries that first embraced for-profit digital bike-sharing. Dozens of startups in the country have entered this arena, helping improve the technology. But at the same time, the system has also proved troublesom. The aggressive rise of dockless bikes created more public infrastructure needs for cyclists. Companies also couldn’t keep up with fleet maintenance, resulting in bikes breaking down and cluttering public spaces in huge piles.

As the system made its way to the US, it also encountered some business issues. It was criticized as a rogue system, largely because dockless bike operators distributed their bicycles without permission from or early warning to city governments. This meant cities lacked the physical infrastructure and regulations to ensure the safety of dockless bike-sharing.

Despite this, the system spread across the country. In late 2017, dockless bikes arrived in Southern California, brought on by companies such as Ofo, LimeBike, and Spin. Dockless scooters were also launched by pioneer companies such as Bird. All in all, these modern two-wheelers have gained thousands of trips within a few months of their introduction in the region.

Unfortunately, like other US cities, SoCal metros weren’t prepared regulations-wise for the instant popularity of dockless systems. It has been only in the past few months that government entities have started discussing rules for these free-floating two-wheelers. In the meantime, numerous bikes and scooters are now whizzing across and strewn about in neighborhoods, inviting accidents more serious than tripping.

Safety Issues & Complaints Around Dockless Bikes And Scooters


Probably the most common complaint around dockless scooters and bikes is clutter. Many have been dropped off in the middle of a sidewalk, on private property, and even in front of doorways. This careless parking behavior not only creates a messy sight but it also poses tripping hazards for pedestrians.

Pedestrian Collisions & Head Injuries

Beyond the nuisance, however, dockless vehicles have shown potential for real danger. Though bikes and scooters are not allowed on California sidewalks, many riders zipp past pedestrians on city footpaths, risking collisions. In addition, numerous dockless riders ride without helmets, increasing their risk for serious head injuries. There are also concerns of users being allowed to ride while drunk.

Wearing helmets is mandatory for scooter riders in California and those under 18. In certain areas like the city of El Cerrito and Bidwell Park in Chico, helmets are required for everyone. Some dockless ride companies have implemented their own policies encouraging helmet use by their customers. Likewise, it is illegal in the state to ride a bicycle or motorized scooter while intoxicated.

Still, the dockless bike-sharing system seems to provide enough leeway for irresponsible riders to roam the streets. As newspapers and magazines have noted, this system is prone to abuse.

Cut Brake Cables

Careless riders aren’t the only ones endangering themselves and the people around them. In San Diego, just a few months after dockless bikes were launched, users have complained of bicycle brake cables being cut by vandals – a clear risk for unaware riders.

This form of vandalism has also been observed in Seattle, where bike-share companies are working with authorities to stop this dangerous trend.

Reported Dockless Bike & Motorized Scooter Accidents

While governments and law enforcement are trying to catch up with the dockless phenomenon, a number of accidents have already involved these modern vehicles. These are only some of the reported incidents:

  • In June this year, the California Highway Patrol said a woman sustained moderate injuries after crashing on her Lime scooter. She was arrested on suspicion of driving the scooter while intoxicated.
  • A woman sustained multiple skull fractures while her 11-year-old daughter suffered a ruptured spleen after their motorized scooter crashed in Mission Beach. Neither of them was wearing helmets while riding.
  • Just last week, a man in Indianapolis broke a facial bone when he hit a pothole and flew off his Bird scooter. He also wasn’t wearing a helmet.
  • Similarly, in Dallas, a woman was transported to the emergency room after falling forward on her rental scooter while encountering trolley tracks.
  • A devastating accident also occurred in Nashville involving two women who were each riding a Bird scooter without helmet. They were struck by a car and hospitalized in critical condition.
  • In Seattle, at least five collisions involving bike-share have been reported this year.
  • In Santa Monica, rental scooter accidents have included a broken arm and a severe head injury.

It is clear that the safety risks around bicycles and scooters are not mere trifles. Injuries involving these two-wheelers can be very costly or even life-threatening – including traumatic brain injury, severe fractures, amputations, and organ damage. The dockless bike-sharing system does not eliminate these risks at all.

Safety For Commuters

Are dockless bikes and scooters more dangerous than traditional ones? Functionally, the modern two-wheelers are not really different from their old-fashioned counterparts. Both are generally the same size and build and are pedaled the same way. So ,in terms of safety, there isn’t any clear difference between the two – except in the behavior of riders.

We’ve seen how dockless riders may ignore safety rules such as wearing helmets, staying in bike lanes, and driving sober. Perhaps these riders feel more uninhibited during their trips due to the relatively freer model of bike rental. Whatever the reason, the safety of commuters around dockless bikes and scooters must be prioritized.

As our lawmakers and enforcers are tackling this new issue, it’s important to remember that existing bicycle laws still cover dockless two-wheelers. Dockless riders are not exempt from traditional rules just because they are using bikes and scooters with a revolutionary business model. At least for now, Southern Californians must know there is some legal infrastructure in place that will help uphold their safety around these new vehicles.

California Laws On Dockless Bikes And Scooters

Alongside existing policies on bicycles and scooters, new rules are also gradually being adopted by California cities to deal with dockless modes of transportation. Here is a summary of these regulations, statewide and in several cities.

California Rules On Dockless Bikes

  • If you are under 18, you must wear a helmet when biking.
  • If the bike is motorized, you may operate it only if you are 16 or older.
  • Riding any kind of bicycle on the sidewalk is prohibited. You must ride on bike lane or on right-hand lane of the road.
  • It is prohibited to leave a bicycle lying on the sidewalk or parking it in a way that blocks pedestrians.
  • You may ride a bike at night only if it has proper lighting and reflectors to alert other commuters.
  • You must not operate a bicycle if you are under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

California Rules On Motorized Scooters

  • You may operate a motorized scooter only if you have a valid driver’s license or instruction permit.
  • You must wear a helmet when riding.
  • Riding on the sidewalk is prohibited. You must ride on the road.
  • You must not have a passenger on the scooter – in other words, no double-riding.
  • It is prohibited to leave a scooter lying on the sidewalk or parking it in a way that blocks pedestrians.
  • You may ride a scooter at night only if it has proper lighting to alert other vehicle drivers.
  • You must not operate a motorized scooter if you are under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

Coronado City Rules On Dockless Bikes

The City of Coronado bans the improper parking of dockless bikes along city streets, and it impounds the bikes that break this rule. As of the first week of July, the City has collected some 106 violating bicycles. Further, it is now planning to scrap the impounded bikes 90 days after they are collected.

San Diego Rules On Dockless Bikes And Scooters

San Diego has not quite made headway yet on regulating dockless vehicles. As of June 2018, city officials have brought up the idea of banning electric scooters from the boardwalks on Mission Beach, Pacific Beach, and La Jolla. However, the City Council rejected the emergency ordinance meant to implement the ban.

July was particularly significant as the city hosts what may be its biggest event of the year: the tourist-drawing San Diego Comic-Con (Comic Convention). Though there is currently no specific law city-wide, the Port of San Diego and the Convention Center has designated a few parking areas for dockless rentals. These include the grassy corner of First Avenue and Harbor Drive, the area adjacent to the pedestrian bridge stairs near Petco Park, and the area next to the public pathway at Embarcadero Marina Park North.

San Diego’s Mayor Speaks

The Mayor of San Diego Kevin Faulconer was interviewed on July 26th on AM760 and asked about his city’s dockless bike and scooter controversy and he had this to say:

“The good news is a lot of people are riding them… trying to provide the right type of incentives to get them (the bikes & scooters dropped off) in certain places and not others is really the next step. Look you want people to be able to use them and it’s great technology but you don’t want them everywhere.”

The mayor endorsed the dockless technology and trend but saw a need for it to be used according to the way it was intended. Vandalism, illegal parking, and sidewalk riding were all problems needing addressing but the mayor seemed intent to let dockless bikes continue operating while vendors and the city sought solutions. He said he hadn’t recalled seeing a specific lawsuit yet against the city regarding dockless bikes but he did say the city in general was sued for everything.

A recurring theme for the mayor was that he wanted more choices for public transportation and that dockless bikes were one of those options. Rather than limiting the future of dockless, the mayor expressed an interest in expanding the service to other areas of the city. Integrating dockless with the overall bicycle master plan for the city seemed a priority, as was an emphasis on keeping both pedestrians and cyclists safe through dedicated bike lanes and reduced vehicular traffic.

Los Angeles Rules On Dockless Scooters

The LA Department of Transportation has proposed these guidelines that are now awaiting approval from the Public Works Committee and the City Council:

  • Each dockless scooter company may provide no more than 3,000 scooters within LA. This limit may be increased under certain conditions, such as for low-income areas.
  • Each scooter must have a “No Riding On Sidewalks” label.

In the meantime, the city government has issued cease-and-desist letters to scooter companies while rules are yet to be enforced.

San Francisco Rules On Dockless Bikes And Scooters

SF is now implementing a year-long pilot program to issue permits to five dockless scooter companies. The permit will allow each company to provide up to 1,250 scooters in their first six months, to be increased to 2,500 in the year’s second half.

To be granted a permit, a vendor must submit plans for public safety, including their users’ helmet use, parking, and sidewalk prohibition. The city issued cease-and-desist letters to companies already operating, requiring them to apply for permits before they can return.

Santa Monica Rules On Dockless Bikes And Scooters

Like San Francisco, Santa Monica has set up a pilot program for dockless companies. Only two scooter companies and two bike companies will be allowed to operate under this 16-month program. However, each will have a dynamic cap on the number of scooters they may operate. Each will also be required to develop systems against improper parking, provide interactive safety education for its users, and increase helmet availability for riders.

What Are Dockless Companies Doing To Ensure Public Safety?

In cities where permitting programs have been rolled out, dockless rental companies are obliged to comply with city ordinances in order to apply for a permit. Outside of this, some vendors have been compelled to take steps towards improving safety around their vehicles.

Parking Photos & Free Helmets

Bird Scooters, for instance, has since implemented a system that requires its riders to submit a picture showing that the scooter is properly parked. The company also hands out free helmets to users who request them via the smartphone app. In addition to these, Bird has announced a pledge to conduct nightly retrieval of their scooters from city streets, and to inspect and repair them before repositioning them the following day.

Similarly, dockless bike company LimeBike has also required parking photos and started distributing helmets to users.

Dockless Companies Pushing For Legislation Change (California Legislative Bill 2989)

While these efforts may be geared towards safe riding, the dockless scooter industry has at the same time taken steps that seem to run counter to public safety. In particular, Bird has been pushing state legislation (Bill 2989) to legalize scooter-riding on sidewalks and to limit the scooter helmet requirement only to minors, exempting adults.

The bill has since been watered down and is now only focusing on the helmet provision.

The company says that it simply wants consistency in ridership rules for both e-bikes and e-scooters. But safety advocates and accident experts warn of the risks of this bill, citing the potentially fatal injuries that non-helmeted riders could suffer.

Who Is Liable In A Dockless Bike Or Scooter Accident?

Given the injury risks, the maze-like policies, and the formidable companies involved, you may be wondering about the legal remedies for those who are harmed in dockless rental accidents. Who should be held liable in these accidents? How can victims be compensated?

The current legal landscape allows dockless accident victims to claim compensation against various liable parties. Consider the following scenarios:

  • Product liability of dockless rental companies. Vendors may be held liable if it is found that their bikes or scooters were defective, leading to an accident.
  • Responsibility of dockless companies to operate lawfully. Now that dockless safety laws are gradually being enforced, rental companies must abide by these laws in their operations. If a crash occurred because a dockless vendor wasn’t complying with safety regulations, victims may be able to claim against that vendor.
  • Claiming against a third-party motorist. If an injurious collision occurred involving a negligent driver of a car or other vehicle, that driver may be considered liable.
  • Responsibility of negligent dockless rider. A user of a dockless scooter or bike could face a negligence claim if they violated existing rules – for example, by riding on the sidewalk or riding while intoxicated.
  • Claiming against government entities. If an accident was caused by a dangerous condition on the road, such as a bump or a pothole, the public agency responsible for maintaining that road may be considered liable.

It could certainly prove challenging to take legal action after a dockless bike or scooter crash. Still, it is very possible for victims to pursue a successful case, and their victories could mean more than their compensation.

At this point, when the law is still playing catch-up to this disruptive new model of commuting, successful cases of personal injury or wrongful death could help refine emerging policies. They could also encourage dockless companies and riders to always prioritize safety – their own and that of people around them.



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