Article Correctness Is Author's Responsibility: The California Legislature Is Getting Played by Micromobility Companies

If you are a Californian expecting your city’s leaders to provide an equitable, safe mix of transportation options, you may soon have a problem. State legislators in Sacramento are debating a bill that would strip away many of the tools cities using to shape policies for micromobility devices (e-scooters, e-bikes, and dockless bikes) offered by companies like Bird, Lime, and Jump.

Should it become law in its current form, Assembly bill 1112 (AB 1112) could curtail cities’ ability to: ensure micromobility access in underprivileged communities, establish caps on the total number of vehicles, or collect trip information to improve transportation policy. In a Democratic, urbanized state, it’s surprising to see legislators consider such an infringement on local authority.

As approved by the Legislature’s Assembly committee on April 30, AB 1112 includes language that would prevent local micromobility regulations “requiring operation below cost.” That could block cities from pursuing equity goals, such as Oakland’s requirement that half of all shared e-scooters be placed in “communities of concern” as identified by the Bay Area Metropolitan Transportation Commission. Without cities pushing micromobility companies to provide equitable access, it’s likely that residents in less affluent neighborhoods would have a tougher time finding a ride.  

The bill goes further, banning any “unduly restrictive” local e-scooter regulations. That language could be used to challenge caps on the total number of shared e-scooters permitted in places like San Francisco and Los Angeles. We’ve already seen in cities like Dallas the chaos that can follow an absence of rules around micromobility deployment.

AB 1112 has national significance, as California has long been ground zero for new mobility technologies. Lyft, Lime, and Uber are all based in San Francisco, and Bird is headquartered in Santa Monica. The first dockless e-scooters launched in Santa Monica in September 2017, and Los Angeles is the largest American city where shared e-scooters are currently legal.

AB 1112 would ban California cities from collecting individual trip data, allowing them to collect only aggregated data from micromobility companies. This would effectively kill Los Angeles’s groundbreaking digital tool, the Mobility Data Specification (MDS) that allows cities to monitor individual micromobility trips in real time and issue guidance to the companies providing them. Cities including Santa Monica, Seattle, Providence, and Louisville are currently using MDS to inform their e-scooter policies.

MDS has been controversial, with critics like the Center for Democracy and Technology claiming that the collection of individual trip data by the public sector jeopardizes the privacy of micromobility users. But defenders of MDS tout the data’s value to policymakers facing decisions like where to install a bike lane or how to ensure e-scooter availability in low-income communities. Last month Los Angeles began requiring scooter companies to provide data through MDS—over the strong objections of Jump, the micromobility provider owned by Uber.

To be fair, critics of MDS have argued that the use of aggregated trip data—which has fewer privacy risks compared with individual data—could still resolve the specific policy questions city officials face. Mobility data wonks are engaging in robust debates on that complex issue, and it’s hard to see why the blunt instrument of a state mandate is the right way to resolve them.

There is a term for this kind of state-based limitation on local power: preemption. In recent years preemption has become a common tool for Republican state legislatures to block policies enacted by Democratic cities, such as Ann Arbor’s attempted ban on plastic bags or Charlotte’s support for transgender-friendly bathrooms. In the urban mobility world, preemption has allowed Uber and Lyft to overcome local pushback against ride hail services. In Austin, residents voted in 2016 to require ride hail companies to conduct background checks on drivers, only to be forced into a reversal by Texas legislators.

With that history, it’s unsurprising that mobility companies would support preemption to block local micromobility policies as well. Uber, Lyft, and Bird have signed a letter of support for AB 1112 and they are seen as its primary advocates. Melanie Ensign, head of security and privacy communications for Uber, says her company backs the bill, especially the ban on cities collecting trip-level data through a tool like MDS: “We’re opposed to cities collecting any route information that could identify an individual.”

Fair enough, but why are legislators in deep blue, urbanized California inserting themselves into debates between city leaders and mobility companies, especially when we are just starting to understand the impacts of these new technologies on cities? As Kate Fillin-Yeh, director of strategy for the National Association of City Transportation Officials, observes, “there are not yet established best practices that should be codified at the state level.”

Micromobility companies have every right to lobby local officials, but it’s another matter entirely to do an end run around city hall and take their case straight to Sacramento. As the League of California Cities noted in opposing AB 1112, “shared mobility is a local jurisdictional matter. [C]ities are responsible for managing sidewalks, streets, and public spaces…[and] are responsible for the enforcement of and compliance with local and state laws that govern the public right-of-way.”

As much attention as emerging technologies like shared e-scooters and e-bikes attract, they aren’t the first new mobility services to affect urban transportation networks, and they won’t be the last. From electric unicycles to autonomous shuttles to drones, a number of new technologies are now beginning to appear on city streets—and they will be followed by others that we can’t even conceive of yet. How can we expect urban officials to harness the rapid evolution of mobility technology to promote safety and equitable access if those officials are hamstrung by state legislatures?