Have you been following the political challenges facing scooter companies?

Here’s the story: companies like Lime, Bird, and Scoot launched their shared scooter service rentals in a handful of markets.

Much like bikesharing, these companies are facing a new set of regulatory challenges.  Los Angeles and Santa Monica residents woke up to Bird’s scooters appearing on their sidewalks seemingly overnight with no docking or charging infrastructure and no prior approval from government officials. Residents complained about scooters blocking wheelchair ramps and building entrances.

Officials in San Francisco reacted by sending cease-and-desist notices to Lime and Bird.  City Attorney Dennis Herrera said the the companies were, “…creating a public nuisance on the city’s streets and sidewalks and endangering public health and safety.” (Read more from Fast Company here). 

Now, city officials asking for location data fto help track scooter locations, opening up a  new set of challenges.  Joseph Jerome, policy counsel for the Center for Democracy and Technology’s data and privacy project believes that, “This sort of combination of private data in public hands is going to be a bigger and bigger issue, and when it’s geolocation there are some particular questions.”  Read more from Politico here.

These products have the opportunity to change how people commute, especially in downtown areas where parking may be tight and transit may not fully meet commuter needs.  But dropping off a product in the middle of the street for other customers to use doesn’t fit nicely into most local ordinances.  These companies will face a wide range of political battles, ranging from privacy and safety to zoning and taxation. 

Here are six things we can learn from the the first scooter political battles.

  1. Waiting for regulatory permission to launch isn’t a winning strategy. These companies were smart to launch without  permission from city officials. Waiting for local government to proactively approve a new product isn’t a winning business model. When it comes to launching a new product, disruption can be a good place to start.
  2. But disruption isn’t a long-term strategy. Disruption is a tactic. But disruption isn’t a long-term strategy or a message. Once you’ve launched and established a product, it’s time to build political support and communicate how you provide value to the community.
  3. Regulators don’t know how to legislative new technology, and that’s both a threat and an opportunity.   Companies who try new things face threats when regulators don’t understand the product and business model.   But they also have an opportunity to proactively define how regulators should approach their product.   Here’s an example of that proatice approach: when Uber expanded to the Philippines, they succeeded by taking a different approach and proactively proposing a framework for regulations. Their efforts led to the “world’s first framework of regulations for app-based ride-hailing” and helped the company avoid the challenges it faced in other markets. 
  4. Each community may be unique but these campaigns will follow a similar model.  Investments in pubilc opinion research, data, and advertising campaigns can be replicated across all of these campaigns.  Building relationships with pro-growth/pro-density groups could lead to result across multiple campaigns.  Scooter companies should invest now in building models, structure, and relationships.
  5. There’s an opportunity to convert customers into advocates.  These companies have a remarkable amount of data about their customers but the process to move customers to advocates can’t happen overnight.  This process starts with including advocacy opt-ins at the time of purchase and looking for ways to continually move customers closer to political engagement through education, small asks, and a structure where customers can engage in advocacy efforts.
  6. Astroturf operations won’t be enough. Effective grassroots and communicaty engagement programs aren’t as simple as asking users nationally to send messages to a city council   Santa Monica city officials commented that they were indunated from messages from people who weren’t residents, which will have less impact than personal stories from local residents.  They’ll need to build grassroots structure and engage local residents.

Quick summary:
Waiting for regulators to catch up to technology isn’t a winning strategy: “disruption” can be a smart tactic to launching a new product but it’s not a long-term strategy.  Scooter companies will need to develop a proactive community engagement plans when expanding to a new market.  This starts with developing model legislation and an organizing model that they can imlpement in any new market.  These are the first political battles these companies will face, but they definitely won’t be the last. 

 

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