As second cities like Austin, Nashville, and Phoenix experience a population surge, a big problem has emerged: traffic

"We say 'yesterday was the best traffic day you'll ever see in Nashville' -- it gets worse everyday," says Nashville metropolitan councilman Jeremy Elrod. "It used to take 15 minutes to get around town, now it takes 45 minutes and up to an hour."

Yet, these cities are having a hard time making swift changes or improving public infrastructure on their own. In early May, a 30-year transportation referendum that would cost billions of dollars in tax dollars to improve public transportation in Nashville failed.

Enter fast-moving, venture-backed e-scooter companies, which have already touted themselves in big cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco as ways to ease traffic. They can move in overnight (literally) and offer a small city a flashy transportation alternative -- although critics complain they're flouting rules, causing major headaches, and not reducing traffic.

Back in March, Lime, Spin, and Bird caused an uproar in San Francisco after all three companies launched at the same time, bringing thousands of e-scooters to the sidewalks of the city. The result was not pretty--angry government officials banded together to draft e-scooter regulations, community members vandalized scooters, there were two tense public meetings, and a Facebook developer even broke a wrist.

The situation is now repeating itself, to a lesser extent, in a number of smaller cities across the U.S. While the e-scooter companies say they'll ease off on their aggressive expansion until after they've received explicit permission, there is still evidence of what some say is an Uber-inspired strategy of "launch first, ask for forgiveness later." 

Consider what recently happened in Nashville. On May 7, a day after the company emailed Nashville officials telling them they would launch, Bird deployed about 100 scooters, parking them illegally on sidewalks and blocking the public right of way, says Nashville city attorney Theresa Costonis. Within two days, the Nashville government sent a cease-and-desist letter, demanding the company respect public areas and educate users about traffic laws, and giving the company 15 days to comply. Within a week of launch, two women riding one scooter -- which is against Bird's user agreement -- got hit by a car and were sent to the Vanderbilt Medical Center in critical but stable condition.

Local governments say they welcome alternative transportation options, but they're not happy when startups like Bird and Lime blatantly break city ordinances or hire lobbyists to get pro-scooter laws on the books. 

"Bird is trying to take Nashville by storm," says Councilman Elrod, who is now drafting regulations to help the city integrate scooters safely. Nashville doesn't want to ban the scooters, but it wants to figure out how e-scooters fit into the range of tourist-centric transportation options already servicing downtown Nashville, including pedicabs, golf carts, and "pedal taverns," which are like tandem bikes that fit a bartender serving drinks and about 12 passengers. (Ofo, the bike-share company, is also running pilot programs at Vanderbilt University and other nearby schools.) "We all wish Bird talked to us beforehand. Now they are forcing our hand."

In response to the cease and desist, Bird sent Nashville officials a list of actions it has taken to make things better, including $1 million commercial liability coverage, a helmet giveaway this weekend, and a feature in the mobile app that will force riders to submit a picture of how they parked the scooter.

In a statement, Bird spokesman Kenneth Baer summed up Bird's position, saying the general idea that companies must "ask for permission" from government entities "is inconsistent with our system of law and free enterprise."

Nashville isn't the only place where tensions are flaring. In the tony community of Scottsdale, Arizona, government officials say they only learned about Bird after it deployed scooters in May. There too, Bird was met with a cease-and-desist letter and threats of $400 fines for breaking city ordinances, like parking scooters on public property and sidewalks. Assistant City Manager Brent Stockwell says Scottsdale is debating further enforcement actions but has allowed the company to operate while officials draft regulations for e-scooter companies. Stockwell also asked other companies to put off launch until the city has regulations up and running.

Lime is also causing a stir s it expands to new markets. The company was ordered to remove its scooters from Charlotte, North Carolina after launching in early May before the city gave approval. Lime also launched its e-scooter program in Oahu, Hawaii in May without getting permission first and local police started confiscating the scooters. The company shut down its Hawaii operations May 19.  

In Tempe, city officials have been more lenient with Bird since its May launch. That's partly because Tempe started dealing with bike-share companies including Lime last year. Councilman Randy Keating says the community is still getting used to dockless bikes and scooters, but the city wants to embrace the new modes of transportation.

Tempe is experiencing "a rapid population boom," Keating says, and needs to fix its growing traffic problem. "We are getting denser, and we need more transportation options," he says. "If we want to get people out of their cars, I think ride-share bikes and e-scooters are the future of transportation in urban environments."

After Lime and Bird were booted from Austin in April, Bird received a permit to operate in the city on Wednesday. 

The e-scooter startups seem to be betting that traffic-clogged cities--or at least the people who live there--will eventually want their products. At Spin, co-founder Euwyn Poon says the company plans to balance the need to partner with city officials with its own need for "aggressive expansion." When it comes to identifying markets, he says there is a simple strategy--find cities with "growing urban density and good weather," not to mention "a young mobile population with a key downtown area." 

Although Bird and Lime are gaining market share while Spin says its waiting to partner with cities in new markets, Poon says he's not worried. Spin grew its bike-share program to 30,000 bikes across 68 markets, and he believes it will do the same with Spin scooters.

This story was updated on May 24 to reflect how Lime had to shut down its operations in Charlotte, NC and Oahu, Hawaii after launching without permission. 

Published on: May 24, 2018