Years after they became a common sight elsewhere in the Bay Area, electric scooter and bicycle rentals could soon make their legal debut in Berkeley after the City Council approved a long-delayed set of regulations for the micromobility industry late Tuesday.
Council members, representatives from scooter companies and bicycle and pedestrian advocates cheered the new rules, saying they open the door for a wider array of transportation options in the city. And while concerns remain about scooter riders zipping past pedestrians or cluttering sidewalks with discarded devices, supporters said Berkeley’s rules include provisions meant to deter bad behavior that draw on lessons learned elsewhere.
“That first period as these were emerging in cities across the country was mayhem,” Councilmember Rigel Robinson said. “It is good to have let that mayhem unfold and learn from that — learn from the mistakes operators made, learn from the mistakes cities made, and instate a really thoughtful program that hits the challenges head-on.”
Dockless scooters and shared bikes from companies such as Skip and Lime began popping up in Berkeley in 2018, even though the city did not have any rules on the books allowing them to operate. Officials began working on regulations for micromobility companies soon after that, but then put the process on hold in 2019 because of a class-action lawsuit against the City of Oakland alleging that haphazardly parked scooters were making it difficult and dangerous for people with mobility impairments to navigate sidewalks. Berkeley resumed its work on a permit program after the lawsuit was settled this spring; in the meantime scooters have not been allowed in the city.
Companies will likely be able to start applying for permits to operate in Berkeley in the coming weeks, and the services could launch as soon as mid-November.
Proponents say scooters and e-bikes — which use electric motors to supplement the power riders generate by pedaling, making it easier to travel uphill or over long distances — give people more ways to take trips without using a car.
“Establishing this long-awaited program will further the city’s mobility, climate and safety goals,” Ben Gerhardstein of the advocacy group Walk Bike Berkeley said in comments to the City Council.
The permit program allows for up to three operators to offer micromobility rentals, with no cap on the number of devices they can deploy. They will have to pay $1,500 to apply for a permit, $15,000 per year if they get the permit and $64 per device, fees the city says are meant to ensure the permit program is cost-neutral.
The regulations prohibit users from riding scooters or e-bikes on sidewalks, and require companies to put signs reading “no riding on sidewalks” in large print on each device they deploy. Vehicles will have their speeds capped at 15 miles per hour, though public works officials agreed to look into raising that limit to 20 miles per hour for e-bikes following a request from Walk Bike Berkeley.
City officials will also have the power to restrict devices from certain areas, a practice known as “geofencing.” One area is already off-limits, at least for now: UC Berkeley policies prohibit parking shared scooters anywhere on campus, though spokesman Dan Mogulof said the university is working to adopt a scooter policy of its own.
To keep parked devices from blocking sidewalks or driveways, Berkeley will require that they be locked to bike racks at the end of each trip. Operators will have to staff a 24-hour hotline to handle calls about improperly parked scooters or bikes, and must clean up offending devices within 3 hours of receiving a complaint.
City staff also said they will consider creating rules that would allow operators to rent street parking spaces to use as corrals for scooters and e-bikes — another Walk Bike Berkeley suggestion, which supporters said would help drive home the message that devices shouldn’t be ridden on sidewalks.
But George Porter, a member of the city’s Commission on Aging, was skeptical that those restrictions would be effective in ensuring shared scooters and bikes are used safely. Porter called for the council to consider a pilot program restricted to certain areas, rather than legalizing them city-wide.
“You’re going to throw it out there, and if you have problems … who is going to suffer?” he asked. “The elders, the disabled, parents with children in strollers.”
Although some members of the City Council expressed qualms about rider and pedestrian safety, they ultimately voted unanimously to approve the new regulations and touted the role they could play in Berkeley’s transportation landscape.
“This is really important to ensure access to our BART stations as we think about developing them and reducing the amount of parking,” Councilmember Rashi Kesarwani said. “This is really going to expand the radius of people who can get to the station without needing to rely on a car.”