UC Berkeley must work to introduce scooters on campus

Alexander Hong/Staff

The UC Berkeley campus sits within a complex ecosystem of mobility options including a BART station, a series of bus lines, shuttles, five Ford GoBike stations, and the Loop golf-cart service, which provides rides for people with physical impairments. Missing from this mix of modes are dockless electric scooters, which so far have made inroads into a growing number of cities and campuses around the world and by some metrics have been among the fastest-adopted mobility options ever released.

In November, the UC Berkeley Parking and Transportation department posted an opening for a “mobility solutions intern,” indicating there is interest in bringing scooters to campus as well as expanding bike-sharing. For this to work, and it can work, Berkeley must avoid the pitfalls that have dogged other scooter rollouts and commit to the following three principles: accessibility, competition and flexibility.

Starting with accessibility, scooters have the advantage of taking up very little room when parked, particularly compared to cars. With careful regulation, the campus can make the most of the benefits of scooters while minimizing problems that may arise with careless use. To avoid the potential issue of scooters impeding access to buildings, stairwells, ramps or paths, Berkeley should mandate that scooters be parked at bike racks.

On top of this, designated scooter parking zones should be established, following the lead of the city of Santa Monica, which introduced in-street and sidewalk-based scooter drop zones. These entail painted grids either in place of car parking spots or in the “furniture zone” of sidewalks — the technical term for the section of walkways closest to roads. Indeed, the abundance of car parking spots at UC Berkeley offer ideal candidates for new scooter zones.

Just as cars and bicycles have dedicated spaces for being parked on campus, scooters must also be addressed the same way in terms of physical space and clear signage. Furthermore, accessibility does not just relate to scooters blocking access, but also to who is able to use them. While most electric scooters require a user to be standing, some operators have also released models that allow riders to sit, which Berkeley should ensure is part of any permitted fleet. It is important to note that these vehicles are different from bicycles; they are fully powered by an electric motor, which means people unable to pedal on bikes can still have scooters as an option to fit their needs.

UC Berkeley Parking and Transportation must avoid permitting just a single scooter operator and instead pursue multiple companies so that there is pressure for service improvement and product differentiation, including models that accommodate different user types. The city of Berkeley made the mistake of forming an exclusive bike-sharing agreement with Motivate — the operator of the Ford GoBike system — which has kept the city from approving scooters or dockless bikes. That has meant that while cities to the north and south of Berkeley enjoy both dockless bike and scooters, such as those provided by the company Lime, riders cannot use those modes to reach UC Berkeley. Ensuring that more than one scooter company can operate on campus is a simple way to avoid a mobility monopoly and guarantee that there is choice in terms of hardware, software and pricing.

In terms of choices in pricing, just as the campus partnered with Ford GoBike to provide discounted memberships to students, it should also work with permitted scooter operators to ensure rides are affordable for all members of the campus community. This could come in the form of student discounts or incentive programs that allow scooter operators to increase their vehicle fleet size if certain ridership figures are met, which encourages lower pricing.

Finally, for scooters to work at UC Berkeley, there needs to be flexibility in terms of geographic regulation and fleet sizing. The biggest pitfall so far regarding dockless scooters and bikes has been the incorrect setting of fleet sizes. Allowing operators to release an unlimited number of scooters has led to sidewalk and curb crowding, and scooters left in heaps. The opposite problem — too few scooters — results in unreliable systems because users cannot be sure a scooter will be nearby when needed, which is an issue that has dogged San Francisco.

Flexibility also relates to the geofence, or the boundary within which UC Berkeley permits users to operate or park scooters. Rather than slice the campus into a series of allowed and prohibited zones, scooters should start with the ability to be parked at any bike rack on campus and in other painted zones. If site-specific problems occur, a resolution such as a partial geofence restriction can be put in place. It is far better to open scooters up broadly and see where users take them than to try to hypothesize where they will and will not go. Relatedly, UC Berkeley should also significantly increase the number of bike racks on campus, which today is inadequate and pales in comparison to bike infrastructure at other universities such as Stanford.

Successful introduction of scooters to campus is no small thing. Today, transportation represents roughly 40 percent of California’s carbon emissions, which signals that we urgently need to pursue alternative means of getting around.

Although not a silver bullet, scooters represent a promising, sustainable and fun option.

It is exciting that the UC Berkeley campus is tiptoeing its way toward launching dockless scooters, and this action will benefit the university if it proceeds by ensuring broad access, allowing for multiple operators and regulating these vehicles in a flexible manner.

Marcel Moran is a doctoral student in the department of city and regional planning at UC Berkeley.