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Scooters Outrun Law

A Commentary By John Stossel

I just zipped down a city street on an electric scooter. It cost me 15 cents a minute. Fast and fun!

My scooter was just lying on the ground. I picked it up, activated it with my phone and rode away. When I was done, I simply abandoned it.

Won't it be stolen? No, because you need an app to activate the scooter and a GPS device keeps track of it.

My wife loves using the newish Citi Bike shared bicycles that are locked in a big dock near our apartment. They were a good innovation.

But then entrepreneurs came up with "dockless" bikes. They're even better.

Better still are these shared scooters. They're small, flexible, cheap and convenient. Maybe these scooters will be the next revolution in urban transit!

But politicians may kill them off before we get a chance to find out how useful they are.

Some places have already banned the scooters. San Francisco said they "endanger public health and safety." City attorney Dennis Herrera complained about "broken bones, bruises, and near misses."

Sigh. Yet San Francisco also complains about not having enough transportation options.

In San Francisco and other cities, scooter companies tried doing what Uber and Airbnb did: They dodged destructive regulation by simply putting their services out on the street, hoping that by the time sleepy regulators noticed them, they would be too popular to ban.

That worked for Uber and Airbnb. We consumers got cool new ways to travel and alternatives to hotels, and investors got rich -- all because they didn't ask for permission. Permissionless innovation brings good things.

But flying under the radar is harder for scooter companies. Scooters on sidewalks are very visible.

"Unfortunately," Mercatus Center tech policy analyst Jennifer Skees told me for my latest video, "cities haven't learned from their experiences with companies like Uber and Airbnb. They want innovators to come ask for permission and go through the regulatory processes."

But the "regulatory processes" take years. "That prevents consumers from accessing a transportation option that could be accessible now!" said Skees.

After a four-month ban, San Francisco granted permits to two small scooter companies. The politicians stiffed Lime and Bird, the innovators that started the business -- presumably because they didn't kiss the politicians' rings and beg for permission first.

Still, even I acknowledge that there may be a role for government here. A public square needs some rules. Scooters, especially speedy electric scooters, can be dangerous.

"We haven't seen a large number of accidents or injuries," says Skees. "We don't ban bicycles because somebody might get hurt. ... Social norms (like hand signals) will evolve."

Whenever there's something new, the media hype the problems. The L.A. Times reports that some people hate the scooters so much that they "have been crammed into toilets, tossed off balconies and set on fire." Internet videos show scooters abandoned in the Pacific Ocean.

But scooter companies say the vandalism isn't so bad.

"It's a low percentage," said Lime's Maggie Gendron. In one city, "we had 10,000 rides and 18 vandalism complaints."

I wanted to try out scooters in my state, New York, but I couldn't, because craven politicians who claim to represent me banned scooters.

So I took our camera crews to a city that's been more reasonable.

Oddly, that's a place that overregulates most everything: Washington, D.C. But the capital embraced scooters.

So, the district has transportation that is green and good exercise and takes up less space than cars.

Maybe politicians will find it in their hearts to leave scooters, their makers and customers alone.

One innovation can make many others possible.

Cars take people to jobs they couldn't do in their own neighborhoods, allowing them to collaborate with people they might never have met if they walked or rode horses.

Planes, trains and ships bring down costs by allowing inventors to use exotic materials they can't find in their own back yards.

If any of those forms of transportation had been crushed by regulation, we'd never know how many benefits we'd lost.

Don't kill scooters. Let's see where they take us.

John Stossel is author of "No They Can't! Why Government Fails -- But Individuals Succeed." For other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit www.creators.com.



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