Monetizing the Public Commons

If you look at Uber, or Lyft, or Airbnb,* onc cannot help but wonder if the source of these organizations business prospects is an attempt to make money from taking something of value from the rest of us.

For Uber and Lyft, it is increased congestion in cities, along with not paying drivers a living wage, while with Airbnb, it is skyrocketing rents as non-resident investors bid up the prices of homes.

The same is true of scooters, which The Independent properly describes as a plague.

With all of them, you have private entities making sidewalks less usable because of the people using the sidewalks, and for dockless scooters, you further have them strewn randomly around sidewalks, creating a falling hazard and blocking access for the disabled.

This is not high tech entrepreneurship, this is tech bros with more venture capital money than ethics taking the public pathways that we already paid for from us.

The technical term for this is, “Negative Externalities,” but I will call it a theft of the commons:

In cities all over Europe, in every cafe, people are talking about the same thing. No, not Brexit: it’s those damn electric scooters.

The plague started last year and has spread like wildfire: Brussels to Lisbon, Paris to Wroclaw. Silicon Valley start-ups showed up one day with vans full of them – an oversized, motorised version of the children’s toy everyone knows. They dumped them on pavements; you can find and rent them with a smartphone app and ride them around town.

If this sounds pretty cool, it actually isn’t. On the surface they look like a futuristic, green transport solution: but the problems have quickly become obvious everywhere they spring up.

They need little advertising because people start literally tripping over them as soon as they appear. The scooters, which are surprisingly large and heavy, litter public places by design, blocking pavements and making life particularly difficult for people with reduced mobility. In most larger cities there are also something like six competing systems – blocking about six times as much pavement as necessary. Their loud alarms, triggered by drunk people trying to ride them without paying, are a familiar drone in the early hours of the morning. And a string of deaths of people riding them – and collisions with people who were just walking along minding their own business – have spurred city authorities into action. It’s the free market at its best.

Britain, almost alone, has managed to stay mostly scooter free: saved by its strict road regulations. One law dating from 1853 bans the riding of a “carriage of any description” on the pavement – while licensing rules mean that they would have to be insured and number plated to be ridden on the roads. Thus the dockless schemes are de facto banned. The UK has got this absolutely spot on: they are neither appropriate to ride on the pavement, nor any different from any other motorised vehicle.


Could they be tamed and become a useful part of cities’ transport mix? A docking scheme – similar to the one used by Boris Bikes – would solve the biggest issue: the blocking of pavements. But of course, the tech firms pushing them haven’t bothered with that – they would have to apply for planning permission, and buying land in prime city centres would probably render the whole thing unprofitable. Better just to fly-tip their product wherever they fancy: I have seen it in Brussels, at 3am: men silently unloading scooters out of an unmarked van and leaving them on the pavement, like a reverse burglary.

There’s also no reason in principle why individuals couldn’t simply buy and own an electric scooter like they own a bike or car. Most of the problems come from the dockless rental system which encourages user to leave them strewn around the place.

Also, why, when you can get a ticket for riding a bicycle without a helmet, are the helmet laws not being enforced.

With docked scooters, at least, there is a requirement that the businesses pay for their own storage infrastructure, as opposed to obstructing the sidewalks, but, of course, that won’t attract the VC bucks.

*Full disclosure, I use Airbnb.

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