SAN FRANCISCO — The e-scooter boom began in Santa Monica, California, about 16 months ago.
Electric scooters, owned by startups looking to mimic the success of ride-hailing companies like Uber, appeared around town.
The idea was simple: Use a smartphone app to rent a scooter and then leave it at the end of the ride for the next person.
Soon, people in cities from San Francisco to Paris were complaining that the scooters were all over sidewalks — usually without the approval of local officials.
In Portland city officials worried they would soon get a flock of uninvited scooters. So they established a four-month pilot program in July with a limit on scooters and a requirement that companies share detailed data about trips and injuries with city officials.
That data, released Tuesday by the city’s Bureau of Transportation, offers the most detailed analysis of the impact of e-scooters on a city.
Scooters often replaced short car trips in Portland, offering support for one of the biggest selling points the companies have made to communities: They can help reduce congestion and pollution. And the scooters did not lead to as many injuries as some feared.
It is not yet clear if scooter companies can comply with different cities’ tight and varying limits and still be profitable. The programs often cap the number of scooters and dictate which neighborhoods they ought to be in.
“That is not letting the market determine how many scooters should be anywhere,” said Gabriel Scheer, Lime’s director of strategic development.
Portland officials are using the pilot program to make a big point with startups: It is better to ask permission and work with local regulators than risk being run out of a community.
That has not always been the case among startups.
Ride-hailing companies like Uber and Lyft and rental company Airbnb have usually jumped into new markets before local regulators have time to understand their businesses. For the scooter startups, not asking for permission has had consequences. After Lime and Bird began to operate without permission in San Francisco, the city instituted a permit system — and issued permits to only Skip and another smaller competitor, Scoot, effectively locking out Lime and Bird.
Some cities simply impounded the scooters.
“A lot of these companies roll into town, flout local regulations, see what they can get away with and how far they can push cities to accommodate them,” said Chloe Eudaly, a Portland city commissioner. “I feel like there is somewhat of a reversal of that trend among these companies and they are learning that’s not necessarily the best way to do business.”
Bird, Lime and Skip received permits to operate in Portland.
They handed over a wealth of data about scooter rides, giving city regulators access to information about where each trip started, the route it followed, where it ended and what time of day it occurred. Personal information on riders, such as payment data, was not shared. Portland capped the number of scooters at about 2,000, roughly divided among the three companies. The data Portland collected allowed the city to assess whether e-scooters live up to their promises of reducing pollution and congestion.
According to a citywide survey, 34 percent of residents who used the scooters and took a survey said they had used e-scooters to replace driving their own car or taking an Uber. City officials had concerns about accessibility and safety, but saw low rates of injury and will continue to study those issues during a second test run. Over the four-month program, Portlanders took 700,369 scooter rides. Nineteen percent of those rides occurred between 3 and 6 p.m. on weekdays. It was a small sample size compared with other cities. In Paris, which has no scooter cap, Lime provided more than 1 million rides over four months.
When the Portland pilot effort ended in November, all of the e-scooters were cleared off the streets. The city is planning a second, yearlong pilot program in the spring but has not decided how many scooters it will allow, a spokesman said.
“It seemed like a little bit of carnival on our streets for a while, but I think they definitely have potential to make our city easier to navigate for a lot of different people in different ways,” Eudaly said.