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Why There Are So Many Scooters in Los Angeles

January 7, 2020, 7:02 AM UTC

Los Angeles has become a breeding ground for electric scooter companies eager to take the lead in the second most populous city in the U.S. since it launched its pilot program in March. After 10 months, the Los Angeles Department of Transportation has logged 19 million scooter rides and expects the vehicles to play a role in relieving congestion from the traffic-stricken city, its leader says.

“People need choices, and that’s really what it comes down to,” said Seleta Reynolds, general manager of the Los Angeles Department of Transportation, at a Fortune Brainstorm Tech dinner in Las Vegas on Monday night. “And Lord have mercy, people need choices in Los Angeles.”

About 65% of all trips taken in the city are shorter than 5 miles and 85% of those trips are taken by people who drive alone in their cars, Reynolds said. The dinner kicked off CES, the annual technology trade show, and the LADOT official was speaking as part of a mobility panel discussion that included Pamela Fletcher of General Motors and Franz Reiner of Daimler Mobility.

Reynolds explained why Los Angeles chose not to stifle the number of scooter companies entering the city. “I did not want to put my finger on the scale; I did not want to artificially deflate the market,” she said. “I wanted every company that wanted to come to L.A. to come and be able to compete.”

Los Angeles’ approach to scooters vastly differs from cities like San Francisco, which initially banned scooters before handing out permits to select scooter companies for a limited number of scooters, and Atlanta, which banned scooter use at night after several deaths. Cities’ biggest qualms with electric scooters are citizen safety and a supply that threatens to overwhelm sidewalks.

Without regulation, scooter companies are able to deploy an endless number of scooters that can be haphazardly piled on street corners, parked in private driveways, and thrown in bodies of water. (Yes, really.) They also present a new danger to drivers on the roads as well as scooter riders, who may not be skilled at operating the vehicle. 

Reynolds—who came to LA after working for San Francisco’s transportation department—says in Los Angeles, data has shown that scooters only represent a small portion of severe injuries and have yet to result in a death. While she admits that the electric scooter market still has some work to do to eliminate some of the “chaos,” she said a lot of the frustration from residents is stems from change. 

To the city’s department of transportation, scooters represent a piece of the larger ecosystem that aims to provide transit options for everyone. Unfortunately, everyone has yet to be equally served, said Reynolds.

“They’re solving a real problem,” she said. “But what they’re not doing is deploying in low income neighborhoods that don’t have other choices and where folks may not be able to afford a vehicle.”

Los Angeles’ department of transportation is exploring what role it can play to incentivize companies to equally serve low-income neighborhoods, Reynolds said. Ride-hailing and scooter companies have to be part of the bigger picture, she added.

“We invest in public transit because it returns a public good,” Reynolds said. “We need to start expanding that definition.” 

For more from the CES dinner, read “Google’s Waymo Reaches 20 Million Miles of Autonomous Driving” by Aaron Pressman.

Fortune’s annual, invite-only Brainstorm Tech conference will take place from July 13 to 15, 2020 in Aspen. For more information, click here.