Lock-to or not
17 September, 2020
The DC Council is working on an update of the bill setting the rules of e-scooter usage in the US capital. Aside from requirements for territorial equity or scooter rules signage, the Council is willing to introduce a “lock-to” requirement to solve the bad parking behavior issue.
Lock-to mechanisms landed in our streets together with bike-sharing: Call-a-Bike launched in 2000 the first “free-floating” bike-share service, where users have to lock their bike to a rack. If it remains a common feature for any docked bike-share system, in order to allow riders to pause during their ride, it is more of a rare sight for free-floating solutions: with the noticeable exception of Jump, most providers chose to trust smart wheel locks only.
Lock-to requirement is a US thing for e-scooters. It first appeared in San Francisco, CA, where Skip and Spin secured the first e-scooter sharing licenses partly thanks to this feature. The next year, it became a requirement for all operators in the City of the Bay. Denver, CO, Minneapolis, MN, and Chicago, IL, followed suite in 2020 with their second e-scooter sharing pilot: “This new requirement aims to reduce dangerous sidewalk clutter and maintain clear pathways for all Chicagoans who depend on unobstructed sidewalks, especially residents with disabilities”. Washington, DC, would then be the fifth city to implement it.
One solution, multiple drawbacks
In every city where free-floating micromobility services launched – would it be bikes or scooters -, authorities legitimately worry about public space occupation and respect of the public right-of-way.
As mentioned, lock-to mechanisms were the first solution implemented to enforce good parking behavior, when Skip and Scoot unveiled its solution in San Francisco back in 2018. Riders have to activate the cable lock to end their ride, a way to incentivize to park on dedicated parking spaces, or on the curb. The technology requires additional steps in the user process to enforce the lock usage: most apps ask to send a picture of the parked scooter, but the image analysis has to be automatized to remain cost-efficient. The use of AI is still in the development stages and remain costly to operators. In fact, most operators are fighting mandatory lock-to rules because of the cost of the retrofit and the marginal improvement in parking compliance (“1 to 2%” according to Natalie Sayer from Bird).
Using locks also means that shared scooters or bikes will use existing public bike racks. When thousands of vehicles are available in the streets and occupy as many bike parking spaces, it can become a real issue: in San Francisco, 10,000 bike parking spaces are available… while Lime (Lime and Jump), Spin and Scoot (Bird) can operate up to 4,000 vehicles. Almost half of the existing racks would be unavailable to the public. Local cyclist associations are therefore asking for guarantees to get funds from the chosen operators to install more bike racks in their cities.
Geofencing is improving
Other solutions are available to enforce good parking behaviour. Geofencing has always been part of shared micromobility solutions to design non-riding zones, low-speed zones or preferred parking zones. But it was still difficult to locate the scooter/rider accurately enough to check the exact parking location of the vehicle: are you parked in the middle of the pavement, or at an appropriate space on the curb? If combination of good local regulation on parking, and user incentives can lead to great results – Nicolas Gorse, GM France at Dott, confirmed a rate of 97.3% parked inside the dedicated parking zones of Paris – it is still not taking into account the GPS inaccuracy.
The smartphone’s GPS cannot make the job, but centimeter-level positioning technologies are being developed and implemented. Luna, for example, is using GNSS/RTK technology, and has been live-tested in the University of Dublin:
Voi recently unveiled its last scooter model with a “GPS tech that enables scooters to be tracked to within one-meter accuracy”, showing that this is the solution that most operators believe in.
For securing or parking compliance?
Using lock-to features to enforce parking compliance seems therefore a bad choice. Users are reluctant to use it as it makes the rental process longer (lock handling and additional steps in the app), resulting in marginal improvements. It also directly impacts parking availability for local bike and scooter riders.
The popularisation of accurate positioning technologies offers more guarantee and lessen the impact on public space as cheaper parking (painted) parking zones can be implemented. Locks might still be useful in shared micromobility, but as an additional securing device, to fight again theft or vandalism. But I doubt the benefits worth the extra costs…