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Disrupting the Commons: Dockless Bikes and Scooters Create Layers of Community Instability

San Francisco's electric scooters are disruptive to the communities where they are abandoned and, because they are constantly moving, the issues of abandonment and refuse cycle through neighborhoods.

by S.A. Applin
Apr 26 2018, 4:00pm

Image: David Paul Morris / Bloomberg via Getty

S. A. Applin, Ph.D. is an anthropologist whose research explores the domains of human agency, algorithms, AI, and automation in the context of social systems and sociability. You can find more @anthropunk.

Recently, the City of San Francisco has been cracking down on bike and scooter share companies such as LimeBike, Bird, and Spin. These companies provide “dockless” electric bikes and scooters for people in San Francisco to rent. The idea is that people rent and ride these to their destination and park the bikes “wherever bikes are allowed”, and the scooters, “by bike racks, when available.”

This last bit is the problem for San Francisco in that people have chosen to “park” their rented scooters and bikes wherever they want, including intersections, sidewalks, and other areas which comprise the Commons, the area owned by all in the community, that is maintained through public taxes. People are also leaving these bikes and scooters on private property, and on tiny bits of the city that are usually reserved for trees, or that act as divisions between pieces of an urban space such as bike lanes, medians, entryways, and parkways.

This has created a problem that has not been seen before: voluntary, intentional, migrating, mobile, functional, litter. The bikes and scooters are disruptive to the locations where they are abandoned and, because they are constantly moving, the issues of abandonment and refuse are constantly cycling (sorry) throughout an urban region. Yesterday’s bike or scooter blight might be around today, or it might move for a few days and then return. In short, the bikes and scooters share a civic pattern similar to that of homelessness. Thus, in an unexpected way, the dockless bikes and scooters are also competing with the homeless for pieces of urban space upon which to temporarily rest.

What is at stake is community and the mechanisms for a cooperative system

Bikes and scooters are small, compared to cars, and as such there are no physical constraints that keep them bound to traffic, other than the suggestions from the companies deploying them. However, bikes and scooters as small, portable methods of transport can be used on public roads, sidewalks, and other spaces within the Commons—including privately owned property—with little oversight or accountability. These modes of travel are in use frequently, as bike and scooter riders either take shortcuts to avoid traffic, or feel free to “park” their rides wherever they want, public or private.

Image: Motherboard

It is one thing to create a transportation sharing system with vehicles that require, either due to sufficient expense or size, some type of accountability or responsibility. It is another to dump a set of bikes and scooters in a city without racks, or places to “put” them. When companies “disrupt” the Commons by installing products aimed at “disruptors,” there will be disruption. However, for those disruptive companies to expect their customers to then follow rules, is naive at best.

One argument against these transportation-share companies area is similar to one that has been made against Google busses, Uber, and Lyft: that these companies profit from using publicly funded roads, bus stops, and other parts of the Commons, without significantly contributing to their upkeep, and without concern for others within them. The strongest argument for San Francisco has been that the abandoned (parked) bikes and scooters are dangerous and create safety hazards.

Concern for others is the foundation of sociability and the fabric of community. How we are bound to each other to live peaceably to a large extent hinges on our ability to cooperate and to collaborate and share with each other. Cooperation isn’t an option for humans: we are dependent upon each other to live. Indeed, all of the systems that we rely upon are built upon massive amounts of human cooperation.

When companies introduce new mechanisms into a societal system without understanding the impact on a community, or how to merge successfully with existing mechanisms, friction results. What we are seeing with the bike and scooter companies is a lack of community cooperation.

The bikes and scooters offer a way for monied denizens of the new order of technology to swiftly glide over the debris in a city, without having to come in contact with it, and to move at a pace where they can avoid being a target of harassment or crime. Being in motion also “protects” people from having social cooperative human interaction with others in the Commons. Thus, the bikes and scooters enable avoidance of both sociability and the community problems they cause, which desperately need the help of all to be present in the Commons in order to resolve.

In anthropology, agency is the term used to describe human choice. When we ‘take agency,’ we are enacting choice from whatever options are available to us at a certain point in time and space. As the point in time and space changes, or as we make other choices, our options change, and the type of agency we can take, changes as well.

Simultaneously, the citizens of San Francisco got fed up with the bikes and scooters in their way, and took agency by vandalizing them

The San Francisco bike and scooter companies and the public are engaged in type of Spy vs Spy agency war, where as one group takes agency against something, the next group enacts their agency in another way. In this case, what is at stake is community and the mechanisms for a cooperative system.

For example, the bike and scooter companies distributed their bicycles and scooters all over San Francisco without permits, warnings, or permission. They took agency. Their customers rode the bikes and scooters and parked them wherever they wanted (again, taking agency). Then, the government for the City of San Francisco started to get complaints that the bikes and scooters were “all over” the public sidewalks and streets. Simultaneously, the citizens of San Francisco got fed up with the bikes and scooters in their way, and took agency by vandalizing them. In mid April, the City of San Francisco officials took agency and impounded many of the devices and implemented a ‘Cease and Desist’ order to the bike and scooter companies for San Francisco.

I spend time in San Mateo, which is on the San Francisco Bay Peninsula, about 20 miles from downtown San Francisco. Within the same week as the bike and scooter ban in San Francisco, I noticed that there were suddenly many bike and scooter shares being abandoned on streets and sidewalks in San Mateo, where they are not yet regulated. For LimeBike, San Mateo is not even advertised as a deployment city. As the bikes and scooters are driven out of San Francisco, the companies or their customers are migrating their bikes and scooters to the next place where they aren’t yet rejected, thus moving the disruption to a new greenfield.