Charlotte is preparing to charge the companies behind the suddenly ubiquitous electric scooters zipping around the city a fee for the first time — but that fee will vary based on how riders use the scooters.
Instead of charging a fixed, annual fee per scooter like most other cities have chosen to do, Charlotte will use “dynamic pricing” to charge the companies variable monthly fees to encourage what the city terms “good behavior.”
The companies will receive deductions if users do things like park scooters without blocking the sidewalk, wear helmets and park near transit stops or in other high-use areas. They’ll be charged more if users do things like block sidewalks or park their scooters in a low-usage area where it sits idle for hours.
“No cities were encouraging, through their fee programs, good behavior,” said Dan Gallagher, deputy director of the Charlotte Department of Transportation, at the City Council meeting Monday. He said that if everyone follows the “good behavior” guidelines, the city might not collect any revenue from the companies, even as Charlotte closes in on a million scooter rides since they debuted in May.
“If every single one of those million trips did exactly that, we might collect no fees for scooters,” said Gallagher. The city has partnered with Charlotte-based Passport to pilot the dynamic pricing program, and will spend the next few months collecting data and testing the system.
There are three companies with e-scooters on the street in Charlotte: Bird, Lime and Spin. Users locate and rent the scooters — which are tracked by GPS — via smartphone app. The scooters typically cost $1 to unlock and 15 cents per minute to ride. At the end of the day, “juicers” pick up the scooters, recharge their batteries, and redistribute them throughout the city.
The exact amount Charlotte will charge each company under the dynamic pricing scheme hasn’t been worked out, Gallagher said. City Council members praised the idea as flexible and innovative.
“A lot of big tech cities have gotten this wrong,” said council member Tariq Bokhari.
Council member Justin Harlow asked how the city would monitor and enforce the pricing structure over tens of thousands of rides each month, and whether it would be “kind of like the honor system.”
Gallagher said the the scooter companies, Charlotte and Passport will develop ways to tell if the “good behavior” rules are being followed. For example, the companies already track location via GPS, so they can see how long and where a scooter is parked. A picture of the parked scooter, uploaded by the user, can verify it’s not blocking the sidewalk. And a selfie can show if someone is wearing a helmet.
Harlow also asked if the companies might charge more if user behavior causes their fees to rise.
“Do we have any fear these companies will pass the cost on to riders?” he asked.
Gallager said that’s possible — but so is the inverse.
“We’re working in a free market system here,” he said. “There may be no costs to pass on if everyone’s doing the right thing.”
E-scooters have quickly supplanted shared bikes in popularity, with more than 850,000 rides logged. But while City Council has instituted some basic rules about how many scooters the companies can put out on city streets each day and what their maximum speed can be, the city hasn’t set any rules about charging companies to operate and use the public right-of-way on sidewalks for parking.
Most other large cities in North Carolina charge the scooter companies some kind of annual fee, though they vary widely. Greensboro charges $50 per scooter, while Durham charges $100. In Raleigh, the highest, scooter companies have been fighting a $300 annual per-scooter fee by charging riders a $2 per trip surcharge.
City Council approved new rules for people riding scooters in January. Those rules capped scooter speeds at 15 mph, banned scooters from sidewalks in the densest part of uptown (an area bounded by Stonewall, Seventh, College and Church streets), and lifted Charlotte’s 400 scooters per-company cap.
The companies can now add scooters 50 at a time to their fleets, after they demonstrate their scooters are being ridden an average of at least three times a day for 30 days.