Two years ago, the electric rental scooters that had flooded streets and sidewalks around the world briefly burst on the scene in Honolulu, too.
It was the most impressive launch that mobility startup Lime had seen in any of its then-60 locations. But then, just four days after they appeared, Lime’s scooters abruptly vanished from Honolulu under threat of fines and jail time by the city.
No major rental scooters have appeared since, and it could be at least another year before they return, local transportation officials say, as they finally try to set rules for those companies to operate.
Senate Bill 2995 looks to add e-scooters to the state’s vehicle code, giving Honolulu and the other counties the framework they’ll need to allow for such rentals.
The measure passed the state Senate’s Transportation Committee on Friday. Next it needs approval from the Judiciary Committee, although a hearing hasn’t been scheduled yet.
If the state bill does become law, Honolulu would need another six to eight months to set its own rules for Lime, Bird, Spin and other companies to start operating, according to city transportation leaders.
“I think the more options we provide, the more attractive our city becomes,” said Jon Nouchi, Honolulu’s deputy transportation services director. “There are people who maybe don’t know how to ride a bike, and maybe won’t ride a bike but might ride a scooter.”
Meanwhile, as the scooters wait in exile, a global traffic research firm recently declared Honolulu the No. 1 city in the U.S. for so-called “micro-mobility” potential.
The city has year-round warm weather and a dense urban core. About a quarter of all trips taken in Honolulu are less than a mile, according to the firm INRIX.
All of that could make it an ideal place to get around via bicycles, e-scooters and those other lightweight, motorized devices you see zipping around town more frequently. They could help take cars off the road and make a dent in the traffic in town, even if they won’t solve the hellish commutes across Oahu on the H-1 Freeway.
“We’re densifying. We don’t have a lot more land to sprawl out into,” Nouchi said Friday. “A lot of people are making a lot of shorter trips.”
Lime says it’s eager to return. Skip, Scoot and other mobility startups with snappy, monosyllabic names are looking to get in on the action, too.
However, Lime’s first stint on Oahu caused plenty of drama. In general, the scooter companies created a lot of angst when their rentals started cluttering public spaces and walkways in many cities. Riders would often weave past annoyed pedestrians and drop the e-scooters on the sidewalk after a ride, blocking the right-of-way and blighting streetscapes.
Transportation officials here want to try and avoid those issues before they open the flood gates to the scooters — no matter how lucrative the local market is.
Lime officially launched its Honolulu fleet of 200 or so scooters on Mother’s Day weekend in 2018 — even though Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell’s administration had issued a cease-and-desist order several days prior.
At the time, the scooter startups had a record of launching in cities without getting their approval. Still, Honolulu was the only city to hit Lime with a cease-and-desist prior to their launch, company officials said Tuesday.
Lime proceeded anyway — and Caldwell dropped the hammer. Authorities impounded at least 100 scooters across Waikiki, Ala Moana and Kakaako. The company suspended its Honolulu operations after less than a week.
It was the “most aggressive” response the company had seen, according to Nima Daivari, Lime’s former Honolulu operations manager.
“Those of us that were local-based, we very much advised to not defy the mayor’s cease and desist,” especially given Hawaii’s complicated history with mainland interests looking to benefit from the islands, Daivari said.
“Lime elected to launch anyway,” he added. “If I was the mayor of a major city, I’d feel the same way” as Caldwell did.
Company officials said this week that they have since changed how they launch in new markets, opting to work more closely with cities instead of parachuting in.
Part of what happened is that cities gradually caught up and imposed regulations on e-scooter rentals, Daivari said. Many have set limits on how many scooters a company can deploy so that the streets and sidewalks don’t get clogged with them.
Daivari said he had been offered a new job in December and was trying to submit his resignation to Lime when the company laid him off last month in Atlanta. He questioned whether they’re the best fit for Honolulu.
“I don’t think they have the Aloha spirit,” he said. “It just doesn’t feel very mission driven.”
Lime officials declined to comment on Daivari’s remarks.
Meanwhile, lawmakers want those rentals to be safe before they’re released onto the roads.
“I think there were some concerns on both the House and Senate side that we had not adequately addressed safety for riders,” Nouchi said, explaining why the vehicle code update died in session last year.
“We’re confident that we’ve talked to everybody and we tried to address everyone’s questions as best we could.”
As written now the state bill would prohibit riders under 15 years old from using the rental scooters, while 16-year-old riders would have to wear helmets.
Lime officials say the company doesn’t require its riders to wear helmets, although it encourages them and holds instructional events for beginners.
Lime, Bird and Skip have raised concerns about S.B. 2995’s proposed fees and scooter weight limits. As the scooter models improve they’d like to have flexibility for heavier models, they said.
Lime’s latest scooter — the company’s sixth iteration — weighs about 40 pounds and is built to last 18 months, according to a company spokesman. The quality is already much better than the models deployed in Honolulu, he added.
Also, Nouchi and the companies agree that scooter riders will be much safer if they have access to the city’s protected bicycle lanes, separating them from pedestrians on sidewalks and cars in the roads.
Mopeds and motor vehicles are currently prohibited from the city’s bike lanes — but e-bikes going as fast as 25 mph can access them, according to a DTS spokesman.
Honolulu also wants the rentals to be orderly.
Honolulu is heading in that direction, too. A new law passed last year allows the city to lease parking spaces around town for that specific use.
Lime officials say they’re amenable to that.
Lime users, they say, are required to take a picture of their rental scooter after their ride, and that could help enforce the drop-off points. GPS tracking probably wouldn’t be precise enough, they added.
The company has since expanded to 120 total cities and aims to be profitable later this year.
Daivari noted, however, that a large number of “rides does not necessarily correlate with profitability.”
“The rides are there,” Daivari said. The challenge is getting the business model to work, and that might involve more consolidation within the industry, he added.
Biki, for all its success, does not expect to see positive earnings for another four or five years at least, according to spokeswoman Lee Britos.
“I’m a hard-core believer in micro-mobility,” Dairvari said. “There’s still a lot to be figured out.”