Geofence or Ghetto? Is This the Inevitable Evolution of Location-Based Services?
I recently moved to Austin, TX, where scooters are one of the primary modes of transportation. It doesn’t matter where you are in the city, you’ll likely cross paths with someone zipping by on one.
A few weeks ago, I picked up a scooter to take a ride along South Congress, one of the main thoroughfares in the city. As I got on the bridge to cross the river, my scooter came to an abrupt halt.
Scooters aren’t new to me. I had ridden them in DC when they first started appearing on sidewalks in late 2017/early 2018. I knew scooters could be programmed to operate at a lower speed — as was the case in DC — but stopping? That was news to me.
Eventually, I learned that in Austin, motorized scooters are prohibited on the Hike and Bike Trail that lines the north and south sides of Lady Bird Lake. To enforce this rule, scooters operated by providers like Lime have been programmed to stop working when they’re in a prohibited geographic area.
That explained why my scooter suddenly stopped. It wasn’t a mechanical issue with the scooter — something I was worried about — it was where I was located. Even though I wasn’t on the trail, I was still crossing over it. Once I manually scooted myself away from the trail zone, the scooter started working again as it was supposed to.
This is an example of how advances in technology enable movement restrictions for an otherwise venerable cause. The Trail Conservancy, a local environmental nonprofit, noticed that scooters were being dumped into Lady Bird Lake, polluting the waterway. The group took action. The outcome: prohibiting the use of motorized micromobility methods on the trail.
This effort seems rather benign on the surface. It helped save the environment after all. But what happens when the same technology that’s used to restrict the movement of Lime scooters on a public trail is applied to all forms of movement?
This essay is going to dive into that question. It’s going to evaluate the unintended consequences of omni-use technologies by looking at the implications of how geofencing — the patent-pending technology Lime uses to prohibit the use of its scooters in restricted areas — can be leveraged to…