Scooters to Swarm San Francisco After Gaining Approval

After a yearlong debate, the city cautiously allows 2,500 scooters to emerge on San Francisco’s streets. The city encourages residents to file complaints and report violations in efforts to curb “bad scooter behavior.”
by Mallory Moench, San Francisco Chronicle | October 16, 2019 AT 3:01 AM

(TNS) — After a ban, a reprieve and 18 contentious months of debate, San Francisco will see the number of electric rental scooters in town possibly double to as many as 2,500 Tuesday, as three new providers add their fleets to the street.

Under an expansion of the city’s current pilot program, scooters from operators Lime, Jump and Spin will join those of Scoot, which gained permission to place its devices on streets after the city cracked down on scooters in early 2018. Scoot can deploy up to 1,000 scooters, about 400 more than its current number.

Under their permits, Lime, Jump (owned by Uber) and Spin (owned by Ford) can each deploy up to 500 scooters. That number can increase up to 750 by Dec. 15 and to 1,000 by Feb. 15 if they meet requirements. One current scooter operator, Skip, will lose its license.

Lime and Spin were among three operators that were banned last year after putting the vehicles on the street without seeking city approval. The other was Bird, which went on to acquire Scoot.

The expansion of scooter rentals comes after a year and a half of debate over the electric devices, which came to symbolize a freewheeling attitude toward rolling out new technology that exasperated some politicians. While some residents saw the scooters as a convenient and clean solution to traffic jams, others piled them up in streets or threw them in waterways to protest startup hubris.

Still uneasy with the new vehicles, San Francisco supervisors rushed to pass a resolution last week to regulate the rollout and enforce a ban on sidewalk riding that critics say is often disregarded.

“Scooters may well be a part of our transportation and congestion solution, but we want to make sure they are operated safely and do not terrorize our pedestrians,” Supervisor Aaron Peskin said Monday.

Politicians in the world’s rising tech capital are cracking down on the trend of companies trying out new ideas on the streets — like self-driving cars, scooters and food-delivery robots — with an “ask forgiveness, not permission” attitude. Board of Supervisors President Norman Yee introduced legislation last week to create an Office of Emerging Technology that would require companies to request approval for technologies that intersect with the public realm and issue one-year permits for those not currently covered by city law. Some worry that such regulation will stifle innovation, but officials say it’s necessary to control the rapid deployment of inventions like street-rented scooters.

All four scooter operators are headquartered in San Francisco, but some didn’t get permission to operate on their home turf until Tuesday.

On Tuesday, Lime representatives will meet riders at the San Francisco Caltrain station and conduct a safety workshop in a Bayview church. Jump, which already operates dockless electric bikes in the city, will stage a rally with the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition at City Hall for street safety.

The tale of two-wheeled scooters in San Francisco has been one of the city playing catch-up with companies.

In March 2018, Lime, Spin and Bird placed scooters on San Francisco sidewalks without permission. The city cracked down, temporarily banned scooters, and set up an application process for the initial pilot program. Only two of the dozen applicants, Spin and Scoot, got permits. Lime and Lyft protested the decision, saying they weren’t given a fair chance.

This year, 11 companies applied for the new permits allowing up to 4,000 scooters.

After the permits were announced, Supervisor Aaron Peskin led the push for a resolution adopted on Oct. 8 that would phase in deployment, develop an enforcement plan to curb illegal sidewalk riding and encourage the city to pursue a public alternative to private scooter rental companies.

Peskin said regulation is now “in the hands of the (San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency), and they are serious about having robust enforcement.”

In a blog post, the city transportation agency said the new program will track stricter compliance through a database where companies will report complaints and give updates on their resolutions to the city. The agency said operators “will also be required to take proactive measures to ensure that their customers are aware that sidewalk riding is both unsafe and illegal and implement deterrent measures, including graduated monetary penalties and suspensions for those who engage in unsafe riding behavior.”

The city urged the public to curb “bad scooter behavior” by reporting violations to 311 or filing complaints directly with companies through the transportation agency’s sfmta.com website.

City resident Marc Thornburgh, who takes a 4-mile walk along the Embarcadero every day, said scooters zip in and out between pedestrians on the sidewalk during rush hour.

“Of course it will get even worse with the additional scooters, but I firmly believe this is an easily handled problem if the city puts enforcement personnel in the worst areas and hands out expensive tickets (not warnings),” Thornburgh said in an email.

The scooter companies say they’re serious about following the rules on sidewalk riding. Lime is holding safety workshops. Jump is developing features to detect whether a rider is on the sidewalk or parked improperly on a new scooter model that could be introduced late this year. Spin said it updated its app to include rules of the road that riders must acknowledge they’ve read before starting, and added “no riding on sidewalk” stickers on all scooters.

“It’s the rider’s responsibility to follow the rules, but a shared responsibility for Spin and the city to partner in educating the public on what is or isn’t allowed,” Spin spokeswoman Christine Yeo said in an email.

The city is also requiring each company to pay $75 per scooter to support new bike racks, which can also be used to lock up scooters. San Francisco has committed to installing a minimum of 100 racks a month, doubling the current rate of new installations.

The companies are also changing a key way that they operate, hiring employees instead of gig workers to recharge and maintain scooters.

Scoot expects to double its San Francisco workforce. Spin said in a blog post earlier this month that it’s working with labor unions and city agencies to fill jobs (the company has hired 35 people so far) and provide internship opportunities to disadvantaged youth.

Amid criticism that scooters weren’t serving everyone, each company has introduced a discount program for eligible low-income riders. Lime charges $5 a year for a limited number of rides to those who qualify; Jump offers that same rate, rising to $5 a month after the first year. Spin gives free unlimited 30-minute rides. Scoot offers a 50% discount and already has 700 riders on the plan.

By making scooters more available, the companies and other advocates believe the vehicles will replace car congestion with a more environmentally friendly option.

Spin President Euwyn Poon said in an email that the company looks forward “to honoring our commitments to hire locally, invest in the community, and ensure accessible, sustainable, and affordable transportation options are available to the whole city.”

Lime CEO Brad Bao said in an email that the goal is to “help San Francisco lead the way in micromobility worldwide.”

©2019 the San Francisco Chronicle. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.