A new breed of scooter startups is moving fast and breaking things on San Francisco sidewalks. In the past few weeks, three new motorized scooter-share companies have plopped hundreds of two-wheeled electric scooters all over the city, and their unauthorized first month has been a bumpy ride.
Depending on who you ask, these app-powered scooters are either an urban-mobility revolution that cuts down on emissions, or a for-profit menace that disrespects pedestrians, flouts city safety regulations, and litters e-waste detritus on city sidewalks.
The first of these scooters arrived on St. Patrick’s Day, when the bright-green LimeBike scooters, called Lime-S, simply appeared by the dozens without permits. Competitors Bird and Spin saw them get away with it, and immediately followed suit. Now, these dockless electric-scooter companies are receiving cease-and-desist letters, being grilled by San Francisco supervisors, and getting confiscated and impounded.
“We have been receiving mounting complaints from the public about the scooters blocking the pedestrian path of travel on the sidewalks,” Department of Public Works Policy and Communications Director Rachel Gordon told SF Weekly, just hours after 66 scooters were impounded Friday. “Public Works street inspectors deemed the specific ones we removed today to be safety hazards.”
She added there could be more confiscations to come.
UPDATE: On April 19, DPW says in a statement to SF Weekly that “We were enforcing on a complaint-by-complaint basis early this week, but yesterday, started proactive impoundments of scooters obstructing the right of way. We picked up 61 yesterday” and “159 today.”
Common gripes about the dockless electric scooters, which can zip around at up to 15 miles per hour, include people riding illegally on sidewalks and parking them in places that obstruct pedestrian paths. Plus, they’re operating without city permission.
Sup. Aaron Peskin unloaded on these companies at Monday’s Board of Supervisors Land Use and Transportation Committee, which had several of the startups’ executives in attendance.
“It would be very nice if the tech bros could come in and ask in a collaborative fashion for permission rather than after-the-fact forgiveness,” Peskin said.
“When I see hyberbolic fallacies being expounded by CEOs about how every scooter that has jumped on our sidewalk is somehow ‘one less car,’ and how seniors, pedestrians, and parents walking their kids to school somehow just need to get over themselves and get out of the way of this life-changing innovative machine I frankly find it to be offensive and arrogant,” he fumed.
Carl Hansen, the director of government affairs for scooter company Bird, defended the scooters as an innovative alternative to gas-guzzling cars.
“San Francisco has the laudable target of getting to 80 percent of trips to be non-automotive by 2030,” Hansen said. “For that to happen, riders are going to need to shift to new technologies. And we think we’ve found something that can really help with that.”
He also noted the Bird is trying mightily to comply with regulations.
“We’re the first company that offers a free helmet directly through the app to any rider that requests one,” he pointed out.
These scooter companies are not scrappy little startups, but massively well-funded venture-capital empires. Bird, founded by a former Uber executive, is flying high with $115 million in funding. LimeBike has raised more than $130 million.
With this cash comes an aggressive stance against local regulations. Bird sent an “emergency” email to its riders in advance of Monday’s Board committee meeting, claiming, “It has come to our attention that the San Francisco Board of Supervisors is considering banning Birds and other electric vehicles — and doing so via an extraordinary regulatory maneuver, usually reserved for emergencies like earthquakes.”
But this was not an emergency measure, nor was it a ban on scooters. Peskin introduced the legislation back in early March, and it merely proposes fines for unpermitted scooters.
“If we had bad intel, I apologize for that,” Hansen said Monday.
Before Monday’s meeting even began, however, the city was making moves. Just hours before the committee meeting City Attorney Dennis Herrera sent a cease-and-desist to all three scooter companies, accusing them of “endangering public health and safety.” Herrera’s letter does not demand the scooters’ removal, but gives them until April 30 to submit plans for legal compliance.
San Francisco isn’t the only city where scooter companies have gotten into regulatory hot water. In February, Bird agreed to pay a $300,000 fine to the city of Santa Monica for failing to secure permits and business licenses before launching.
These repeat offenses enrage pedestrian advocates.
“Some of these companies launched in other cities before they launched here,” Walk San Francisco Policy and Program Director Cathy DeLuca tells SF Weekly. “We expected them to have better lessons learned.
“Instead of blanketing the streets with scooters, they could have blanketed the streets with ambassadors teaching people how to ride the scooters, where to ride the scooters, and really keep up an actual presence on the streets until there is compliance,” she adds.
Walk San Francisco cites the example of a 63-year-old Hayes Valley man who was hospitalized after tripping over a scooter that obstructed the sidewalk. Social media has been awash with photos of the scooters tossed into the bay, busted up and abandoned, or littering sidewalks in ways that clearly create hazards for wheelchairs, the visually impaired, or any parent pushing a stroller.
The images imply the problem is huge, but SF Weekly did an informal eyeball test during a weeknight rush hour, strolling through two downtown-adjacent areas — South of Market and Mission Bay — that these apps indicated had a high concentration of scooters.
We observed a total of 24 people riding rental scooters. Only one of them was riding legally — on the street, and with a helmet.
The majority — some 14 in all — were riding the scooters on the street as they’re supposed to, but they weren’t wearing helmets. That’s a dangerous move, but one that isn’t technically illegal if you’re over 18. But more than a third of these riders (nine) were driving their scooters on the sidewalk and without helmets, including one couple who were double-riding.
Scooter users did better in the parking department. Of the 18 scooters we saw docked, 11 were parked properly at curbside. The other seven were parked illegally, smack dab in the middle of sidewalks, or leaning against buildings in ways that clearly obstructed pedestrian travel.
This is not a scientific analysis, just a snapshot of one evening’s rush hour. But it indicates that most scooter users aren’t aware of legal scooter etiquette, or just don’t care.
That said, the scooter firms are proactively responding to the backlash. Bird said they will begin requiring riders to upload a photo to ensure their scooter was parked properly.
The Board committee voted unanimously Monday to authorize the SFMTA to issue the companies citations for scooter violations, a proposal which goes before the full Board on April 24.
“We’re not trying to ban any of these companies or these modes of transportation,” Sup. Katy Tang said on Monday. “We’re just simply saying until the regulatory framework is in place, until the SFMTA issues permits, you cannot leave these items unattended and unpermitted on our sidewalks.”
It’s hard to argue with anything that moves society away from car ownership and riding. But the launch-first-comply-later mentality of LimeBike, Bird, and Spin makes lawmakers feel they’ve been flipped the Bird and told to sit and Spin.
Joe Kukura is an SF Weekly contributor.
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