The Next Fight over Scooters Is Just Beginning

With the next wave of scooters on the horizon, a new standard for community outreach emerges.

A Lime scooter parked on a sidewalk in SoMa earlier this year.

When the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency broke the news Aug. 30 about which two scooter companies — out of more than a dozen who’d applied — had earned pilot program permits, the reaction was like a pro-sports draft. Articles popped up on the Examiner, the Chronicle, Wired, and TechCrunch. Reporters interviewed CEOs and dug into the intricacies of both Scoot and Skip. And scooter fans immediately took to Twitter, berating the city for its limited geographical roll-out.

But buried in the bottom of the SFMTA’s lengthy, 1,200-word press release was a nugget of information that hinted at a larger battle behind the scenes.

“Since no applicant proposed sufficiently detailed or comprehensive community outreach plans, the SFMTA will outline the agency’s expectations for community engagement prior to issuance of the first permit,” it reads. “These expectations will detail potentially appropriate outreach strategies (e.g., use of community meetings, partnerships with local Community-Based Organizations, etc.), based on experience with bikeshare and other shared mobility programs in San Francisco, as well as peer city best practices. Moreover, the SFMTA will require Scoot and Skip to submit revised community-engagement plans reflecting these expectations.”

It’s a vague and wordy statement, but for community groups and nonprofits across the city, it marks a vital shift away from what they see as years of watered-down outreach. With this mention, the SFMTA acknowledged the materialization of a new set of guidelines that may dictate how emerging mobilities roll out.

Carlos Bocanegra, a nonprofit housing and immigration attorney for Mission Neighborhood Centers, says a citywide coalition of community stakeholders launched a few months ago in response to constituents’ concerns over the rise of new transit options and their impact on the city’s streets and sidewalks. Included in the conversation were Senior and Disability Action, South of Market Community Action Network, Dolores Street Community Services, Impact Hub, Excelsior Action Group, MEDA, Mission Housing, and United to Save the Mission.

“There is an implicit understanding that these new corporate, emerging-mobility systems are themselves vehicles for gentrification and displacement and affect all of our diverse communities, unless they are specifically designed from the ground up not to be,” Bocanegra tells SF Weekly. “Community groups from across San Francisco had begun discussing their shared concerns regarding this trend of the corporatization of the public infrastructure and transit systems, and decided to come together for a citywide discussion.”

The conversation extends beyond the scooter roll-out, which is but one symptom of a larger set of issues spurred by an “act first, figure out the details later” mentality.

“There has unfortunately been a history of a lack of engagement between the SFMTA and diverse and marginalized communities, especially when it comes to their implementation of new high-impact projects such as the scooters and red lanes,” Bocanegra says. “The SFMTA historically has done what they call ‘outreach,’ where they largely decide what planning will be done onto a community, then they send people out to ‘educate’ the community on those changes and set up forums to accept minor input. What is needed instead is true community engagement, where the community is respected and safeguarded in the process, and allowed to participate meaningfully in the changes coming to their neighborhood.”

Diana Flores, director of community engagement and organizing at Dolores Street Community Services, joined in on the discussion. She says that thus far, she’s seen a lack of diverse outreach from the SFMTA to vulnerable members of the Mission, such as monolingual seniors or people with disabilities.

“There’s a gap between being stakeholders and understanding processes, and making sure folks are consistently informed about what’s coming up in their neighborhood that affect the way to go through their day-to-day routine,” Flores says. “When we learned the scooter program was moving along like other ones that were already rolled out, we started joining the conversation.”

That conversation lasted months, with half a dozen meetings held over the summer.

In the end, a list of requests was narrowed down to 11 points, ranging from advisory boards for each district to maintaining users’ privacy. Many of the points came from prior experiences with bike share; red JUMP bikes and blue Ford GoBikes, for example, unfortunately coincide with the colors of the Norteños and Sureños, gangs that have had a heavy presence in the Mission. Concern over misunderstandings that may arise over kids choosing one color bike over another led to a request for community designs, versus corporate branding.

The group also raised the topics of mobility access and safety. Pi Ra, an organizer with Senior and Disability Action, sat in on several of the meetings. He tells SF Weekly that he hopes the SFMTA will come up with a solution for tracking users’ behavior on sidewalks.

“A lot of us are not concerned with what they do on the street,” he says. “We have wheelchairs, we have people who are visually impaired, and the sidewalk is supposed to be our safe zone. In the beginning, they said they would go after vendors, but they should go after users, too. It’s two different enforcements. Make sure it’s clear and enforced, and prove to us it is.

“It’s going too fast,” he adds. “I don’t think they’ve worked out all the details.”

In mid-August, the group met with members of the SFMTA’s Livable Streets team, who, they say, were receptive to discussing the demands.

But nothing is clear yet. Ben Jose, a spokesperson for the SFMTA, says that a new draft of community-engagement plans should be submitted by Scoot and Skip “in advance of October 15 — the date when the scooters are allowed to hit the streets.

The community engagement plans will have specific milestones and deliverables that can be tracked by the SFMTA and reported on by the permittees,” he says. “The SFMTA will also be gathering input from the public. The SFMTA may revoke a permit at any time based on documented non-compliance with the permit terms and conditions.”

The whole system is new, and as Pi Ra points out, the list of 11 recommendations should be a “living document, as there’s going to be some problems with it.” That said, it’s a strong beginning for a new set of collaborative guidelines that are long overdue.

Flores puts it best.

“There is a population that these pilot programs will benefit and give joy to,” she says. “And there’s also people who are really struggling to move in the streets as differently abled folks. How do we make sure it’s a democratic process? That’s what’s at the core of equity.”

Nuala Sawyer is SF Weekly’s news editor.
nsawyer@sfweekly.com |  @TheBestNuala

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