Can’t Scooters and Pedestrians Just Get Along?

Scooters will soon be a permanent fixture in San Francisco. What does that mean for pedestrians?

In a matter of weeks, electric scooters will become a permanent, legal fixture in San Francisco, but a recent report warns that more must be done to protect pedestrians from the new mode of transportation.  

A Civil Grand Jury report, recently presented to the Board of Supervisors, called for a public safety campaign, visual symbols to encourage bike lane use instead of illegal sidewalk use, better enforcement of traffic laws, and better data collection on injuries, among other recommendations. 

“The expectation of pedestrian safety is eroded when pedestrian rights-of-way are ignored on sidewalks as well as in intersections,” the report read. Motorized transportation devices like scooters or wheels “quickly generated conflicts with pedestrians, as some under-informed users of these devices used sidewalks as their preferred travel lanes to minimize their own risk of collisions with cars.”

Rental e-scooters have only been in San Francisco since March 2018, after companies Bird, Lime, and Spin deployed them on city streets with an all-too-familiar “move fast and break things” ethos. The results were mixed; complaints to 311 surged as riders illegally zoomed past pedestrians on sidewalks and left their scooters strewn across walkways. This quickly became another target of anger against tech-related displacement: Several piles of scooters were found set ablaze or in waterways. 

Still, many valued their use as another way to get around, particularly to and from public transit stations that might otherwise encourage car use. (For what it’s worth, a San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency survey found that more than 63 percent of e-scooter riders are white, male, and make at least six figures a year. Participation in low-income programs was initially abysmal but Scoot has more than 600 enrolled as of last month, the Examiner reported.) 

For its part, the city issued cease-and-desist letters and launched a pilot program in October 2018 that has allowed Skip and Scoot to operate 1,250 scooters total, which was doubled after six months. Notably, SFMTA did not choose the companies that originally launched scooters, though Bird found a loophole by acquiring Scoot in April while Lime and Spin unsuccessfully appealed by alleging bias. 

In the first two-and-a-half months of the pilot program, Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital treated nine people for traumatic injuries involving e-scooters, including one pedestrian struck by a rider. The San Francisco Police Department reported 32 injuries, four of which involved pedestrians, and also found low helmet use. Between October 2018 and February 2019, Scoot reported zero collisions and Skip reported 34. 

That pilot program ends in October, but the SFTMA already approved a permanent fix in June that could allow more companies and hundreds more scooters all over San Francisco with higher standards. Though SFMTA won’t have final applicants and numbers until the end of this month, it previously estimated that each company could be authorized to operate between 1,000 and 2,500 scooters.

Given that data isn’t yet available about injuries since scooter capacity doubled under the pilot program, it’s unclear how many more injuries could come. But the Civil Grand Jury report, “Pedestrian Safety in the Era of Electric Mobility Devices,” is well-timed to offer prevention tactics that also include assuring responsibility for damages from e-scooter rental companies and discontinuing the Pedestrian Safety Advisory Committee (PSAC).

“Scoot already practices several of the recommendations from the grand jury report, including offering in-person instruction for our riders and holding our riders accountable for unsafe behavior,” said Michael Keating, president and founder of Scoot. “We will continue to improve the safety of our service based on the findings of the report and input from our Safety Advisory Board.”

SFMTA, SFPD, and Mayor London Breed, who are required to respond to such reports, countered that the SFMTA conducted its own safety campaign when the pilot program started, that SFPD formed a Vision Zero Enforcement Task Force in June, and that the new program addresses potential gaps in responsibility. 

“Our new permit program is much more robust than the pilot program in terms of the requirements, so most of the CGJ concerns have been addressed,” said SFMTA spokesperson Ben Barnett in a statement. “We appreciate the civil grand jury’s focus on important aspects of this program and some of their recommendations require additional follow up (e.g. signage) and we are determining the appropriate next steps.”  

City leaders did assure that the Department of Public Health, SFMTA, and General Hospital will indeed work on a data acquisition plan to better identify root causes of injuries by June 2020, and that there is a need to further look into signage. As SFMTA Pedestrian Manager Chava Kronenberg told the Government Audit and Oversight Committee on Thursday, the city is limited by state law that controls markings on bike lanes.

Like Supervisors Vallie Brown and Gordon Mar, PSAC member Martin Rawlings-Fein agreed with most of the findings and recommendations save for the last one: letting the monthly pedestrian committee expire in October. Supervisor Norman Yee introduced legislation last week to make the 17-member voluntary committee permanent, seeking to improve it. The committee has missed several annual reports and has been “reactionary” in recent years, Rawlings-Fein says.

“When committees start kind of falling apart, you need people to come in and sort of shake things up,” Rawlings-Fein tells SF Weekly. “Hopefully we’re going to have more of a voice and more of an ability to impact the Board of Supervisors on issues like these. We’re not working against each other.” 

That much is true. Calls to dramatically improve pedestrian and cyclist safety have increased as more people have died in 2019 — at least 22, compared to 23 in all of 2018 by San Francisco’s numbers. The need to reduce dangerous traffic patterns is a pretty wide, if not universal, consensus and scooters aren’t immune from the conversation. 

“Pedestrian safety and stronger regulations of new mobility options that are emerging here in our city are issues that are a very high priority to the board,” Mar said at the committee meeting on Thursday. “It’s very timely that this report came out.”

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