The line to speak wrapped around half the chamber, constantly replenishing itself, an inching microcosm of a constrained, complicated city. There were tech startup reps, disability advocates in motorized wheelchairs, a martial arts instructor making extra money through the gig economy, and plenty of concerned citizens.
“I think that these scooters run amok are actually a plot of the young people to kill off all us old farts so they can have our rent-controlled apartments,” community member Fran Taylor told the Board of Supervisors.
Maybe connecting ungainly electric scooters to a dastardly plot—even in jest, and to laughs—seems like nonsense. Or maybe you live in San Francisco, where a weekly meeting of the Board of Supervisors’ Land Use and Transportation Committee brought the disgruntled masses to City Hall on a Monday afternoon. The legislative body met to discuss a bill to give the city the authority to remove shared scooters without permits or parked in the public right-of-way, and penalize the companies that own them.
But the hearing felt like it was about something much bigger. These scooters are just the latest outgrowth of a growing conflict between cities and startups that have rushed to capitalize on a growing mobility marketplace. It started with Uber and Lyft. Then came the “microtransit” companies, like Chariot and Via. Then dockless, shared bikes from Jump, Ofo, Bluegogo, and Mobike. And now, it’s motorized scooters challenging the regulators who must determine how private companies can use their streets, and how they should go about it.
“I really want to send a message not only to these scooters,” said Supervisor Aaron Peskin, who co-wrote the bill in question. “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.”
Some background: In mid-March, three electric scooter-share companies launched San Francisco services into a bit of a municipal legal loophole. By law, Bird, LimeBike, and Spin do not need business licenses to operate this kind of service, even though their battery-powered scooters can hit 15 mph and are stored on the sidewalk. That’s the public, shared space where people on foot and in wheelchairs usually travel.
On Monday, supervisors were especially frustrated that they did not receive more notice from the companies before they began operations in the city. Supervisor Jane Kim, who wrote the bill with Peskin, said Spin had used deceptive language to wrongly make it appear that she had given them permission to launch. Peskin complained that Bird had sent a misleading news alert to the media, saying the city had activated an emergency procedure to ban e-scooters usually only used for earthquakes.
The committee unanimously passed the bill, and the full board passed the legislation today. Meanwhile, the city’s transportation agency is working to finalize a permitting process for e-scooters by late spring.
The scooters have generated frustration beyond San Francisco. In San Diego, Austin, and Washington, DC, coalitions of neighborhood, senior, disability, and pedestrian groups have pushed back against the quick introduction of scooter shares in their midst. They say the e-scooters, which users often ride on the sidewalk, block critical access to curb space and could be dangerous tripping hazards. City governments, finally ready to encourage non-car modes of transit, are caught in the middle. They say they hope to want affordable, environmentally-friendly travel choices that doesn’t aggravate growing traffic problems—and keep their streets safe and comfortable for everyone.
In San Francisco, the solution has been mostly the stick. While Monday’s hearing unfolded in City Hall, the City Attorney’s office dispatched a sheaf of cease and desist letters, telling the three scooter companies that they had broken California law by allowing customers to ride their motorized scooters on the sidewalks and without helmets, and by obstructing sidewalks without permission.
In statements, representatives for Bird and Spin said they would continue to engage with public officials, but did not commit to halting service. LimeBike did not respond to a request for comment. Bird also said San Francisco users would now have to take and upload photos of their parked vehicles after riding, to ensure they are out of the way. The City Attorney’s office gave the companies until April 30 to rejigger their operations and explain how they no longer violate the law.
The city of Santa Monica, California, too, took a hard line, charging Bird for failing to procure the proper business license. The company eventually paid $300,000 in fines.
Others have been a bit more flexible. After initially impounding the e-scoots, Austin’s transportation chief has now proposed a fast-tracked permitting process for the companies, with a hard cap for the number of vehicles in operation and bonuses for those in areas underserved by transit. DC’s e-scooters fall under its broader dockless pilot program, which has allowed a number of companies to operate services in the city while authorities determine what sort of rules they should have to follow.
If the whole situation seems vaguely familiar, it’s because Uber’s “launch first, ask questions later” approach to municipal regulations left a foul taste in local politicians’ mouths. And after a year of the company’s spectacular, highly public conflagration, it feels more politically viable to oppose tech companies that even vaguely imitate the ride-hail company’s strategies.
So in the midst of an opening statement calling the e-scooter share companies’ tactics “offensive and arrogant,” Peskin paused to do some hating.
“We’re told somehow that Uber is a public transit alternative that has decongested our streets even as we have hard data prepared by the San Francisco County Transportation Authority that shows at peak in some parts of the city they are adding 26 percent of the congestion,” Peskin said. (The study, which used scraped Uber and Lyft data, estimates that transportation network companies are responsible for 20 to 26 percent of trips in the city’s downtown and South of Market neighborhood during rush hours.)
No surprise that the e-scooter folks are out to prove they are the anti-Uber. During the hearing, residents of the Bayview-Hunters Point neighborhood, one of the most underserved by transit in the city, pointed out that LimeBike had engaged local community groups and hired locals. Bird “chargers,” who make $5 for each scooter they charge and then put back on the street, said the extra income helps in one of America’s most most expensive cities.
And on the other side, a mostly gray-haired group spoke of the challenges of getting around a place often not built for walking, or easy wheelchair access. The question, then, remains: Can San Franciscans—and urbanites everywhere—share not just their cars and bikes and scooters, but their space?