This April 2018 Wired article discusses the influx of shared electric bicycle and electric scooters. They offer an alternative to ride share programs like Uber and Lyft. They came quickly and are now working to find their place in the transportation challenges of San Francisco, San Diego and other cities.
There’s Bird, which also has scooters in LA, Santa Monica, San Diego, San Jose, and Washington, DC, and now more than 175 in the Bay Area.1 LimeBike runs dockless bicycle programs, too, but has its scooters in San Diego, DC, and SF. Spin has under 50 scooters in the Bay. Combined, they have more than $200 million in funding.
The scooters are very good for cities, their purveyors (and investors) argue. They don’t create traffic or emissions. They’re a convenient alternative to taking a car or relying on a not-so-vibrant public transit network. They’re pretty easy to use—download an app, locate a scooter, and go—and pretty cheap, often less than $2 per ride. And besides, they’re legal, because San Francisco’s rulers never thought to make rules regulating electric scooter sharing businesses. As with Uber and Lyft, circa 2010: Who’d even heard of such a thing, before it showed up?
Legal or not, they’re cause for concern, or at least headaches, in City Hall. Officials used to managing streets designed for cars are facing a bevy of new options that can create unseemly mess in a very limited space, even as they provide sometimes healthier, cheaper, and nimbler transportation alternatives.
Indeed, some corners of the city have reacted with alarm. People can lock the scooters anywhere on the street, and so they can easily impede wheelchairs, strollers, or people who appreciate the ancient art of walking. Users are sometimes not great at riding the scooters, especially in a place busy with cars, bicycles, doggos, pedestrians, and the occasional delivery robot.
For cities, this raises thorny questions, ones that need answers as governments say they’re getting serious about non-personal-car sorts of transportation. Since 2010, hundreds of American cities, towns, and university campuses have installed docked bike-sharing systems. (The Bay Area’s Ford GoBike system, operated by the company Motivate, rolled out in earnest just eight months ago.) In 2017, dockless bike-sharing companies like LimeBike, the Chinese companies Ofo and Mobike, Spin, and Jump, mixed up the business model, nixing the places to park vehicles in favor of an unlock-n-go approach. San Francisco has even contended with delivery robots, which local politicians complain can clog the streets.
California state law provides some guidance. Electric scooter riders must wear helmets, possess driver’s licenses, and stay off the sidewalk, leaving that strip of concrete to the people on foot. (Washington, DC, where e-scooters have operated since February, has similar rules.)
Even so, San Francisco is in the midst of making rules—firmer, stricter rules—for electric scooters. In early March, the city’s Board of Supervisors introduced legislation that would require companies to obtain permits to operate e-scooter businesses. The SFMTA is now working on complementary legislation that would outline that specific permitting process. The city could begin issuing permits by May or June.
“At this point it’s so new, we want to make sure we have all our bases covered, and compare what we hear from companies to what we hear from residents,” says Sorell, with the SFMTA. “We’ll definitely incorporate into the permit expectations about where those scooters should be parked and what level of education the companies must provide to the riders.”
That could, perhaps, include scooter infrastructure. No one envisions a future with a scoot-only lane (SFMTA says it’s definitely too early for that kind of speculation), but a groundswell of support for scooters could push cities to build more space for people who aren’t in cars: cyclists, pedestrians, and sure, scoot-ers. “The bike infrastructure is not required for a scooter-sharing business, but boy, oh boy, I hope that’s what comes out of it,” Kubly says.
In the meantime, scooter-sharing companies are not afraid of throwing a few elbows in the form of competing to be the most gracious city partners (or at least make it look like they are). Last week, Bird put out an “SOS: Save Our Sidewalks” pledge, which asks signatories to promise to remove their bicycles or scooters from the streets at night, increase the number of vehicles on the streets only if they’re making at least three trips a day, and give $1 to city government per vehicle.
It’s a nice looking act of goodwill that four other companies have thus far refused to sign. “Our competitors’ recent overtures, including a recent “Save our Sidewalks” campaign, come off as insincere given recent criminal complaints and settlements,” Spin president and co-founder Euwyn Poon wrote on Medium.2 In other words: We’ll manage our own relationships with cities, thanks.