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Rentable e-scooters creating unexpected problems in San Francisco

Issue in San Francisco could have national impact
Posted at 6:34 PM, May 03, 2018

SAN FRANCISCO, California — It’s no exaggeration to say someone can’t walk the length of a city block in San Francisco without seeing an electric scooter either whizzing by or parked on a sidewalk.

Three e-scooter companies—Bird, Lime, and Spin—descended on San Francisco about a month-and-a-half ago, taking the city’s residents, and local officials, by surprise.

The city doesn’t keep an exact count but the scooters easily number in the thousands so far, and these companies are constantly adding more. So many more, in fact, that the city has started issuing cease and desist letters to companies, even impounding some of the wayward devices.

“The systems launched in San Francisco without a lot of consultation with the public,” said Tom Maguire, a director in the city’s Municipal Transportation Authority, or SFMTA.

That sentiment is echoed, albeit a bit more bluntly, by concerned citizens like Andy Blue.

“They’ve dropped out of the sky without warning, without permits,” Blue said, calling them “joy rides for tech bro’s.”

“We’ve totally lost our minds in San Francisco,” he said.

The scooters, and the habits of their respective users, have been enough to bring some people to vandalism. A photo of a pair of scooters covered in feces was recently shared on Twitter.

The process is very similar to the way dockless bicycle sharing programs work, and, in fact, companies like Spin and Lime got their name in the dockless bike realm. But the problem that came up when dockless bikes were being left in the middle of sidewalks in certain cities is happening now with scooters, only exponentially larger.

Because e-scooters are so new, and they popped up so fast, there aren’t many existing rules that cover how they should be appropriately used. And the few rules that do apply, like not riding a motorized scooter on the sidewalk and wearing a helmet, aren’t really being followed.

National reporters with the E.W. Scripps Company roamed the streets to see them in action over the course of a full day and could count on one hand the number of people wearing helmets.

Equally notable was the number of people using scooters on sidewalks.

Patrick Osterling was riding a Bird scooter on a sidewalk when he was asked about his experience.

“I think as long as you’re being safe and considerate I think it’s okay,” Osterling said. “Driving here is pretty crazy,” he said, saying they’re a way to eliminate some traffic congestion. 

 “I think there are a lot of bigger issues especially here in San Francisco to worry about than a scooter," he said.

Jarae Clark wasn’t wearing a helmet and feels like it’s not a big deal, especially if the city isn’t enforcing any rules right now. 

“Nobody really wears them if they don’t really get pulled over or anything,” she said.

For Clark, they’re easier, and more fun, than riding a bike.

“It really is helpful, if you don’t want to ride and get sweaty,” Clark said. “Because that’s my thing with riding bikes, you’re going to get sweaty. This is like the perfect way to get around that.”

But resident Andy Blue isn’t on board.

“You can’t use public sidewalks to store private vehicles,” he said, adding that he thinks there should be a docking system, similar to the bike share programs that have been in place cities for several years now.

Some of the biggest complaints: scooters often left in the middle of sidewalks, obstructing pedestrian or handicapped access; and users riding them on the sidewalks.

“There was no attempt whatsoever [on the part of these companies] to make sure those users didn’t ride them on sidewalks,” Blue said, adding that he’s also skeptical they’ll can reduce traffic congestion.  

“Magic carpets don’t exist and if something seems too good to be true, it probably is,” he said.

It should be noted that Bird has sponsored state legislationthat would amend the law so scooter could, in fact, be ridden on sidewalks at speeds up to 20 miles per hour. Representatives for both Spin and Lime told us they are not currently behind that idea.

When it comes to rules, though, the city is now scrambling to write them. Rules like where they can be ridden or parked will have to be written for newly implemented permits that, starting this summer, scooter companies will need to obtain to operate. And the SFMTA made it clear that a company’s past behavior, i.e. deployment all over the city without consultation with the city, will be considered when weighing whether to grant those permits.

The SFMTA’s Tom Maguire called it “plausible” that scooters could lead to fewer cars on the roads, and he’d love to see that.

“But our primary interest here,” Maguire said, “we have to make sure we protect the sidewalks,” he said.

“Sidewalks have to be the safest place in San Francisco, and whatever we have to do to protect the public interest in the right of way, that’s what we should be doing.”

The scooter companies outsource the nightly collection and charging of the scooters to local residents. They’re then redistributed across the city the next morning. To rent the devices, you simply download the app onto your phone and scan a QR code on the handlebar. You swipe through a few screens warning you not to ride on sidewalks and to wear a helmet, and you’re good to go.

Spin says if users don’t follow the laws of a state or municipality after the reminders on the phone screen, that’s on them, not the scooter company.

“Think about it this way,” said Spin’s public policy director Brian Kyuhoon No. “If you’re renting a car, you can tell the driver who rents your car to make sure they follow the rules, but at the end of the day if the user gets pulled over it’s on the user.”

He stressed, as reps from each of the three scooter companies did, that they’re keeping a the dialogue open with city officials as guidelines are ironed out. In the time being, though, the city has ordered a cap of 500 scooters be imposed on each company operating until the rules are completed.

Kyuhoon No with Spin believes the scooter companies and city can live in harmony. It’s of course in their best interest they do, as the plan that’s devised in the city by the bay could be looked upon as a model by cities nationwide.

A Bird company spokesman told us they hope to have e-scooters in 50 cities by the end of 2018.