San Francisco

Beset By Homelessness, Rising Rents, Nightmarish Traffic, San Francisco Cracks Down on Dockless Scooters

Bay City residents, politicians should be more chill about electric scooters.


Eduardo Contreras/TNS/Newscom

I rode a rented, electric scooter to work this morning. On the sidewalk. Without a helmet.

Miraculously, I did not die. Nor did any pedestrians die. The forces of gentrification were neither spurred nor stalled by my ride. I was simply able to safely and uneventfully navigate to work around the morning crowd of walkers and joggers travelling along Washington D.C.'s Connecticut Ave.

For some strange reason, however, these new, seemingly innocuous "dockless" bikes and scooters—which can be rented via smartphone app—are stirring up controversy in cities across America. From St. Louis to Santa Monica, the vehicles have been labeled "hazardous," their users "very rude."

The strongest backlash is in the heart of the tech/transit capital of the world: San Francisco.

Bay City residents have lodged frequent complaints about the way these vehicles have been left strewn inconveniently on public rights-of-way or ridden on sidewalks—a prohibited activity in San Francisco—with many writing angry letters to city hall.

"Not only are they aesthetically egregious, taking up precious sidewalk space, the often reckless riders are a hazard to pedestrians," said one letter writer.

The electric scooters themselves are "designed to serve [sic] the same affluent tech population that has precipitated gentrification, displacement, land greed and loss of traditional hard-won culture," wrote another.

City officials, grappling unsuccessfully with persistent homelessness, skyrocketing rents, and nightmarish traffic, have been quick to prioritize the issue. Last week, City Attorney Dennis Herrera sent cease-and-desist letters to dockless scooter providers Bird, Spin, and LimeBike, lambasting them for operating an "unpermitted motorized scooter rental program" that was "creating a public nuisance on the City's streets and sidewalks and endangering public health and safety." This was followed by the impounding of some 335 such scooters by the city's Department of Public Works.

Then, last week, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors (essentially the city council) passed an ordinance that requires these dockless scooter services be licensed and tasks the city's Metropolitan Transportation Agency (SFMTA) with crafting regulations on these scooters.

These regulations have yet to be released, but a draft outline suggests a whole host of new city-imposed burdens on electric scooters. Companies would be required to purchase a permit for every 500 scooters they have on the street. The application fee alone would be $5,000; the permit itself $25,000.

SFMTA's outline also included draft permit requirements, including not just user education about proper scooter usage and parking, but also some sort of low income plan, data sharing with the city, and the establishment of an "approved service area."

Companies would be fined $100 for each rider caught not wearing a helmet or improperly parking the scooters. Repeat violators would have their permits suspended or revoked.

Notably this would all be under a 24-month pilot program, which by SFTMA's own admission leaves open the possibility for a blanket ban.

"We may learn it's possible to make [the e-scooter rental industry] work in San Francisco. We may learn there's no way to make it work," SFMTA's Sustainable Street Director Tom Maguire told The San Francisco Examiner Tuesday.

Jack Song, a spokesperson for Limebike, said that he could not comment on SFMTA's impending regulations as they are still in draft form.

He did say however that his company—which has some 35,000 vehicles worldwide including about 200 scooters in San Francisco—sees dockless vehicles as a complement to a city obsessed with increasing bike and transit ridership.

"It could really provide a solution to that first and last mile problem," Song tells Reason. "Traditional station bike systems often cost up to $6,000 per bike to install and this is at the city's expense versus the dock-free business model which requires zero subsidy."

While these soon-to-be regulated entities have taken the hostility from city officials on the chin, some Bay Area commenters are rolling their eyes at the crackdown.

In a Monday column, San Francisco Chronicle columnist Heather Knight lambasted officials for focusing on the scooters, and not on the city's other, more pressing problems.

"The crisis they're concerned about is that three companies have dumped electric rental scooters around the city without permission," wrote Knight. "And the crisis we're concerned about is sidewalks covered with swelling tent camps, human feces, dirty needles and piles of trash." City residents have expressed similar attitudes on Twitter. In response, Supervisor Aaron Peskin, the chief sponsor San Francisco's ordinance pertaining to scooters, assured Knight that he spent almost no time writing the legislation.

While San Francisco has given scooter companies the cold shoulder, other cities are proving more welcoming. Washington D.C., itself no free market paradise, has so far looked on the spread of dockless bikes and scooters with favor. Laws permit riding on sidewalks, and regulators have so far seemed open to the dockless bike and scooter services currently operating. Residents appear more open to the idea too. As of late February, the District Department of Transportation had received 247 emails supporting pilot dockless bikeshare services, compared to 81 opposed.

Their utility is another issue. My morning ride was more fun and faster than usual, but hardly worth (for me, at least) paying $3.45 for a 1.2-mile ride. Others of course may well find the scooters useful for short commutes or occasional joyrides. Cities should let riders figure that out for themselves without preemptively imposing heavy-handed regulations.