Transportation Policy

San Francisco Continues to Give Middle Finger to E-Scooters, Rejects Permit Applications for Lime, Bird, Others

But the rest of the country is embracing the latest transportation craze.



San Francisco regulators have found a new way to signal their disdain for dockless e-scooters. Though its new permitting program can give up to five companies permission to operate in the city, the San Francisco Metropolitan Transportation Authority (SFMTA) issued just two permits yesterday. Ten other companies, including major players Bird and Lime, were rejected.

Bird and Lime, along with smaller outfit Spin, were the first companies to roll out their vehicles in San Francisco, debuting without official sanction in April. The city government responded by impounding the scooters and ordering the companies to cease operations until a regulatory framework could be established.

The new regulations required scooter companies to pay hefty application fees, meet various standards (such as enabling cash payments and making their apps multilingual), and craft detailed plans for how they were going to address such issues as sustainability, transportation equity, and labor relations.

The only enterprises whose applications met the city's approval are Scoot and Skip.

"Both companies submitted strong proposals with detailed, unique and innovative approaches that demonstrated the highest level of commitment to solving known challenges and concerns," reads SFMTA's statement on its decision. It adds that "no other applications substantially exceeded the agency's standards for operating a shared scooter pilot program."

Scoot impressed SFMTA with its requirement that riders watch mandatory training videos on how to use a scooter, as well as its proposal to swap out a depleted vehicle's batteries without taking the vehicle off the street. (Other companies planned on taking them in to recharge them overnight, a method SFMTA says will cause more greenhouse gas emissions and traffic congestion.) Skip won praise for agreeing to establish a community advisory board and to deploy 20 percent of its vehicles in the underserved southeastern portion of the city.

The total number of scooters will be limited to 1,250 scooters (625 apiece) when start up operations in October. This cap could be raised to 2,500 total scooters for all approved companies—if officials think things are going sufficiently well.

The rejected applicants have expressed a range reactions.

Lime says it will appeal. Bird is accepting the decision for the time being, saying it's disappointed but hopes to be allowed back into San Francisco when the pilot program is done.

Bird spokesman Kenneth Baer notes that playing keepaway with permits and imposing strict vehicle caps undermine the city's stated goals of increasing transportation options for low-income communities and cutting back on car travel.

"If you cap it, you'll never meet demand," he tells Reason. "Supply never meets demand. That means it's not reliable. That means people don't use it. That means it doesn't go to neighborhoods that need it most. Caps doom e-scooters to the fate of the Segway. It becomes a curiosity." E-scooters, he says, have to become normal before they become popular.

The rest of the country has been more welcoming of e-scooters. Despite headlines about these vehicles being thrown into the sea or smeared with feces, support for scooter services hovers around the 70 percent mark in most cities, according to a July 2018 survey. The one outlier was San Francisco, where only a slim majority (52 percent) approve of these scooters.

These friendly attitudes are increasingly reflected in cities' policies toward e-scooters. In the Bay Area, places like Santa Monica and Oakland are allowing more operators and adopting more flexible "utilization caps" on scooters that can rise with demand. Further north, Portland is allowing up to 2,500 scooters on its streets—a damn sight more generous than San Francisco when you consider how much larger San Francisco's population is—and has allowed three operators to set up shop so far. Dallas and Atlanta have adopted looser regulations still.

None of these cities has adopted a truly libertarian approach of allowing anyone who wants to launch a scooter service, but they have at least been willing to treat these companies as welcome innovators, not aggressive invaders. San Francisco's regulators should take note.