Scooters are set to make a return to the streets of San Francisco after a temporary ban that allowed transportation officials to develop regulations for the popular vehicles.
Under a one-year pilot plan beginning Monday, San Francisco has licensed two companies — Scoot and Skip — to provide e-scooters in certain parts of the city. The devices will be relegated to bike lanes and banned from sidewalks.
“Scooters — or any new form of mobility — we want to make sure that they are safe and sustainable and equitable, and that they complement riding a bike,” said Brian Wiedenmeier, executive director of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, which weighed in on the plan.
San Francisco’s experience with e-scooters is a familiar one given its proximity to Silicon Valley, which has made the city’s streets an occasional test lab for high-tech experimentation and disruption. It’s also instructive for other cities such as Washington, D.C., that are still working out the kinks on regulations that encourage the use of alternative forms of transportation such as scooters and dockless bicycles while also protecting pedestrians and riders. In August, the District announced an extension of its pilot program for dockless bicycles and scooters through December, but also tightened the rules a bit on how the devices should be secured when not in use.
San Francisco Board of Supervisors member Aaron Peskin (D) said city officials there recognized that people quickly embraced scooters as a way to zip through urban congestion on trips that were too long to take on foot — or just for fun. But city officials also didn’t want sidewalks to become pedestrian free-fire zones or open dumpsters for unused scooters. He said San Francisco imposed its ban in April after several scooter companies such as Bird and Lime dumped the scooters on the streets, and something like pandemonium was set loose.
“Every elected official, and every department head in the city of San Francisco, was the subject of literally thousands of complaints. It was kind of like the bad old days of the worst excesses of tech, where they wanted to ask for forgiveness rather than permission,” said Peskin, who also chairs the San Francisco County Transportation Authority (SFCTA) Board, said most of the outcry came from pedestrians.
“They ranged from parents with strollers to people with physical challenges in wheelchairs to everyday pedestrians who were facing 25-mph devices that are not supposed to be on sidewalks, with testosterone-crazy punks zipping on the sidewalks,” Peskin said. He said public health officials also reported an increase in injuries, including some from pedestrians who tripped over abandoned scooters left on sidewalks.
The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) then set about reviewing 12 applications from a variety of companies competing for five slots, searching in particular for a commitment to safe riding and parking. The agency said it chose Scoot and Skip because both offer helmets, instructional videos or other instructional assistance.
Under the pilot program, each company can put 625 scooters on the street for the first six months. If everything checks out, SFMTA has the authority to increase the cap to 2,500 machines. City officials also plan to reexamine the pilot sometime next year. In addition, Peskin said, San Francisco has regulated the way the companies can use financial data supplied by riders, and urged other cities to do the same.
"If they’re selling you a scooter ride, they should be selling you a scooter ride and not selling your financial DNA,” he said.
Wiedenmeier said the bicycle coalition, which has more than 10,000 members, welcomed the city’s decision to choose scooter companies whose operating plans emphasized safety, sustainability and equity. Skip is offering a 50-percent discount for low-income users, for example, while Scoot addressed sustainability concerns by using batteries that can be swapped in and out of the devices instead of having to take them off the street for recharging.
Not everyone in the bicycling community is keen on sharing bike lanes with scooters, as some worry that the speed differentials between scooters and bicycles could create a hazard, Wiedenmeier said. At the same time, however, many would rather have scooters than more cars.
“I have been very clear from the beginning that these devices might well be another tool to address San Francisco’s transit woes, and be what we call a first-mile, last-mile solution — but only if they’re done on adult terms,” Peskin said.
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