Regulating San Francisco's Electric Scooter Problem

Local lawmakers struggle to regulate the scooter companies and the companies refuse to leave. 

San Francisco is one of the most eco-friendly cities in the world. Environmental accountability, sustainability, and green energy are all integral parts of the city's fabric. A growing trend in the Bay Area is electric scooter rental programs. The e-scooter trend sounds like the perfect fit for an eco-conscious city like San Francisco, yet CNBC reports that the populace is being divided by the introduction of scooters to the city.

These new programs allow you to rent an electric scooter to get around the city, reducing fossil fuel use and greenhouse gas emissions. The Drive interviewed the three main e-scooter-rental companies: Bird, Spin, and LimeBike to learn what problems the scooter rental companies are facing.

Electric Scooter Rentals in San Francisco

Electric scooter rental companies like Bird, LimeBike, and Spin are building on the ride-hailing economy by providing electric scooters access through a mobile app in San Francisco as well as other cities. 

Electric scooters are similar to the child's foot-operated vehicles accept these models are paired with a 20-pound electric motor to propel its rider through the city streets and up the iconic San Francisco hills. 

These motorized scooters have a top speed of 15 miles per hour and a range of 15 to 37 miles. The scooters can typically be rented for $1, plus an additional fee in some instances, 15 cents per minute. If it's a quick trip, one could feasibly rent a scooter for less than the price of a Starbucks coffee.

Individuals who don't have a car in the city might call an Uber or Lyft to run errands. While the use of gas-fueled cars releases more greenhouse gasses, with companies like Bird, LimeBike, and Spin, those same errands could be run on a zero-emissions electric scooter.

Recent coverage, however, suggests some lawmakers don't want scooters on San Francisco's streets. 

The Scooter and the City

Scooter companies, in some cases, are portrayed by the city as having launched their services without government officials' permission. However, according to the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA), actual permits didn't exist at the time the scooter companies began.

"When [the scooter companies] launched, we were still finalizing details of our permit process," Paul Rose, spokesperson for SFMTA told The Drive via email. "[The permits] were not available," he said. "There were no specific local guidelines at the time."

The SFMTA encouraged the scooter rental companies to work with the agency as it developed the details of the permitting process.

"We believe that the conflict arose from the varying levels of engagement the companies had with the city," says Euwyn Poon, co-founder and president of Spin. Poon noted that Spin has worked closely with local city officials since February. 

Spin told The Drive that prior to launching in San Francisco, it held a series of in-person meetings with city officials but didn't provide written documentation to the city, nor did the company fill out any city forms. 

"The backlash was against companies that provided no notice to the SFMTA before dumping scooters," Poon said.

"The general idea that companies must 'ask for permission' from government entities before offering products and services to consumers is inconsistent with our system of law and free enterprise," said Kenneth Baer, spokesman for the electric scooter rental company Bird.

Bird also said it complied with all laws and regulations in every city and state where Bird operates and applied for all applicable business licenses available in each location, including San Francisco. 

In San Francisco, Bird registered its business with the city and county. The company provided proof of its business licensing in an email to The Drive.

Regulation vs. Competition

According to LimeBike, a recent San Francisco dockless bike rental program called JUMP created confusion around the permit regulations with which electric scooter rental companies would need to comply.

"The manner in which the city handled the San Francisco dockless bike-share program in 2017 informed our efforts with regards to electric scooters," says marketer and business developer for LimeBike Jack Song.

The bike program was reportedly operating in San Francisco without a permit on a limited pilot basis and SFMTA selected JUMP as the sole company to receive a permit to operate dockless bikes in the city, according to Song. 

Following suit, LimeBike initially launched only a few pop-up scooter rental stations. "Unfortunately, our competitors used our limited rollout as a pretext to blanket the city with scooters, creating the chaotic situation that ultimately ensued," said Song.

Market competitors and the example of an unpermitted bike-sharing company in the city reportedly gave mixed signals and led the scooter rental companies to launch without proper permits.

"Before launching in San Francisco, Bird had started discussions with various city departments and advocacy groups about the best way to enter the market," Baer said. "While those discussions were ongoing, two competitor services launched. Faced with competitive pressures, a week later Bird decided to enter the market and our product has been in high demand since our first day of operations."

According to its company data, in Bird's first month in San Francisco, more than 32,000 people used the e-scooter service, taking more than 95,000 rides and collectively traveling 143,000 miles.

LimeBike said its scooter-rental program was "immensely popular" and LimeBike's usage has surpassed all the goals the company initially set. The Drive reached out to LimeBike for its ridership numbers. Song said the company could not share its ridership rate. We are awaiting scooter rental trip numbers and will update when we hear back. 

The Drive has asked Spin for its ridership and scooter usage data and has not received a response. 

Some city officials felt the companies released their products into the wild without any concern for the regulations and permits needed. The situation prompted Aaron Peskin, the San Francisco board supervisor, to tell ABC7News that the scooter companies were acting like "a bunch of spoiled brats.”

All three scooter-sharing companies told The Drive they would apply for the proper permits, once those permits were available. 

Scooter Safety and Resident Opinion

There are issues with the scooter rental companies that need to be resolved but seem to be manageable once city officials and the scooter companies get on the same page. Even Peskin doesn’t want to ban these scooters from the city's streets. Instead, he's pushing for common sense regulations and permitting, including requiring that riders wear helmets.

Legally, scooter riders in California are required to wear a helmet when operating the vehicle. However, Brock Keeling from Curbed San Francisco writes that riders don't seem to be taking this law seriously. "You need to wear a helmet while riding an electric scooter," he writes. "Are riders really wearing helmets? No."

The lack of helmets is a big concern for San Francisco lawmakers, but it isn't the only one. San Francisco is a busy city with more than 400,000 cars registered within the city limits according to a 2017 report from the Department of Motor Vehicles

Two women in Nashville, Tennessee were seriously injured in a hit-and-run accident while riding Bird scooters a few weeks ago. According to the Tennessean, they were struck by a car at an intersection in downtown Nashville. Neither of the women was wearing a helmet and both were admitted to Vanderbilt University Medical Center for major injuries.

Nashville has a population of about 691,000 people, several hundred thousand less than San Francisco.

Additional issues lie with the scooter drivers themselves. According to Curbed San Francisco, many scooters from all three companies have been impounded by law enforcement due to being parked on sidewalks or in front of doorways. Bird eventually implemented a program that required riders to send a picture of their scooter after they parked it to ensure it was in the proper spot.

LimeBike has started distributing helmets to its users, in addition to requiring a parking photo, to try to comply with city regulations.

According to the California DMV, motorized scooters do not have to be registered like a car or motorcycle. However, drivers must be at least 16 years old, have a driver's license, and wear a helmet. 

Additionally, while it's legal in California to drive an electric scooter on a bicycle path or the biking lane of a roadway, it is illegal to drive them on sidewalks.

One reader wrote to a San Francisco legal blog stating that they had just left a Starbucks and someone riding a scooter on the sidewalk "almost clipped" them. 

California state Senator Scott Wiener is in the pro-scooter camp. Wiener has tweeted at length about what is being touted as "scooter-geddon," and how he believes it's not a bad thing after all. 

"Listen, these guys [the scooter companies] screwed up by not seeking permits," he tweeted. "Riding scooters on sidewalks isn’t ok. Dumping them all over isn’t ok. But, the reaction to the coming of the scooters has also been extreme. Scooters are a good thing."

The senator went on to say "Scooters are an affordable, easy way for folks to get around [without] using a car. They take up massively less space than other vehicles. Let’s get them permitted & avoid negative impacts. Let’s not have a knee-jerk 'the sky is falling because something new is happening' reaction," he added.

SFMTA Pilot Program and the Future of Scooter Rentals

A proposed pilot program for electric scooter rental companies would allow them to operate within the city limits with the proper permits and following the laws. That is, the scooter companies would need to ensure that their scooters are driven by customers wearing helmets, are not being driven on sidewalks, and should only be operated by users over 16 years old with a valid drivers license. 

Each company would have to pay a $5,000 application fee, in addition to showing the city how it plans to ensure its scooters are used and parked safely and according to the laws.

It would also limit the number of scooters on the street at any given time to 2,500, issuing five permits with a limit of 500 scooters per permit. Currently, each of the three scooter companies operating within San Francisco's city limits have roughly 200 scooters each.

Each company would also have to provide user insurance, education to ensure the scooters are used safely, and share trip data with the city of San Francisco. User data would also have to be secure and encrypted to protect user privacy. 

Low-income plans for those who can't afford to rent a scooter otherwise would also have to be implemented for a company to be approved for a permit.

According to a press release from the San Francisco City Attorney's Office, all scooter companies operating within San Francisco should either have a permit by June 4 or remove its scooters from San Francisco's streets.

On May 24, the SFMTA made the necessary permits accessible to the scooter companies via its website. Applications are due by June 7, 5:00 p.m. PST. 

San Francisco legislators and officials say they don't want to get rid of electric scooters within the city limits. They simply want to ensure scooters are being used safely, are parked properly, and driven safely with respect to pedestrians on the sidewalks and drivers on the road. 

According to The INRIX 2017 Global Traffic Scorecard, there are five U.S. cities ranked in the top 10 most congested cities worldwide—San Francisco is rated number five.

"People are integrating the scooters into the fabric of their lives as a new mode of daily transportation," Song says. "Because of that, we believe scooters can be part of the solution to get people out of cars and on to public transportation, helping to alleviate traffic congestion in the Bay Area." 

Natalie Abruzzo contributed to this report.