San Francisco thinks it has a problem with dockless scooters. These are a new phenomenon in the city, coming on the heels of dockless bike share, a 2016-7 Chinese invention that, unlike traditional bike share systems like San Francisco's Ford GoBike, allows bikes to be located anywhere, without specified corral locations. The result of dockless bike share was revolutionary: by the end of 2017 Beijing had 2.35 million bikes, one per nine residents, and one of the providers, MoBike, claims cycling's mode share doubled.
These firms have since entered the United States, spawning some local startups as well, and subsequently, some firms have begun providing dockless electric scooters. These look much like the more familiar unpowered scooters but have small electric motors to boost speed, allowing people to go about at running speed rather than walking speed.
Led by District 3 Supervisor Aaron Peskin, the Board of Supervisors is getting closer to regulating them out of existence, for no apparent reason other than they are a new mode of transportation competing for road space with precious cars. The Boards' recently-passed ordinance, going into effect on June 4th, limits the number of companies renting electric scooters to five, with a maximum of 500 scooters per company. Moreover, it charges a $5,000 application fee and a $25,000 annual permit fee on top of that. Peskin has not given any compelling reason for why these limits are necessary, but complaints against the scooters include clutter, perceived danger to pedestrians, and dissatisfaction with private businesses in general.
Slate quotes the City Attorney's office saying the scooters are a hazard. But are they? The top speed of an electric scooter is 15 miles per hour. A healthy adult can hit that speed while running to make a bus: high school track competitions around the country have minimum qualifying times for boys and girls that require somewhat higher average speeds over a 200 meter sprint. Here are the California standards: 15 miles per hour over 200 meters correspond to 30 seconds.
Moreover, scooters weigh very little. One model is quoted at 35 pounds. Another is 16.5 pounds. A third weighs 20 pounds. Even the heavier scooters weigh far less than a human. This means that, for all intents and purposes, the risk of a collision between an electric scooter and a pedestrian is similar to the risk of a collision between a pedestrian running on the sidewalk and a standing pedestrian.
Unsurprisingly, the City Attorney's office could not find a single example of a serious injury coming from powered scooters. The worst it could cite was “a report of an injury of a broken toe after tripping on a scooter that was lying on the sidewalk”; scooters are far from the only thing lying on the sidewalk, leading former reporter and local YIMBY Action activist Joe Rivano Barros to tweet photos of cars entirely blocking the sidewalk.
Of course, the private sector’s available platforms are far from perfect. Despite the low risk of powered scooters, Lime insists that people using its electric scooters have valid drivers' licenses, locking out people who do not know how to drive. Lime also requires riders to be at least 18 years old, locking out children from car alternatives in a city that otherwise assumes respectable middle-class people own cars.
Alex Baca is the former manager of Cleveland's small docked bike share system. She has grown interested in the ability of dockless bike share to improve on traditional systems, in particular because each bike reportedly costs $200-400 whereas in Cleveland, Baca told us that each individual bike cost $2,500, and the support systems (such as the docks) added a good deal more.
Baca said that the scooters weren't a threat to pedestrians, but if they were, the city could dedicate a portion of the street to their use—scooter lanes, in other words. After all, cars are far more dangerous, polluting to boot, and require the owner to shell out $25,000, out of reach for many people, whereas electric scooters sell for a few hundred dollars per unit, and yet it's uncontroversial to give them primary use of the majority of the city's street space.
The real problem is not clutter or safety. When Aaron Peskin is calling the executives of the companies providing these vehicles “spoiled brats,” he is sending a clear message: if you want to provide transportation within the city of San Francisco, you must provide cars. Cars do not clutter the sidewalks, perhaps because the majority of the width of nearly every street is given to cars in preference to pedestrians. Auto companies made windfall profits while pedestrians as well as car occupants were killed and maimed in accidents, but their executives acted like midcentury American (or increasingly German and Japanese) business executives and not like 21st-century tech moguls, so they're not so offensive to the sensibility of San Francisco progressives.
City Hall thinks it's sending a message to new businesses to behave, but the message they are likely to hear is different: buy ExxonMobil stock. People with money to invest can buy the stock of firms in mature industries, with predictable tax rates and, owing to global inaction on climate change, predictable regulations. Exxon's investors can expect a decent return after taxes. People who instead want to invest money in alternative transportation need to guess whether the city will decide to flex its muscles and levy unnecessary fees and limit the scope of their systems.
Some technologies lend themselves better to public-sector action, like public transit. Dockless is not such a technology: it was invented by private actors, and thrives even in the presence of widespread competition (Beijing has 15 operators, each with its own app). It's not something the San Francisco Board of Supervisors could have developed itself, and so far it seems uninterested in even trying to municipalize it the way the city created Muni a hundred years ago.
Instead of asking why dockless bike share was invented in China and not in the supposedly more entrepreneurial Bay Area, San Francisco's politicians are trying to preserve the City’s car-dependent status quo, with all its contributions to climate change and traffic deaths virtually untouched.
Alon Levy is a mathematician with a strong interest in urbanism and mass transit, and currently works as a freelance writer. He contributes to the Bay City Beacon as a weekly transit columnist for Pedestrian Observations. You can find more of his writing supporting walkability and good transit.
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