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Officials and lawmakers are looking for ways to regulate the emergence of dockless bikes and electric scooters.

San Francisco has seen a growing wave of electric scooters and dockless bikes popping up on the streets. How to regulate these modes of transit has been the focus of a fierce debate in city hall. The Board of Supervisors’ Land Use and Transportation Committee will consider new legislation to regulate electric scooters at a hearing this Monday. If passed, it will go before the full Board of Supervisors for consideration.

While there is a lengthy permit process for dockless bikes, that is not yet the case for electric scooters. Paul Rose, chief spokesperson and media relations manager for the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA), said the SFMTA is currently working on developing a permit process for stationless scooters with District 3 Supervisor Aaron Peskin.   

Essentially, the City is seeking to model new regulations for scooters in the mold of recent considerations for dockless bike-share systems.

Supervisor Peskin and District 6 Supervisor Jane Kim sponsored a proposed ordinance that would impose permitting and enforcement regulations on electric scooters, similar to what was adopted for dockless bike-share programs. The proposal would allow the SFMTA to levy administrative penalties for companies that violate permit requirements.

This legislation, and the emergence of dockless bikes and electric scooters, highlights a mixed reaction to their presence. While scooters and bikes can block sidewalks and curb ramps, these innovative transportation options can help reduce traffic and pollution from car use.

Rose emphasized the importance of having regulations in place for dockless bikes and electric scooters.

“Regulations are needed to ensure that interested companies are operating safely, providing equitable service and accountable for their actions in the public right of way,” he said.

While electric scooters and dockless bikes become more popular, they have created challenges and concerns among city officials and lawmakers, who aim to regulate their dispersal along the public right-of-way.

Recently, however, a backlash on social media has emerged, including the ironic hashtag #ScootersBehavingBadly, noting a contrast in enforcement standards cars that block sidewalks with apparent impunity. 

“Innovative transportation options, such as these, can provide an attractive option for people who might currently rely on their private vehicle,” Rose said. “However, we have to ensure that these services are safe, don’t block the public right of way and are adhering to all laws.”

JUMP Bikes, which launched in 2017, is the first dockless electric bike-share program in the United States, with the intention of making bike rides more convenient and enjoyable. Earlier in the year, JUMP Bikes received an 18-month permit from the SFMTA. City officials hope this permitting system can provide a model for future scooter regulations.

JUMP Bikes is required to prove the SFMTA with enough data for an evaluation, and the Agency’s evaluation will result in policy recommendations for stationless bike-sharing services for the future, which includes any necessary changes for the city’s Transportation Code.

Rose said that bike-share currently has an “excellent safety record,” and parked bikes should not obstruct the public sidewalks of San Francisco under current regulations. Rose added that the SFMTA also wants to provide affordable memberships for people with low incomes.

But electric scooters pose a different problem, Rose noted: “While requirements for parking and riding of motorized scooters are already covered in a variety of state and local laws, the rollout of these shared systems means there are lots of new users who may or may not understand these regulations.”

“With a permit, we would require the scooter-share companies to educate their users on how to ride and park responsibly and hold the companies accountable to produce good behavior from their users,” he added. 

Bird is an electric scooter company that was founded last fall, and is dedicated to “bringing low-cost, environmentally-friendly transportation solutions to communities across the world.” Like other electric scooter companies such as LimeBike and Spin, Bird uses San Francisco as one of its cities for operation. Relations between the company and city officials briefly chafed, but appear to have shifted to a more optimistic tone.

Like many bike-sharing and scooter systems, Bird’s electric scooters are accessed by a smartphone app.

Bird spokesperson Kenneth Baer said, “We are encouraged that Supervisor Peskin and other forward-looking leaders on the Board have said that they do not want to shut down the environmentally-friendly, traffic-reducing transit option that Bird is offering.”

Baer said if the regulations they are considering are adopted, then it will be “a needed update to the laws on the books to allow (the) DPW to impound e-scooters that are blocking sidewalks and public property.”

The company agrees that any dockless vehicle that blocks sidewalks and public property should be removed. Bird is committed to their “Save Our Sidewalks” pledge, “in which we will pick up all our vehicles every night, not increase our supply of vehicles in a city unless they are being used at least three times per vehicle per day (weather permitting), remove underutilized vehicles, and educate our riders … about safe and legal riding and parking.”

“Our mission is to help cities get cars off the road – alleviating traffic congestion and reducing carbon emissions that lead to climate change,” Baer said. “This gives people looking to take a short journey across town or down that ‘last-mile’ from the subway or bus to their destination a way to do so that does not pollute the air or add to traffic.

Baer stated that Bird values collaboration, and the company works closely with the cities in which it operates.

The SFMTA is using the 18-month period to assess if the bike-sharing program will work moving forward. Also in its evaluation, the SFMTA will look to identify places where the city should promote stationless bike-share.

Rose said the SFMTA “will finalize the process on the stationless scooter permit and continue to monitor stationless bike-sharing to inform our next steps on services like these in San Francisco.”

Update: The Board of Supervisor's Land Use Committee voted 3-0 on Monday, April 16th, to support legislation that would prohibit dockless scooters from operating in San Francisco without a permit. The legislation will now move to the Board of Supervisors.

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