The Squeaky Wheel: What We Talk About When We Talk About Scooters

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Lewis Lehe, a former Lecturer at the UC Berkeley College of Engineering on his first e-scooter ride

Shared e-scooters may be the dorky-looking, dirt-cheap cavalry of a transportation revolution. If it’s going to work, civic leaders and private enterprises will need to start seeing eye-to-eye—and that’s proving to be quite a bumpy ride.

“That was fun,” said Lewis Lehe, a former Lecturer at the UC Berkeley College of Engineering with a specialty in public transit, as he unbuckled his helmet and posed for the photo above. “No wonder these things are a hit.”

Dr. Lehe, who is headed to an assistant professorship at the University of Illinois-Champaign in the fall, joined me for a ride in Downtown Oakland to test out these controversial contraptions known as e-scooters. Neither of us had ridden the shared, battery-powered devices before. Lehe said they were too new of a phenomenon for there to be much academic literature on them, but as a transportation scholar, his thoughts on the scooters ran deeper than the prevailing political climate.

Where did all the scooters go?

This month, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Authority (SFMTA) will be doling out much-coveted permits for a year-long pilot program capping shared e-scooters at 1,250 city-wide, for up to five companies. Six months in, that cap will double. Twelve companies have applied, and most want the lion’s share of the permits in order to provide what they consider optimal, consistent service. In the case of the shared moped company Scoot, their application has “respectfully” requested an effective monopoly over all permits in the pilot program, in order to operate with a citywide network of garages. Others are hedging their bets, but most likely, no one will get exactly what they want.

While the City hits the reset button, the ensuing debate threatens to peel off the scab at the nexus of several disparate policy concerns, pitting concrete urban planning data against topical outrage over something new and occasionally obnoxious. These issues bubbling under the surface boil down to: mobility, both economic and corporeal; the equitable distribution of space for stopping and going; plus the nebulous mandate and scope of local government authority.

When battery-powered scooters from Bird, Lime, and Spin first descended upon San Francisco this spring like Lucifer into hell or the Archangel at Nazareth (pick your preferred metaphor), the foremost grievance was that this locally-unregulated service led to users riding and then dumping the on-demand motorized monsters on public sidewalks, blocking the public right-of-way, and inconveniencing mobility-impaired pedestrians.

Spin, the first of these companies founded in San Francisco and the first to remove its wares, only distributed in SoMa, and notes that they had informed the SFMTA this February of their intent to distribute several hundred in a limited area. Lime had been in contact with the SFMTA since July of 2017 in preparation for a rollout, and was hosting pop-up promotions in the Bayview with local nonprofit Young Community Developers. But according to its permit application, once Bird delivered over a thousand scooters to a larger downtown-focused area earlier this year, Lime decided to pull the trigger and expand into the same area. City leaders inevitably saw this as a more audacious move in absence of official permitting, and reacted accordingly.

After the Board of Supervisors authorized a pilot program for limited permits, the City Attorney’s office sent a cease-and-desist letter to companies that had distributed scooters before any permit existed (Bird, Lime, and to a lesser extent, Spin). After the pilot program ordinance became effective on June 4th, the Department of Public Works confiscated some scooters and issued fines for sidewalk violations, and the three companies swiftly removed all remaining scooters.

In response to several questions about their application, a Bird representative provided the following written statement: “Bird officially applied for a permit with the city of San Francisco...In compliance with the process, we also removed our vehicles from the streets. We are waiting to hear more about the status of our application and are hopeful that we can once again provide our traffic and carbon emissions-reducing vehicles to San Francisco.”

Who, What, Where, and Why?

San Francisco has a reputation as a walkable and transit-rich city, but it can be difficult to get around depending on your destination. Driving and parking is bothersome, expensive, and environmentally unfriendly. Ride-hailing services like Uber only add to the congestion. Bikeshare has been strictly limited throughout the city, and protected bike infrastructure projects can languish in the planning process even after cyclists are killed in traffic.

So how do you take those awkward trips that are too long to walk, too short for the bus, inconvenient or downright dangerous to bike, and a nightmare to drive? This is where scooters have found their niche.

Keziah Plattner, who commutes from Lower Haight to Mission Bay, said that bikeshare and scooters cut her two-bus commute time by more than half, but she also found e-scooters useful for avoiding catcalls and other forms of street harassment she might face while walking.

“While walking is technically an option, [my friends and I] don't always feel the greatest about walking thanks to catcalling and street harassment,” Plattner said. “If I feel unsafe, even if I only have to walk a mile, I end up waiting for a bus or taking rideshare. The great thing when the scooters rolled out was that I felt way better in situations like that since I could move quickly.”

Another San Francisco resident, Hilary Schiraldi, found the scooters particularly convenient while recovering from a hip injury. “I use GoBikes a lot for trips between BART and destinations in Berkeley and SoMa…but biking was aggravating [the injury],” she explained. A scooter turned out to be a convenient and pain-free option to get to her next appointment quickly.

City transportation politics are perhaps best understood as an occasionally lethal competition for scarce available space. Hopeful scooter providers are proposing to share user data with the city to identify which streets present the greatest demand for protected bike infrastructure. That space that will ultimately compete with highly-coveted parking space for cars, which already have a significant constituency at City Hall.

San Francisco has roughly 500,000 cars on its streets at any time, but it can take years for the SFMTA to install protected bike lanes on major corridors, even after cyclists are killed by irresponsible drivers. This map by cycling advocate Matthew Lewis demonstrates the total land area those cars take up:

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That, in turn, requires approximately 195 million square feet of pavement for automobiles to move around, which looks like this in the aggregate:

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And while a majority of trips in San Francisco occur by transit, walking, or cycling, mass transit and bike lanes take up significantly less space in the City, as shown below:

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A survey from LimeBike also calls attention to two more problematic issues: for one, 81% of users said they didn't feel safe using scooters off the sidewalk. Additionally, there are indications that scooter use is replacing walking trips more often than vehicle trips—making public health concerns and traffic concerns over sidewalk space all the more thorny.

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However, Bird has recently thrown down the gauntlet in their quest for safer road-space: the company recently announced that it would donate $1 per scooter per day to fund protected bike lanes. The onus would be further shifted to cities facing looming budget deficits—including San Francisco—to simply approve the infrastructure.

Sweet Deals for Squeaky Wheels

During our afternoon ride, Lehe and I ran into mostly black Oakland residents enjoying Lime and Bird e-scooters. Almost everyone rode on sidewalks out of fear of busy car lanes—and frankly, we shared this inclination. When the wide sidewalks of the downtown area gave way to narrower sidewalks and calmer traffic in Chinatown, we switched to the street, to the bemusement of onlookers.

A recent survey by the research firm Populus found that scooters had become particularly popular among lower-income city dwellers and least popular in the highest income bracket, and slightly more popular with women than men. While 70% of those surveyed viewed scooters positively, San Francisco was an outlier of 10 cities surveyed, with a slim 52% favorability.

There may have been a culture shock when unregulated scooters first arrived in San Francisco, but Lehe is skeptical that permanently restricting the amount of scooters will have a positive effect on the city overall, and hopes that the caps will remain only in the pilot.

“I understand the motive for a temporary cap, as we learn more about safety issues,” he said. “But a permanent cap would, like the taxi medallion system, grant permanent economic rents to the firms lucky enough to get the initial slots. A permanent cap would also dampen network effects,” meaning any benefits would take longer to spread citywide.

Matt Brezina, a bike safety advocate and investor in shared transportation companies JumpBikes, Spin, and Waybots (now Skip), was also critical of the caps. “People will not switch to these modes en masse until they are as accessible as private car parking or Uber pickups,” Brezina said.

“You won't be able to pick up or drop off a scooter anywhere in the Avenues,” he added. “We will continue to be a divided city…Cars should have the strictest caps and the highest costs.”

Fundamentally, the SFMTA doesn’t disagree with Brezina. “The point of the pilot program is to study how people use scooters in the city,” said Ben Jose, a spokesperson for the agency. Riders’ responses to the availability of scooters in the first year, he explained, could help the City understand ridership and demand in the future.

Brian Kyuhoon No, Head of Public Policy for Spin, noted that providing an adequate density of scooters can make it difficult to serve underserved neighborhoods at the fringes of the City, such as the Bayview or Excelsior. “Our baseline proposed service area, for a modest fleet size, does include many of what the SFMTA has identified as ‘Equity Strategy Neighborhoods,’ though sadly, not all of them,” No explained. In the future, he said, a successful pilot program could lead to greater availability. “The smaller the fleet size we are granted, the harder it is to serve a larger area. Our hope is that there will be enough to not only be sustainable as a business model, but also reliable for the communities we want to serve. In order for it to be reliable enough, there needs to be a certain level of density.” 

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Spin’s proposal emphasizes a contiguous coverage area.

 

Bottom line: scooters are far cleaner, cheaper, and more compact than cars. But to complicate matters, observers both in and outside of City Hall have complained that the initial rollout is emblematic of the move-fast-and-break things ethos of Silicon Valley. Simply put, it was a risky move that backfired politically. More surprisingly, though, this animus over optics and social equity has carried into tensions within the scooter industry itself.

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This is the existing network of Scoot's parking garages and seated scooters.

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By contrast, Scoot’s application aims for compatibility with its existing network of garages.

Among other competitors, there is marked resentment against early adopters like Bird and Lime for preempting the implementation of local permitting and sparking public outrage. The Board of Supervisors’ ordinance calls for the SFMTA permits to consider companies’ past behavior, and the competition has not let this slide. For example, the permit application from Skip, a company already successfully operating in Washington, DC, and the East Bay, explicitly condemns those practices, while touting itself as a more responsible and cooperative firm. 

Here are some choice excerpts from Skip’s ambitiously candid permit application, which highlights their request for a relatively small allocation of 350-500 scooters:

...although unlike Bird, Limebike, and Spin, Skip cannot point to two-plus months of non-permitted San Francisco operations, we can point to our ability to build…[a] legally permitted operation in Washington, D.C.

...Though [Skip] firmly believes that it is the best qualified applicant, our core values eschew acting like an ‘entitled tech company,’ and we believe that any operator seeking the overwhelming majority of scooter allocations is only proving why they are not worthy of the privilege of doing business here.

(Publisher's note: representatives from Spin are strongly disputing this characterization, in particular highlighting our reporting in this article of their efforts to communicate transparently with the SFMTA. We will be updating this page as we obtain more information.)

“Caps can definitely invite political favoritism,” Lehe argued. “If the scooter fleet is going to be permanently limited, I would prefer the city do so by taxation or auctioning the rights to run scooters, so that the profits created by scarcity can fund public services, and so that firms compete on quality and price rather than impressing politicians. A good example is what’s happening with Transportation Networking Companies (TNCs): rather than cap them, governments are starting to tax them.”

But Muriel MacDonald, Director of Public Affairs for Skip, takes a softer approach to the controversy. In her estimation, positive civic engagement is essential to the overall quality of service. “San Francisco is a very thoughtful city,” she said, noting that the cap on total scooters was intended to mollify a public that would need time to adapt to a new form of transportation. “I think the SFMTA is doing it right,” she added, with regard to the clear deadlines and detailed requirements every applicant faced.

Significantly, MacDonald highlighted community outreach processes for low-income stakeholders. Most applicants have committed to dedicate a percentage of their scooter stock, either immediately or later in the process, to areas the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) has identified as “Communities of Concern,” such as the Bayview or Outer Mission. Skip and Lime propose different ways to provide access to customers without bank accounts or smartphones (e.g. gift cards or toll-free hotlines). Virtually every company plans to offer a discount for users who qualify for programs such as food stamps or discounted utilities.

Across the bay, Oakland’s City Council is considering an ordinance that would require low-income discounts and smartphone-free access for all scooter providers, as well as a minimum of 50% of fleet distribution in Communities of Concern. Unlike San Francisco, the ordinance proposes charging fees in lieu of direct restrictions on the amount of scooter permits.

Skip is also exploring a more long-term—but in their eyes, more impactful—approach to equity concerns, by lending a hand to advocacy efforts in those communities.

For example, we first interviewed MacDonald at a volunteer-led People Protected Bike Lane demonstration on Townsend Street. Representatives from Spin were also present. This particular demonstration resulted in swift action from Supervisor Jane Kim, who later announced that the once-delayed Townsend bike lanes would be completed by the end of the year.

Skip’s offer is relatively unprecedented: aside from setting aside $500,000 in grants toward capital projects and advocacy organizations reflecting San Francisco's Vision Zero street safety goals, and otherwise fairly routine engagement with other community advocacy groups, the company proposes to establish a sixteen-member Community Advisory Board with appointees made by the Mayor’s Office, the Board of Supervisors, and the SFMTA. This commission would have more members than the Safe Injection Sites Task Force established last year by now-Mayor London Breed, but at the urging of a private corporation.

The competition won’t be caught flat-footed. Bird and Lime are courting historically marginalized demographics in the Bayview District with local hiring programs, helmet giveaways, and street fair sponsorship. Curiously, despite these helmet giveaways, Bird has also sponsored Assembly Bill 2989 to waive helmet requirements for electric scooters—requirements which cycling advocates and public health researchers contend have no net effect on safety and instead discourage ridership. Earlier versions of the bill would have also prohibited any municipal fleet caps and sidewalk restrictions.

More recently, Bird proposed forming a “Global Safety Advisory Board” to advocate for safer street policies in every market. Meanwhile, Lime has announced that it will be relocating its corporate headquarters from San Mateo to a San Francisco office at One Sansome Street, even if their permit application is rejected. These are prime examples of how seemingly opposite political strategies can intersect: joining hands with city governments doesn’t mean the industry can’t preempt them at the state legislature, too.

Scooter permitting also highlights social issues arising from a changing job market. Since ridesharing companies see these products taking would-be Uber riders out of cars for shorter, quicker trips, Uber and Lyft have dived headfirst into the bikeshare market: Uber purchased dockless bike firm JumpBikes and is partnering with Lime, while Lyft purchased Motivate, the company that operates Ford GoBike across the Bay Area. Lyft has also submitted an application for its own electric scooter product. Inevitably, questions about the contractor-dependent gig economy come up.

Virtually every company plans to pay independent contractors to charge their fleet’s batteries, paying a range of $5-20 per scooter depending on geographic distribution. While some companies like Skip and Scoot boast a salaried workforce of mechanics to repair scooters in-house, Bird plans to use independent contractors for its mechanics as well. Aside from training videos, these contractors “are expected to already have knowledge relevant to the services provided,” per the company’s application.

While Bird representatives did not respond to questions about how these contractor mechanics would be certified, or where these repairs would occur, the company’s permit application notes that scooters found “damaged beyond repair” are shipped to the company’s Southern California warehouse for further inspection, whereupon truly irreparable scooters are “properly disposed of”—and indeed, every application contains a section regarding scrap metal disposal and Zero Waste plans.

The Home Stretch

Lehe admits that there may be an untold number of side-effects from increased scooter use, but he notes this also speaks more broadly to the multivariate transportation needs that experts refer to as the Last Mile Problem.

“It’s easy to envision how scooters could potentially help resolve transit’s last mile problem: people get off the bus or rail and then grab a scooter the rest of the way home,” he says. “But will there be scooters waiting at the stops? And everyone’s last mile problem is a little different. Scooters might not be the right solution for everyone—for example, the elderly. “

“If the firms’ visions come true, the biggest question is going to be the allocation of street space. Can we justify using so much street space for on-street parking if you could have hundreds or thousands of people an hour riding through that space on bicycles and scooters?”

Lehe shares this author’s hunch that e-scooters may be the harbinger—albeit a kitschy-looking one—of a paradigm shift in transportation.

“Technology causes services to move between household production and transacted production. Consider laundry: a long time ago more people used to transact for laundry service at a laundromat or wash-and-fold place, but then home washing machines became more common. Now urban transportation seems to be moving in the opposite direction: instead of driving themselves everywhere in their own cars or on their own bikes, more people will use ride-hailing, car shares, carpools, bike-shares and these scooters,” he says.

To save lives, or at least the planet, businesses and bureaucrats are going to have to learn to share the road.

 

(Correction: an earlier version of this article stated that Skip was investing $500,000 in grants to the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition. The funds are actually being set aside for projects and groups in promotion of street safety, with the Bicycle Coalition mentioned as an example. The Beacon regrets the error. - Ed.)

 

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