They appeared one morning in San Francisco, rolling in like the city’s iconic, chilling fog. They coasted through car-clogged streets at a brisk 15 mph, bearing a fleet of dorkish men and women in khakis.
Over the course of a few short weeks in March, the City by the Bay became one of several test grounds for these electric scooters, the latest deluge of mobility options from cash-rich companies offering yet another alternative to the traditional ways of getting around town.
There’s Bird, which also has scooters in LA, Santa Monica, San Diego, San Jose, and Washington, DC, and now more than 175 in the Bay Area.1 LimeBike runs dockless bicycle programs, too, but has its scooters in San Diego, DC, and SF. Spin has under 50 scooters in the Bay. Combined, they have more than $200 million in funding.
The scooters are very good for cities, their purveyors (and investors) argue. They don’t create traffic or emissions. They’re a convenient alternative to taking a car or relying on a not-so-vibrant public transit network. They’re pretty easy to use—download an app, locate a scooter, and go—and pretty cheap, often less than $2 per ride. And besides, they’re legal, because San Francisco’s rulers never thought to make rules regulating electric scooter sharing businesses. As with Uber and Lyft, circa 2010: Who’d even heard of such a thing, before it showed up?
Legal or not, they’re cause for concern, or at least headaches, in City Hall. Officials used to managing streets designed for cars are facing a bevy of new options that can create unseemly mess in a very limited space, even as they provide sometimes healthier, cheaper, and nimbler transportation alternatives.
Indeed, some corners of the city have reacted with alarm. People can lock the scooters anywhere on the street, and so they can easily impede wheelchairs, strollers, or people who appreciate the ancient art of walking. Users are sometimes not great at riding the scooters, especially in a place busy with cars, bicycles, doggos, pedestrians, and the occasional delivery robot.
“They’re small, but they do take up space,” says Miriam Sorell, a senior transportation planner at the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency. “For those in a wheelchair or with a vision impairment, they could pose a hazard.” It’s not that the city is anti-scooter, she says. “We want to make sure people operate them safely.”
For cities, this raises thorny questions, ones that need answers as governments say they’re getting serious about non-personal-car sorts of transportation. Since 2010, hundreds of American cities, towns, and university campuses have installed docked bike-sharing systems. (The Bay Area’s Ford GoBike system, operated by the company Motivate, rolled out in earnest just eight months ago.) In 2017, dockless bike-sharing companies like LimeBike, the Chinese companies Ofo and Mobike, Spin, and Jump, mixed up the business model, nixing the places to park vehicles in favor of an unlock-n-go approach. San Francisco has even contended with delivery robots, which local politicians complain can clog the streets. Cars usually get a few lanes, but there’s only so much sidewalk. Now cities have to make room for scooters, which not only park in the public right-of-way, but are sometimes (illegally) piloted there, too.
So what should a city street be, for whom, for what? Who gets to determine the answer? And are we cool if some private companies make money off it?
California state law provides some guidance. Electric scooter riders must wear helmets, possess driver's licenses, and stay off the sidewalk, leaving that strip of concrete to the people on foot. (Washington, DC, where e-scooters have operated since February, has similar rules.)
But scooter-ers haven’t always scooted on the right side of the law. San Diego residents—especially elderly ones—complain that scooters obstruct sidewalks and driveways. San Francisco techies grouse about near-misses with aggressive riders. Indeed, few scoot-ers actually ride in the street, where they’re supposed to go in the absence of a bike lane. Who can blame them? Cars move way faster than 15 mph.
So there have been a few ugly dustups between cities and companies. The city of Santa Monica, in LA County, filed a criminal complaint against Bird last year, resulting in a $300,000 fine for failing to secure business licenses and vendors’ permits. The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency sent sternly worded letters to the three companies operating in its city, warning it would “not tolerate any business model that results in obstruction of the public right of way or poses a safety hazard.” LimeBike got the fiercest talking-to; the SFMTA took it to task for launching electric scooters in the city without warning—even after the startup said it wouldn’t. (LimeBike says the whole thing was a misunderstanding, and that its initial launch is just a limited pop-up.)
Getting people to use these scooters in the right way comes down to education, the companies say, and that’s mostly their responsibility. Bird and LimeBike both provide initial instructions for new riders inside their apps, and then on the e-scooters themselves. (The label on every Bird scooter explains the ground rules: “Ride safely / Helmet required / License required / No double riding / 18+ years old”.)
“We want people to follow the rules, we want to communicate what the rules of the road are, but at the end of the day, it’s up to the user to make sure they’re following the rules,” says Scott Kubly, head of government relations at LimeBike, who left his post as Seattle’s transportation chief last year. “In the same way, if you’re Ford, you want people to drive their vehicles the right way, but when they’re out on the street driving their vehicles, you can’t control how people drive.”
Still, LimeBike says it continues to do rider education and outreach through in-app messages, online and offline tools (like videos), and engaging specific communities through local groups and street fairs.
Even so, San Francisco is in the midst of making rules—firmer, stricter rules—for electric scooters. In early March, the city’s Board of Supervisors introduced legislation that would require companies to obtain permits to operate e-scooter businesses. The SFMTA is now working on complementary legislation that would outline that specific permitting process. The city could begin issuing permits by May or June.
“At this point it’s so new, we want to make sure we have all our bases covered, and compare what we hear from companies to what we hear from residents,” says Sorell, with the SFMTA. “We’ll definitely incorporate into the permit expectations about where those scooters should be parked and what level of education the companies must provide to the riders.”
Cool, say the companies. “In many cities, the regulation has not caught up with the technology,” says Ken Baer, a spokesperson for Bird. “There’s probably going be some work that cities have to do, and we’ll work with them on that.”
That could, perhaps, include scooter infrastructure. No one envisions a future with a scoot-only lane (SFMTA says it’s definitely too early for that kind of speculation), but a groundswell of support for scooters could push cities to build more space for people who aren’t in cars: cyclists, pedestrians, and sure, scoot-ers. “The bike infrastructure is not required for a scooter-sharing business, but boy, oh boy, I hope that’s what comes out of it,” Kubly says.
In the meantime, scooter-sharing companies are not afraid of throwing a few elbows in the form of competing to be the most gracious city partners (or at least make it look like they are). Last week, Bird put out an “SOS: Save Our Sidewalks” pledge, which asks signatories to promise to remove their bicycles or scooters from the streets at night, increase the number of vehicles on the streets only if they’re making at least three trips a day, and give $1 to city government per vehicle.
It’s a nice looking act of goodwill that four other companies have thus far refused to sign. “Our competitors’ recent overtures, including a recent “Save our Sidewalks” campaign, come off as insincere given recent criminal complaints and settlements,” Spin CEO Euwyn Poon wrote on Medium. In other words: We’ll manage our own relationships with cities, thanks.
And those cities, San Francisco included, expect to have their say, too. As soon as they figure out what, exactly, it is they’d like.
1Correction appended, 4/4/18, 12:20 PM EDT: A previous version of this story misstated the number of Bird e-scooters in the Bay Area.