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Companies pledge to curb scofflaw riders as new regulations, cap on scooters approved

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A woman rides a Bird dockless electric scooter on Market Street. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Electric scooter companies have promised to curb customers who park scooters in the middle of sidewalks, or illegally ride on sidewalks, those companies revealed in a response to a cease-and-desist notice sent by City Attorney Dennis Herrera last month.

The companies’ response became public Tuesday as The City approved new scooter regulations in the form of a year-long pilot program.

The pilot will cap the number of motorized, rentable two-wheelers at 1,250 citywide. That number of allowed scooters can be allocated in any way between companies who apply for the permits but is lower than the number currently reported by just one company alone, Bird, which has said it has as many as 1,600 scooters.

Scooter companies have “begged forgiveness before asking for permission,” said Malcolm Heinicke, vice chair of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency Board of Directors, shortly before the board voted to approve the regulations.

Heinicke said he was concerned the regulations approved Tuesday would “reward” companies who flouted The City’s attempt to develop permits by launching before the process was complete. To ensure compliance, he introduced an amendment to the regulations giving SFMTA Director Ed Reiskin discretion to deny scooter companies permits based on past behavior, including flouting the law.

Bird, Spin and Lime all launched their scooter services in March in The City to mixed response. The popular vehicles can be rented by smartphone app, but when a rider is finished they’re often left parked in the middle of sidewalks, critics say. Organizations like Walk San Francisco have also decried the companies for allowing their riders to illegally ride the motorized scooters on sidewalks, endangering pedestrians.

The City Attorney’s Office asked the companies to prominently post on its scooters, in user agreements, and in the mobile phone apps text explaining that it’s illegal to ride scooters on sidewalks, illegal to carry passengers and illegal to ride without helmets. In letters sent to The City on Monday, Spin, Lime and Bird each said they would comply. Spin also said it would require riders to scan their California ID’s to verify they have valid licenses and ask riders to “rate” the previous rider’s parking job.

“We will be reviewing the responses over the next several days” with various city agencies, City Attorney’s Office spokesman John Cote said in a statement.

The new permit requirements complete the scooter regulatory framework approved by the Board of Supervisors in April.

SFMTA originally proposed capping the number of scooters at 2,500 vehicles, but the board halved the number of legally allowed vehicles to address concerns from the public.

Samuel Dreiman, a strategic development staff member at Limebike, asked the directors to approve a provision in the permit program to allow the scooter fleet to expand in the future. “We feel that this is an opportunity to have the city and MTA see how a shared scooter program could work at scale,” he said.

The regulations also require scooter companies to develop a low-income plan for riders, to share trip GPS data with SFMTA and craft privacy policies.

Neighborhood community groups were divided on whether the scooters were friend or foe.

Bayview Hunters Point and Fillmore District neighbors argued that Lime has brought tech jobs to historically black communities, led free workshops for neighbors, and are standup community members. On the other hand, the transportation advocacy group Chinatown TRIP and Mission District groups representing the local Latino community asked for strict rules for scooter groups, including equity provisions to ensure people of color have access to the scooters, enhanced privacy provisions especially needed for undocumented communities and a tighter vehicle cap to ensure safe sidewalks.

SFMTA board director Art Torres balked at the proposed fines for scooter companies, which includes a $100 fine per non-permitted scooter per day.

“These companies are worth 400 million dollars in some cases,” he told SFMTA staff, adding “One hundred and eighteen million dollars was given to Bird. One hundred dollars is nothing to these people. They’ll continue to laugh at us.”

At the end of the meeting, SFMTA directors Joel Ramos and Heinicke issued stern warnings to the scooter companies.

If the companies don’t provide solutions to myriad problems identified by the public, Heinicke said, “I think it’s very possible this board won’t approve this (program) going forward.”

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