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SF awards permits to two scooter companies for limited pilot

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A man rides a Bird dockless electric scooter along Fifth Street in San Francisco. E-scooters, which were removed from city streets in June, will return soon after the city announced new permits for several companies. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

They’ve been tossed into the Bay, hung from trees, hauled off in trucks en masse by city workers and banished from San Francisco streets altogether.

Now, e-scooters are on their way back.

The City announced Thursday it has awarded long-awaited scooter permits to Scoot and Skip.

The two companies will participate in a one year pilot program beginning October 15, and will be limited to 625 scooters each for the first six months with the option to increase that fleet to 2,500 for the second half of the pilot at the “discretion” of San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency.

Tom Maguire, director of sustainable streets SFMTA, said “the step we’re at today is the next chapter in the shared mobility story.”

“We expect private operators will act in the public interest, that’s what the permit process is all about,” Maguire said.

There are winners and losers in the announcement by the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency. Ten other companies — Bird, Spin, Lime, ofo, Lyft, Hopr (also known as Cyclehop), Uscooter, Jump (which was recently bought by Uber), Ridecell and Razor — applied for permits with The City but were denied.

At least one of those companies, Lime, has already said they will appeal the decision. SFMTA has outlined an appeals process which involves a public hearing.

When e-scooters rolled on to city streets in March they earned praise from some transit advocates, who argued they could take cars off the road, but were viewed as two-wheeled terrors by San Franciscans fed up with seeing them parked on sidewalks and blocking pedestrians. Advocacy group Walk SF launched a social media campaign dubbed #scootersbehavingbadly, allowing people from across The City to share photos of scooters illegally gliding along sidewalks, weaving between pedestrians, or strewn across city sidewalks in piles.

San Franciscans filed upwards of 1,800 complaints with city agencies alleging scooters were parked and ridden illegally during their short tenure here, City Attorney Dennis Herrera said at a May press conference. The City subsequently ordered companies to remove them from the streets by June 4 while permit applications were processed.

“We can have innovation but it must preserve safety,” Herrera said at the time.

Following the June e-scooter ban, companies were all evaluated on 12 evaluation metrics by SFMTA, staffers said in a press briefing Thursday. Evaluation metrics included safety, community outreach, environmental sustainability, experience, equitable access and disability access, among others.

Top scoring companies Scoot and Skip both demonstrated strong safety and community outreach proposals, among other high marks, according to their application evaluation documents. Scoot proposed mandatory instructional videos for all users, whereas other companies had simple documents to read that could be skipped. Skip proposed a “community advisory board” to evaluate its service, which no other applicant proposed.

Both companies will share detailed, anonymized trip data to SFMTA.

Scoot has had a strong relationship with SFMTA through the deployment of its shared moped network, and has long billed itself as the tech company that does not “disrupt” as its predecessors have. In a little-attended SFMTA meeting in May, SFMTA staff praised Scoot’s level of outreach to the agency and community.

“What you’re saying is they’re succeeding even though they came to us as an agency first?” instead of launching its services without permission, SFMTA Board of Directors Vice Chair Malcolm Heinicke said, at the time.

“That’s a little lesson,” he added.

By contrast, the worst scoring e-scooter companies in SFMTA’s eyes were Bird and Razor, according to SFMTA records of those metrics. Lyft and JUMP also netted substantial “poor” ratings for these metrics. SFMTA sent “notice of permit denial” letters to the ten rejected scooter companies Thursday, which, much like a “Dear John” letter, explained in detail how those companies missed the mark.

To Uber-owned JUMP, SFMTA wrote “SFMTA finds that the lack of specificity throughout JUMP’s discussion of parking, locking, and tethering is inadequate to ensure safe parking behavior,” and in describing its penalty system “the applicant’s response underscored a lack of commitment to leveraging penalties and incentives.” Lime, on the other hand, was dinged for proposing a “small service area,” and was also called out for SFMTA for its “history of violations while operating within San Francisco.”

Bird’s denial letter was the longest of the bunch. The company was told its small service area, insufficient detail on community feedback, lack of battery recycling, and poorly proposed low-income program were among many reasons Bird’s permit application was rejected.

It was that scofflaw scooter launch by companies Bird, Spin and Lime — before The City could even create a permit process — that also played a role in dooming those companies’ chances of rolling legally through San Francisco streets. Bird, Spin and Lime racked up citations from the San Francisco Police Department and saw their scooters carted off by San Francisco Public Works, which contributed to their low rank in the permit process, according to their evaluation documents.

The SFMTA board voted to award SFMTA Director of Transportation Ed Reiskin the power to consider past behavior in the permitting process.

Rumors have swirled in recent months that companies that don’t win permits will pursue legal action against San Francisco in response to what Mayor London Breed called an “opaque” permitting process in an August letter critiquing Reiskin’s leadership.

Despite being denied permits for the e-scooter pilot program, all companies are able to apply for permits if a permanent program is created, according to the SFMTA.

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