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SF moves closer to regulating electric scooters

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Two men ride Bird dockless rental electric scooters on Market Street. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

After weeks of complaints over dockless motorized scooters impacting sidewalk safety, San Francisco is clamping down through legislation that will impose new regulations on the companies.

The Board of Supervisors will vote Tuesday on legislation introduced by Supervisor Aaron Peskin on March 6 that will prohibit dockless powered scooter rental companies from operating in San Francisco without a permit. The board’s Land Use and Transportation Committee approved the proposal Monday, with Supervisors Katy Tang, Ahsha Safai and Jane Kim voting for it.

If approved, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency would develop a permitting program similar to the one approved last year for dockless electric bicycles. The application process could begin as early as next month, said Jamie Parks in the SFMTA’s livable streets division.

Users rent the electric scooters using apps on their smartphones and leave them around The City where they choose. But complaints have flooded City Hall over safety concerns such as the scooters blocking sidewalks, riders illegally riding them on sidewalks and riders not wearing required helmets.

San Francisco has already begun clamping down on the operations of the companies, which rolled out the services last month.

The Public Works Department impounded 66 electric scooters last week for blocking public spaces. In addition, City Attorney Dennis Herrera on Monday sent cease and desist letters to three companies, Bird, Spin and Lime, ordering them to address various issues by April 30. The letters are a separate effort from the pending legislation.

One of the companies, Bird, said it will make changes to its operations to require users beginning Tuesday to take a photograph of how they left the scooter once they are done using it to ensure it complies with the law. The company will also alert riders there is no riding on sidewalks allowed.

“Bird will take action to ensure frequent violators of Bird’s parking rules are suspended or deactivated,” the company said in a statement after the hearing.

Peskin suggested the company also require a photograph of the user to ensure they are wearing a helmet as required by state law. “Upwards of 90 percent of the individuals I see using these are not only on the sidewalks. They are without a helmet,” Peskin said.

There is a pending state bill that would remove the helmet requirement.

Carl Hansen, Bird’s director of government affairs, argued at Monday’s hearing that scooters can help reduce car trips. He said the company understands the need for regulations.

“We do absolutely empathize with the concerns of the community. We do not want to see riders riding dangerously on sidewalks or riding on sidewalks at all or parking on sidewalks in ways that present a hazard,” Hansen said.

He expressed concerns, however, about how long it would take to obtain a permit to operate under the proposal. “It’s just a matter of timing for us,” Hansen said. “If you could allow a window for us to continue to operate that is all that we need.”

Bird said in a statement that its scooters have been ridden for a combined 90,000 miles since launching in San Francisco “which shows that there is great demand for new, environmentally friendly ways to get around this great city”

“We look forward to continuing to work with the City Attorney and others to make that happen,” the statement continued.

Parks said the agency plans to bring regulations before the SFMTA board of directors May 1 and have them go into effect later that month.

What the permit program will look like remains unclear, however. He said there will likely be more than one permit so more than one company can operate, but there will probably be caps on the number of permits and the number of scooters.

There would also be an evaluation to see if the scooters were reducing trips by cars or simply being used by people who otherwise would walk anyway.

Supervisor Jane Kim, however, raised concerns about the scooters falling over in public spaces, increasing the risk of someone tripping over them or impeding the travel space.

“Can we create docking areas for these scooters?” Kim said. “I just think they are so easy to tip over. I don’t think we can permit this until we’ve figured out how to dock them.”

Parks said that “we would put the onus on the companies to come to us with a solution.”

There was some tension in the hearing between Peskin and Hansen, whose company put out a press release alleging the board was planning to ban the scooters through an emergency ordinance, which was reported on by various news outlets.

However the impacted companies mostly struck a collaborative tone Monday.

“We support Supervisor Peskin’s legislation to regulate e-scooters and are eager to continue the conversations around these regulations,” said Rachel Starr, a spokesperson for Spin. “We are working to ensure that we comply with any of the outlined recommendations we don’t already have in place.”

Supervisors said they have received hundreds of complaints about the scooters, including from advocacy groups worried about the safety impacts on children, the disabled and seniors.

“As policy makers we are tasked with balancing the competing needs of our public realm,” Peskin said. “And guess what, private corporations are at the bottom of that priority list.”

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