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SF sidewalk delivery robot ban advances toward approval

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A Marble sidewalk delivery robot moves down Valencia Street in San Francisco’s Mission District on July 21, 2017. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)
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Companies like Marble, Starship and Postmates want to use San Francisco sidewalks for robot deliveries, but opponents argue those public spaces should only be for people.

After a two-hour hearing Wednesday, the Board of Supervisors Public Safety and Neighborhood Services Committee voted 2-1 to send to the full board a proposed ban on sidewalk deliveries by robots.

Supervisors Hillary Ronen and Sandra Fewer supported the legislation, while Supervisor Jeff Sheehy opposed it.

SEE RELATED: Yee continues to push for robot delivery ban despite opposition from business leaders

It remains unclear if Supervisor Norman Yee, who introduced the legislation, has the at least six votes needed to pass the proposal at the full 11-member board Tuesday.

If approved, Mayor Ed Lee could veto the legislation, which would take eight board votes to override.

“This is regulation,” Yee said. “Our sidewalks are for people.”

Robotic companies and business interests denounced banning delivery robots on San Francisco’s sidewalks, but pedestrian advocates said The City should ensure sidewalks are for people only to protect the safety of pedestrians, particularly the elderly, disabled and children.

The advocates likened the proposed ban to the laws prohibiting bicycles and segways on sidewalks.

Fewer said that she wanted preserve San Francisco as a walkable city. “My seniors in my neighborhood are already having a difficult time navigating their sidewalks,” said Fewer, who represents the Richmond.

Sheehy said he viewed the proposed ban as a method “to get the attention of the industry” to begin “a real dialogue” and was satisfied in the progress of talks around regulations.

“I would hope we could find some middle ground,” Sheehy said.

Doug Bloch, political director for Teamsters Joint Council 7, opposed the ban. Instead he encouraged the board to shape the industry to protect jobs as the wave of automation sweeps the nation.

Bloch said the Teamsters are in talks with Marble, which is based in Potrero Hill, to strike an agreement where the Teamsters would represent its manufacturing and deployment employees.

“We started out driving teams of horses,” Bloch said in an email to the San Francisco Examiner. “In the future it looks like we will be driving teams of robots.”

But Ronen said The City has fumbled in the past by waiting too long to regulate emerging tech services and that it was “time we get ahead of the game.”

She noted, however, if the right regulations were proposed she would be open to revisiting the ban.

“If we strike that right balance then I am open to lifting part of this ban,” Ronen said. “I need to see it first.”

Robot companies appealed to the board members to support regulations instead of imposing a ban.

“We are here to reason with one another and with the opponents to find a way that we can accommodate each other’s points of view,” said Starship Technologies spokesperson David Catania. The company produces 50 pound robots that travel 4 miles per hour.

Walk San Francisco, a group that advocates for the safety of pedestrians, supported the robot sidewalk ban and encouraged people to show up at Wednesday’s hearing. Walk San Francisco also launched an online petition. Since Sept. 15, 334 people have signed it.

“Most people would tell you they want more space on the sidewalk,” Cathy DeLuca, interim executive director of Walk SF, said. “These vehicles will take away spaces from people who are walking.”

The San Francisco Chamber of Commerce and the Small Business Commission opposed the ban, as did the tech advocacy group established by angel investor Ron Conway, the mayor’s prominent backer, sf.citi. That group said the ban “could create a massive barrier to future innovation in the industry, particularly in regards to the future of automation.”

The full board will vote Tuesday on the legislation.

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