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Supervisor skewers city e-scooter permit process: ‘I’m frustrated’

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A man rides a Bird dockless rental electric scooter on Market Street earlier this year. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Supervisor Ahsha Safai on Monday publicly raked The City’s transportation body over the coals for what he called a flawed e-scooter permit process, saying it left the south side of the San Francisco without enough e-scooters.

A more robust permit process may have led to more scooters in the neighborhoods Safai represents, including the Excelsior and Ingleside, he said.

“Let’s be honest, I’m frustrated,” said Safai, in a City Hall hearing Monday.

Safai said he called for the hearing to explore the process to permit and restrict e-scooters in San Francisco, which he has previously said was done “in isolation” and “without public input” by the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency.

“I hail from a part of San Francisco that is dramatically underserved by emerging technologies,” Safai told the SFMTA at the hearing. “There’s a lot of areas of my district that could be greatly served by this.”

Only two companies out of twelve bidders, Scoot and Skip, won permits in late August to operate in San Francisco. Bird, Spin, Lime, ofo, Lyft, Hopr (also known as Cyclehop), Uscooter, Jump (which was recently bought by Uber), Ridecell and Razor all applied for permits with The City to rent e-scooters to the public, but were denied.

At the hearing Monday, some members of the public from the Bayview and Fillmore also critiqued the SFMTA for not awarding a permit to Lime, who they said was the only scooter company to reach out to their communities and provide jobs.

However, most of the critiques against the SFMTA permit application process came from Safai himself, and mirrored those from the companies who were not awarded a permit to run.

Lime government relations specialist Scott Kubly criticized SFMTA for awarding permits to two companies, Scoot and Skip, who had not run e-scooter programs before.

“What I can tell you is the process MTA followed was flawed and clearly biased,” he said.

Following Lime’s lead, Safai asked a Scoot representative, Bob Walsh, if they had run an e-scooter program before. Walsh said no, but noted Scoot and SFMTA worked hand in hand not to disrupt, as many tech companies do, but to create “the first shared moped permit (program) anywhere.”

Also mirroring prior complaints by Lime, Safai alleged SFMTA’s process was not publicized far enough ahead of time to properly notice the companies who applied for their permits. SFMTA Sustainable Streets Director Tom Maguire responded that the e-scooter permit criteria, including safety and experience, were known well beforehand.

“There is a long paper trail and track record of how we made these decisions,” Maguire told Safai.

Safai drilled down on Maguire.

“The weight each (criteria) would have, that was published beforehand?” Safai asked. Maguire said no.

“Did you actually go out to underserved communities for feedback?” Safai asked. Maguire said some community groups came to the SFMTA.

“Sounds like the answer, that’s a ‘no,’” Safai said.

Safai also criticized SFMTA for adding in new criteria for the e-scooter permit process during May, partway through the public permit debate. That criteria allowed SFMTA to consider the past behavior of e-scooter companies. Notably, SFMTA dinged Bird, Lime and Spin for launching in San Francisco before a permit process was created.

Supervisor Jane Kim, who was also present at the hearing, complimented SFMTA staff on working so quickly to create a permit program to limit scooters amid numerous complaints from San Franciscans. Many residents complained of abandoned scooters littering the sidewalks.

Kim said she’s not so sure e-scooters will lead to less car trips on the road, a common environmental goal.

“I think the jury’s out on that, frankly. I still prefer biking,” Kim said.

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