Courtesy City Attorney's OfficeSan Francisco plans to charge Lyft for illegally stenciling these ads on sidewalks in The City.

Lyft facing penalties over illegal hopscotch advertisements

Lyft is known for pioneering car-hire service technology. Now it may also be known for the most expensive game of hopscotch in San Francisco.

Lyft's ad campaign landed in legal hot water with the City Attorney's Office, which is vowing to seek penalties for the company's alleged defacement of city sidewalks.

The company allegedly chalked Lyft-branded hopscotch stencils in locations across The City on Friday. The unpermitted, unpaid-for ads were cleaned up by the Department of Public Works, according to DPW spokeswoman Rachel Gordon.

“We do not welcome unpermitted advertisements on our sidewalk,” she said.

Now City Attorney Dennis Herrera's office is drafting a prelitigation demand letter, asking Lyft to pony up cash not only for the graffiti, but as a deterrent for future defacement of San Francisco sidewalks.

“San Franciscans find few quality-of-life crimes as infuriating as corporate sponsored graffiti vandalism,” Matt Dorsey, the city attorney's spokesman, told The San Francisco Examiner. Lyft “employs plenty of lawyers. They know the law, yet they thumbed their nose at the city anyway.”

Citizens can obtain permits for sidewalk stencils, but there is no legal means for a company to advertise using sidewalk stencils, Gordon said. Still, many companies throughout the years have created guerrilla marketing campaigns on city sidewalks, including Zynga and IBM.

Lyft announced the hopscotch campaign on its Facebook page, writing that the stencils were in locations across San Francisco and Los Angeles.

“The designs, meant for passers-by to enjoy on their way to work, were created using spray chalk and will fade within a few days,” Lyft spokeswoman Paige Thelen said.

Some of those stencils are already off the streets. But though they may have been temporary, the City Attorney's Office said that allowing scofflaws to stencil what are essentially unpaid-for advertisements is illegal.

“City Attorney Herrera believes it's important to send a message that simply reimbursing The City for cleanup costs isn't enough,” Dorsey said. “The law provides for penalties, which we intend to pursue.”

In 2010, The City settled for $45,000 with technology company Zynga over a marketing campaign in which fake cash was glued to streets, which DPW also had to clean up. The City settled for $103,000 from NBC Universal in 2005 over stencils promoting the TV show “The 4400,” and with IBM for $120,000 in 2001 over spray-painted advertisements.

The City Attorney's Office also encouraged Lyft to consider making “sizeable donations” to nonprofits like the Clean City Coalition or SF Beautiful to show “contrition for their graffiti vandalism.”

“As a San Francisco-based company,” Dorsey said, “Lyft should show respect for our city, not contempt for it.”

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