No action on city threat to revoke Lyft’s e-bike permit

SF transportation officials threatened Lyft last month: Tell us why your electric motor bicycles caught fire, and tell us when they’ll be back on the streets, or else we’ll revoke your permit to rent e-bikes.

Now those deadlines — September 30 to communicate the cause, and October 15 to return e-bikes to the streets — have passed.

And that dangling or else? There’s no indication of follow-through.

The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency confirmed to the San Francisco Examiner that the organization is still in “ongoing discussions” with ride-hail giant Lyft, and it has “not yet received confirmation” when the company’s e-bikes will return to city streets, roughly a month after SFMTA levied its threat via email to Lyft leadership.

When asked directly why the agency did not follow through on its demands, a spokesperson replied, “sorry, this is all we are saying at the present time.”

Lyft, for its part, said it is close to identifying a cause of the battery issue that led two e-bikes to catch fire in San Francisco in July, which was first reported by the Examiner, and also occurred elsewhere in the Bay Area, according to the East Bay Times.

After the incident was publicized the company immediately yanked its fleet of 1,000 e-bikes off San Francisco streets.

“We have made significant progress on identifying the cause of the battery issues and putting a solution in place, and have fully briefed SFMTA on that progress,” said Julie Wood, a spokesperson for Lyft’s Bay Wheels program in the Bay Area, in a statement. “We continue to do everything we can to return the e-bikes to service, while having productive conversations with SFMTA about our long-term investment in bikeshare and our commitment to providing reliable service.”

While both Lyft and SFMTA sounded cautious in statements to the Examiner, SFMTA’s tone has been far more fiery toward Lyft.

In September, SFMTA Acting Director Tom Maguire sent an email to Lyft and Motivate, Lyft’s subsidiary that operates the Bay Wheels bikeshare program, with strict demands.

Maguire told the company that by September 30 Lyft must provide SFMTA with assurances it will re-introduce e-bikes to San Francisco streets no later than October 15, at a minimum of 50 percent of its initial fleet size, and guarantee a plan to “ramp up” e-bike availability.

He also demanded a full explanation of the “battery incident” that led to Lyft taking its e-bikes off city streets.

“Motivate has failed on its commitment to provide this service,” Maguire wrote.

SFMTA’s threat last month sounded hollow without any follow-through, bicycle advocate Matt Brezina said.

“If there’s no teeth, then it wasn’t very well thought out,” Brezina said. “These shared light mobility devices are a huge part of the solution to get people around the city efficiently without the use of cars. We need SFMTA to take their role in that seriously and for politicians to take their role in that seriously.”

Brezina, who leads People Protected Bike Lane protests where people form human chains where they believed new protected bike lanes are needed, said the response to exploding bike batteries for dockless and docked e-bikes has been disproportionate compared to that for violence at the hands of car drivers.

“Meanwhile, there’s an unlimited number of permits for ‘dockless’ Dodge Durangos and Porsche Cayennes, which seem to be growing in number,” Brezina said. “No one’s been killed by a battery yet, and yet we have five people seriously injured on our streets every day by cars.”

SFMTA issued Lyft an interim permit to run e-bikes in San Francisco following a court battle with Lyft over whether or not e-bikes are included in its exclusivity contract to operate so-called bikeshare in The City.

Lyft asserts the contract includes e-bikes and that no permit is necessary. SFMTA claims that exclusivity contract only covers traditional pedal-bikes that are parked in sidewalk docks, and that further permits are a separate matter.

A San Francisco Superior Court Judge seemingly sided with Lyft, but also tasked SFMTA with offering a right-of-refusal to Lyft in operating e-bikes in San Francisco, which gave bike advocates hope that SFMTA may expand the permit program so Lyft’s competitors could also offer e-bikes in San Francisco.

SFMTA continues to “engage in negotiations” as required by that preliminary court ruling, SFMTA spokesperson Benjamin Barnett said.

joe@sfexaminer.com

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