SF clashes with scooter company over permit violations: City wins

Scoot’s application for renewal denied

So long, Scoot. At least for now.

The company calls San Francisco home, but it had to remove all of its red-and-black electric scooters, once a fixture on city streets, by July 1 after city regulators concluded it was violating its permit.

The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency also saddled Scoot with a $105,600 fine.

San Francisco is no stranger to its streets being used as a testing ground for companies interested in making the shift into the world of scooters, electronic bikes, autonomous vehicles or any other kind of pseudo-futuristic vehicle that can transport people from one place to another.

But this move marks a stark departure from the scooter program’s messy origins around 2018, a time that could only be described as chaos. Companies first rolled out their two-wheeled kick scooters with minimal public notice, fledgling regulation and little accountability around equity or safety.

SFMTA quickly sought to restore order, starting with a pilot scooter permit program that became permanent. Companies apply, agreeing to meet a number of guidelines around distribution, labor, accessibility and more. If awarded, they can deploy a set number of scooters onto the streets with the opportunity to scale that number up with good behavior.

Two scooter companies, Spin and Lime, had their permits renewed for one year starting July 1. Each will be allowed to deploy 2,000 scooters in The City, with the opportunity to apply for 500 additional scooters every several months.

“Scooters remain a sustainable mode of travel and a complement to Muni and public transit service as The City recovers from the pandemic and San Franciscans begin to travel more,” SFMTA spokesperson Erica Kato said in a statement.

Scoot, purchased by Bird in 2019, secured a permit that same year but did not get its application renewed this time because it used subcontractors without permission.

The transit agency concluded Scoot was using fleet managers, a program that allows contractors to lease the scooters. They’re responsible for most costs and give Scoot a cut of earnings. In other cities, this practice reportedly has saddled some people with debt when demand drops.

Scoot leased vehicles to a company called Blazing Saddles, with permission from SFMTA. But it also leased scooters to other firms, such as Martin Brothers, Bay City Bikes and Puma Couriers, without approval.

A Scoot e-scooter is locked against a tree along Fifth Street on Wednesday, Sept. 25, 2019. (Kevin N. Hume/The Examiner)

A Scoot e-scooter is locked against a tree along Fifth Street on Wednesday, Sept. 25, 2019. (Kevin N. Hume/The Examiner)

“Scoot is proud to have worked with The City for nearly a decade providing shared micro-electric vehicles for San Francisco,” a spokesperson said in an emailed statement. “We are cooperating fully with the SFMTA to swiftly resolve the procedural mishaps that occurred while urgently providing existing local businesses an alternative source of revenue during the pandemic.”

SFMTA said it will defer permit issuance until it completes its investigation.

The suspension raises bigger questions around The City’s capacity to regulate private companies playing in the mobility sandbox.

These alternate modes offer many benefits: They’re more sustainable, more affordable than ride-hailing apps and more convenient than public transit in some cases. But they also can have adverse effects that disrupt local labor standards, exclude communities or pose safety risks.

Enter these permit programs, which started with regulating the emergence of bikeshare technology.

SFMTA Director Jeffrey Tumlin has been a vocal supporter for public-private partnerships, marketing them during the pandemic as a way to fill the gaps left behind by Muni service cuts and as a path towards cutting down emissions from private vehicles.

But where exactly The City can — and should — step in remains fuzzy, in part due to a disjointed regulatory approach.

Take Lyft, which operates the Bay Wheels bikeshare program. It is contractually entitled to a monopoly on docked bicycles and claimed in a lawsuit against San Francisco — later settled for $330,000 — that exclusivity extends to dockless bikes. Yet Bay Wheels has been known to jack up prices. The City can’t do much about it except hope the company will respond to market demand.

For years, some officials have advocated for a publicly owned bikeshare as opposed to letting the services be run by a for-profit company such as Lyft, especially when so much staff time is sacrificed through community outreach and planning to determine where the bikes can operate.

“We need to meet the rise in demand for green transportation in our city, and part of that is through a municipal bikeshare program to complement public transit and advancing public ownership of vital city services,” Supervisor Dean Preston said in February, calling for a hearing on the idea.

When it comes to scooters, some have raised concerns that while the recent revocation of Scoot’s permit shows the SFMTA’s willingness to enforce its own rules, it might be focusing on the wrong things.

Local transit advocate Scott Feeney said the priority should be on making as many mobility options as affordable and accessible to residents, especially in light of continued cuts to Muni service.

And then there’s autonomous vehicles.

Though SFMTA now holds the authority to kick a scooter company off the street, it’s all but powerless when it comes to cars driving around without a human behind the wheel.

That power lies with the California Public Utilities Commission. While San Francisco supervisors can invite companies such as Cruise, owned by General Motors, or Waymo to attend hearings, the companies are under no obligation to do so.

“San Francisco is yet again ground zero and the guinea pig,” Supervisor Aaron Peskin said at one such hearing in November 2020.

It’s all but inevitable that these new technologies will remain present on San Francisco streets.

The question becomes how to promote innovation that adequately solves “real public problems,” Tumlin said at an SFMTA board meeting in December 2020.

His answer?

Do it in a way that “keeps our eyes wide open.”

cgraf@sfexaminer.com

SF art school investigates theater class practice that had students undressing together

‘I remember being mortified and humiliated’

By Ida Mojadad
Wine in a can: San Francisco startup backed by music heavyweights

Jay-Z and The Chainsmokers backing this year’s hit holiday gift

By Jeff Elder
Is the future of farming moving indoors?

Bay Area startups are using tech to grow food in the face of climate change

By Jessica Wolfrom