Bay Area Motivate, the Lyft-owned company that operates the Bay Wheels bike rental service in the Bay Area, pulled its e-bikes from San Francisco after a series of battery-related fires. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

SF threatens to revoke Lyft’s e-bike permit

San Francisco transit officials have threatened to pull Lyft’s permit to operate e-bikes in San Francisco, the San Francisco Examiner has learned.

The City wants assurances Lyft has fully investigated a series of e-bike battery fires, which forced the billion-dollar ride-hailing company to yank 1,000 electric bikes from San Francisco streets in July, according to an email obtained by the Examiner.

One of those e-bike fires flared up from an e-bike parked in a bikeshare dock in the Lower Haight in July. It was extinguished by a passer-by, leaving a charred bike-shaped hulk.

Six weeks later, there are still no Lyft e-bikes available in The City — not even a single spoke. That’s not gone unnoticed.

In an email to Bay Area Motivate, the Lyft-owned company that operates the Bay Wheels bike rental service in the Bay Area, San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency Acting Director of Transportation Tom Maguire skewered Motivate for its lack of e-bikes.

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

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

He also required that by September 30 Motivate give a full explanation of the “battery incident” including the cause, the fixes Motivate has implemented to prevent further fires, and “evidence supporting Motivate’s conclusion” that the public is not at risk.

“Motivate has provided service on only 13 of the 66 days since the Interim Permit was issued, and has provided no hybrid e-bike service at all for the past 53 consecutive days,” Maguire wrote, claiming that Motivate had violated its agreements with San Francisco.

Lyft did not tell the Examiner when its e-bikes would return to city streets.

In a statement, a company spokesperson wrote, “We are doing everything we can to return e-bikes to service for our riders, and at the same time having conversations with SFMTA about our continued long-term investment in bike share in San Francisco.”

In his letter, Maguire wrote Motivate told SFMTA staff on September 9, “we don’t have an update on the timeline for relaunching our e-bikes yet,” and that the company has not yet shared any information about the fire with SFMTA.

Lyft and Motivate’s interim permit to operate e-bikes in San Francisco was issued amid a messy court-battle over exactly who gets to rent bikes to the public in San Francisco.

Services renting bikes outside of brick-and-mortar shops been nicknamed “bikeshare,” with bikes that can be parked in curbside docks and also left on sidewalks. These bikes are unlocked through mobile phone apps and Clipper cards.

Motivate and San Francisco entered into an exclusivity agreement for the company to provide bikeshare, but this is where the two entities split.

Lyft believes this exclusivity agreement grants them a monopoly over both pedaled bikes and e-assist bikes, essentially bicycles with an electric motor. The company also maintains the agreement applies to both rental bikes from curbside docks and “dockless” bikes that can be parked anywhere on a sidewalk, and then locked.

SFMTA saw things differently, and earlier this year announced it would grant permits to other companies to rent dockless e-bikes in San Francisco. Lyft sued to stop SFMTA, which was ordered by a court to offer Lyft the right of first refusal over renting e-bikes in San Francisco; that resulted in the interim permit SFMTA now is threatening to pull.

“If the SFMTA does not receive this information to SFMTA’s reasonable satisfaction by the requested dates, the SFMTA reserves the right to take any additional steps including, but not limited to, issuing a Notice of Revocation of Motivate’s Interim Permit,” Maguire wrote.

Even if San Francisco is successful in yanking Lyft’s permit, don’t expect to see its rival, the Uber-backed JUMP, or other e-bike companies, expand the number of two-wheelers on the street anytime soon.

The court-mandated arbitration process, including possible intervention by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, and potentially a court mediator, guarantees this dispute may drag on for months.

While the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition declined to comment on the dispute between Lyft and the SFMTA, the coalition’s executive director Brian Wiedenmeier said e-bikes were revolutionary — for the short time The City had them.

“E-assist (bikes) break down barriers,” he said, helping people out of cars who don’t normally ride bikes, from seniors who have trouble pedaling to those with mobility issues, or even office workers who don’t want to work up a sweat.

Bike ridership increased in a big way with e-assist bikes, Wiedenmeier said.

“Every day they’re not on the road, fewer people are riding” he said.

joe@sfexaminer.com

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