SFMTA board signs off on changes to scooter permit program

Companies will gete longer permits, but higher stakes

If scooter companies want to operate in San Francisco, they’ll need to step up their game.

The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency Board of Directors passed amendments to the Transportation Code and permit requirements on Tuesday that allow approved companies to operate for up to two years, but impose higher financial penalties or possible suspension for non-compliance.

Scooters flooded the streets of San Francisco three years ago, deployed by companies without oversight from The City.

Responding to the chaos, SFMTA sought authority to regulate them.

Four companies emerged from the fracas, securing one-year permits contingent on a handful of safety, equity and enforcement requirements: Scoot, Spin, Lime and Jump.

Collectively, they can currently operate up to 4,500 scooters. Lime, which purchased Jump in May and took over its permit, and Spin can deploy 2,000 scooters while Scoot can deploy 1,000.

Awarded in October 2019, these permits were set to expire in October 2020. However, the SFMTA board granted them an extension through April 2021 to provide alternative mobility options in the wake of COVID-19 and Muni service cuts, as well as provide the companies with a chance to recover from the economic impact of stay-at-home orders.

Tuesday’s action gives the agency authority to grant another extension through June 30, 2021. At that point, SFMTA will have awarded new permits that will go into effect.

SFMTA believes scooters have the potential to play an important role in San Francisco’s transportation landscape, especially given it will likely be years before Muni recovers from recent service cuts.

Prior to the pandemic, an average of 6,700 scooter rides were taken per day, many concentrated in and around downtown.

Ridership plummeted by 90 percent in April 2020 to about 730 scooter rides per day. Three of the four companies removed their vehicles from the streets. Only Spin remained operational until the summer, when Lime and Scoot returned.

Ridership has slowly recovered to approximately 3,300 daily rides, as of November 2020. However, that’s likely to have decreased again with the latest round of shelter-in-place restrictions.

New distribution guidelines from the agency require the four companies to serve a wider array of neighborhoods, including those that are underserved by traditional transit.

Last Fall, both Lime and Scoot increased the amount of hardware in neighborhoods that were once scooter deserts such as the Richmond and the Sunset, partially in response to ridership trends showing a shift away from downtown towards more residential areas where people staying at home need to complete essential trips without a car.

Spin’s ridership in the Richmond and Sunset districts jumped 300 percent once scooters were relocated.

New requirements approved Tuesday also mandate companies make scooters accessible for individuals with disabilities part of their fleets across The City. Potential requirements could include making these accessible scooters available for reservation and building GPS devices into the vehicles.

SFMTA will also charge companies a rack fee of $100 per permitted device, a $25 increase, to ensure adequate parking and cover installation costs.

According to the staff report, SFMTA has conducted a lengthy stakeholder engagement process with more than two dozen community-based organizations and the Board of Supervisors Land Use and Transportation Committee. It’s also running an ongoing online open house during the month of January to solicit input on what’s working about the current permit program and what could be improved.

Specifically, the agency wants feedback on provisions around labor harmony requirements, which emphasize local hiring and direct employment; the possibility of a mobility justice training requirement; and more robust distribution requirements to ensure geographic equity.

“We understand that despite the successes of the program this past year, there is still room for improvement, in particular when it comes to safety and parking concerns,” Lime Government Affairs Director Karla Owunwanne said in a community meeting hosted by SFMTA on Jan. 14. “We look forward to ongoing collaboration with the City and local stakeholders to identify best practices for the San Francisco community.”

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