SF’s quiet war with alleged scofflaw scooter company

The scooters scoot, The City impounds them. Nominal fines are paid, the scooters scoot again.

Round, and round, and round they go — with no end in sight.

Such is the cat-and-mouse squabble between scooter company Go X and San Francisco, which has issued numerous citations to the company and impounded its vehicles since its “soft launch” in January this year.

Go X is not one of San Francisco’s four permitted electric scooter companies. Those companies are Lime, Jump, Scoot, and Spin; their vehicles launched this week and can be rented from city sidewalks using a mobile phone app.

But Go X founder Alexander Debelov claims his company does not need a city permit to operate since its electric scooters deploy from private businesses like Fisherman’s Wharf hotels and can only be returned at the 55 private businesses that partner with the company.

Skates on Haight, Hotel Zetta, Sheraton Fisherman’s Wharf, Hotel Kabuki, Laguna on Hayes — even the locally famous Red’s Java House counts itself among Go X’s partners.

Those voluntarily participating businesses get a cut of the action when e-scooters are rented from their establishments and must sign affidavits ensuring compliance with a number of nuisance-evading rules, which Go X provided to the San Francisco Examiner.

“We’re not a rogue operator,” Debelov said. “We don’t have any benefit from our scooters placed on the streets.”

But that hasn’t stopped its e-scooters from being strewn there, anyhow.

Photographs provided by the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency show Go X e-scooters parked on public sidewalks blocking the right-of-way, in bunches by public trash cans, blocking car parking spaces on public streets, or flat on their sides creating an obstacle for walkers.

The City’s four permitted e-scooter companies largely solved this parking problem by implementing a built-in lock so the e-scooters can be attached to bike racks. Go X has no such feature.

That’s of concern to the Chinatown Transportation Research and Improvement Project, an advocacy group that has long-decried San Francisco’s flirtation with the burgeoning e-scooter industry.

Queena Chen, co-chair of Chinatown TRIP, said the group is “concerned about the safety of pedestrians” due to Go X’s behavior, and said “they should still be accountable to the same safety standards as the other electric scooter companies.”

Debelov said Go X has a team dedicated to clearing out improperly parked e-scooters.

“We fire people on operations team when our vehicles are not recovered from public property within 30 min if the customer leaves them there,” Debelov wrote in an email to SFMTA.

The conflict between the company and city officials has grown tense. In emails between Debelov and SFMTA, Debelov describes harrowing incidents where he has attempted to stop The City from impounding his e-scooters.

In April this year, city employees tried to impound three e-scooters on Columbus Avenue at Basically Free Bike Rentals, on property owned by the Sports Basement. Debelov and a colleague followed city staff to Drumm and California Street to retrieve those e-scooters.

Debelov then accused the city staff of “taking/stealing our scooters” and “I notified them that police was on their way,” he wrote to SFMTA.

That’s when one of the city staffers tried to leave the scene. Debelov’s colleague was in front of the city staffers’ car, blocking its exit. Debelov was beside the car. The City staffer, blocked in, suddenly put the vehicle in reverse. The driver’s side door, which was still open, allegedly hit Debelov.

“I was shocked. And I said ‘wow! why are you hurting me?’” Debelov wrote to SFMTA.

He filed a police report, he said, and provided incident numbers. SFPD was unable to verify those police reports before press time.

To Debelov’s way of thinking, he’s fighting a one-man war against San Francisco’s punitive measures. To San Francisco leaders, Debelov’s company is a nuisance that has repeatedly been out of compliance with local law.

The company’s relationship with The City has become so strained that Supervisor Aaron Peskin, who represents Fisherman’s Wharf where the e-scooter company is primarily located, thinks Go X should follow its namesake and “go” away.

“I thought the ‘ask for forgiveness’ generation of arrogant tech was dead, but it appears there’s one more ding-dong out there,” Peskin said Wednesday. “If you make me go look at my emails, yes, constituents say that (Go X) are a bunch of lawless folks terrorizing pedestrians on the sidewalks.”

San Franciscans have reported more than 50 complaints to 311 about Go X vehicles since April, according to SFMTA.

Startlingly, San Francisco and Go X are so at odds they can hardly even agree on basic facts.

SFMTA said it has issued 129 citations to Go X totaling roughly $63,800 for its e-scooters, and impounded 57 Go X vehicles.

Debelov initially denied this and said the company has paid $16,000 for 32 impounded vehicles. He later said he was charged roughly $59,000 in citations.

And while it is inarguable that San Francisco Public Works has impounded Go X vehicles, Debelov claims some were incorrectly taken off private property that his company had agreements with.

“A number of times we basically partnered with Hotel Vitali, they were displayed on the property,” Debelov said. “An SFMTA employee would come in, and take them from Hotel Vitali.”

When asked about this, SFMTA referred to the previously mentioned photos that clearly show Go X’s e-scooters strewn across the public right of way.

There is also some confusion around the company’s speed limits. In several places Go X’s website says its e-scooters travel at 25 miles per hour, which is 10 MPH above the speed limit imposed on other e-scooter companies by SFMTA.

Debelov, however, claims his own website is incorrect and should read 25 kilometers per hour, which is roughly 15 MPH, and equal to SFMTA’s speed limit.

Whatever speed those e-scooters actually go, one thing is clear: For the foreseeable future they’ll keep speeding into the waiting arms of Public Works officials, to be impounded.

joe@sfexaminer.com

 

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