From the Mission to the Marina, the streets of San Francisco are crawling with colorful two-wheelers. Lime green stand-up scooters. Black and purple electric bikes. Baby blue mopeds.
With public transit still moving a small fraction of its pre-pandemic ridership, these shared, app-based, open-air vehicles transported more people this summer than they did in the summer of 2019.
Shared micromobility — the term of art for these rentable gizmos — is still in a fairly dramatic state of flux in The City, with companies starting up and shutting down at a dizzying pace due to shifting regulations and dubious economic models. The workhorse of these transportation providers, the Lyft-run Bay Wheels bikeshare system, recently raised its e-bike prices, reigniting longstanding criticisms of the legally sanctioned monopoly.
But three years after the Great Scooter Invasion of 2018, shared micromobility looks like a lot more than a fleeting fad. With far fewer people commuting to work, and a huge decline in tourism, people are still finding hundreds of thousands of reasons to ride each month.
A variety of factors could be contributing to the popularity of this transportation, Regina Clewlow, CEO of the micromobility data company Populus, wrote to The Examiner in an email. Reduced transit service, in addition to fear of contagion on buses or in ride-hailing cars, could be pushing people on to outdoor modes.
“With some people still concerned about COVID, micromobility might feel like an easier and safer way to get around,” Clewlow wrote.
The City’s network of slow and closed streets could also be stimulating trips on two wheels, says David Zipper, a visiting fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government who studies transportation policy.
“The biggest determinant of people being willing to bike or use a scooter is making it a safe way to get around. And so by definition, an increase in safe places to travel is going to make those modes more successful.”
Data from the scooter company Spin bears out this claim. Spin scooter ridership on a “slow street” — like Page Street during August this year — was nearly double pre-pandemic levels in August 2019, and ridership on car-free John F. Kennedy Drive more than tripled.
While commuting has historically been an important micromobility market, especially for bikeshare services, Zipper says these little vehicles also serve a wide variety of recreational and leisure trips. Shared bikes, scooters and mopeds provided an average of 386,000 rides in San Francisco between June and August of 2021, compared to an average of 339,000 rides from June to August of 2019. August saw the third-highest scooter ridership of any month since The City began its pilot program in 2018.
BART ridership, by comparison, is at about 25% of pre-pandemic levels on weekdays, and 40 percent on weekends — even with the agency’s half-price fares offered through September. Muni is at 45% pre-pandemic ridership on weekdays, and 52% on weekends and evenings. Still, on a purely numerical basis, far more people rely on buses and trains to get around.
The comparative data isn’t perfect. There were fewer scooters on the street in the summer of 2019 and their range was more restricted. Back then, The City played host to Jump e-bikes, Scoot mopeds, and scooters from Skip and Scoot. This summer, the only bikeshare cycles available come from Bay Wheels, mopeds are provided by Revel, and scooters are provided by Lime and Spin. (After being forced to suspend service for labor violations, Scoot was once again permitted to deploy scooters in August, although the latest city data suggests they haven’t hit the streets yet.)
Shared micromobility ridership peaked in the winter of 2020, when Bay Wheels offered its e-bikes for the same price as its pedal bikes. February 2020 saw 628,000 total shared micromobility rides, largely attributable to Bay Wheels e-bikes, representing a major outlier in the data.
The last couple of years have been a roller coaster for this nascent industry, of which many of the major players, including Lyft, Lime and Spin, are headquartered in San Francisco.
Shortly after introducing e-bikes to its bikeshare fleet, Lyft’s Bay Wheels pulled the electrified bikes in April 2019, due to braking issues. The company returned them to the streets two months later, only to pull them again the following month, after multiple batteries spontaneously caught fire. The current iteration of e-bikes began hitting the streets in January 2020, and a new generation, in pearly white candy paint, was released into the wild in June.
Pricing has been another area of concern for Bay Wheels, which has a legal monopoly on bikeshare service in San Francisco through 2025. Starting Sept. 23, the company increased its per-minute prices for e-bikes in exchange for building new stations and increasing the number of subsidized memberships it provides for low-income people.
Scooters have faced — and created — a panoply of issues since being deployed in San Francisco, from irresponsible riding, to sidewalk clutter, to questionable labor practices. The City’s regulations have helped ameliorate some of those problems by using scooter fees to fund the installation of bike racks, and then fining scooter users who don’t properly lock to a rack. City regulations also mandate that companies follow certain labor standards, and deploy adaptive scooters that can be used by people with disabilities.
Representatives from Spin and Lime said they have been seeing scooter trips shift from downtown and SoMa toward more residential parts of The City. Trips are more evenly distributed throughout the day, rather than spiking during commute hours. The companies say they’re seeing similar patterns in other cities, as well, with a handful exceeding pre-pandemic ridership levels.
Several of Lyft’s other bikeshare systems have seen even stronger ridership than San Francisco’s Bay Wheels during the pandemic. Following a slight decline in 2020, the six largest bike share systems in the United States, all owned by Lyft, have collectively reached new ridership highs this year, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, with the systems in Chicago and New York showing particularly strong gains. Lyft declined to comment.
Whether these companies are financially sustainable remains an open question. In the early days of the pandemic, “scooter companies had a near death experience,” Zipper says. “Demand has come back faster than a lot of them were afraid of. But keep in mind, they were looking to scale further to where things were when COVID struck. So just getting back to that is not enough.”