A man kicks off to cross the intersection at Fifth and Howard streets on a Scoot e-scooter on Wednesday, Sept. 25, 2019. The SFMTA voted Wednesday to expand the e-scooter permit program to allow four companies to rent out up to 10,000 e-scooters citywide. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

SF to allow 10,000 e-scooters citywide, raising fears of ‘scooter-geddon part two’

Four e-scooter companies just won a coveted permit to rent electric kick scooters in San Francisco.

Rev your (electric) engines, San Francisco: E-scooters are going to spread across The City.

Four e-scooter companies just won a coveted permit to rent electric kick scooters in San Francisco.

Jump, Lime, Scoot and Spin will all become a permanent presence on The City’s streets. And those e-scooter companies will be able to run in more neighborhoods than they were previously allowed to, spreading to San Francisco’s West Side.

That’s per an announcement Wednesday afternoon by the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, which unveiled the next phase of its Powered Scooter Program. While each company will be allowed to rent out 1,000 scooters, each operator can expand that number to 2,500 should they consistently meet service-level requirements laid out by SFMTA.

After that expansion, San Franciscans would see 10,000 rentable e-scooters citywide.

That revelation struck a nerve with Supervsior Aaron Peskin, who represents North Beach and Chinatown, among other neighborhoods.

Peskin told the San Francisco Examiner the move would encourage congested sidewalks and scooter-caused traumatic brain injuries.

“These people are creating scooter-geddon part two,” Peskin said.

He proposed an amendment to The City’s charter to make SFMTA more accountable to elected officials in response to the scooter permits, an act he called irresponsible.

“They have not listened to the concerns of thousands of San Franciscans,” he said. “It’s a rogue agency.”

SFMTA planners evaluated the companies based on safety and device standards, pricing structures, rider safety, recharging and maintenance practices, hiring and labor, community engagement with SF neighborhoods, and the experience and qualifications of the companies.

All four new permittees were scored nearly equally on these metrics by the agecny.

Last year, only Scoot and Skip were awarded permits under a pilot program, leaving roughly a dozen companies out in the cold.

That was a bit of an experiment, SFMTA officials said Wednesday.

Lessons learned

With San Francisco standing in as a tech-mobility petri dish, agency staffers explored how many e-scooters could run, in which neighborhoods, while balancing both demand for transit service and concerns by residents weary of badly parked e-scooters.

A man enters the protected bike lane at Fifth and Howard streets on a Skip e-scooter on Wednesday, Sept. 25, 2019. The SFMTA voted Wednesday to expand the e-scooter permit program to allow four companies to rent out up to 10,000 e-scooters citywide. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

The experiment worked, the SFMTA said.

“We’re going to double the number of operators, double the number of scooters and double the number of neighborhoods the scooter can operate in,” said Tom Maguire, acting director of the SFMTA. “We learned a lot about what worked and what didn’t.”

Still, not every city community was happy to see the return of e-scooters. Queena Chen, co-chair of the Chinatown Transportation Research and Improvement Project advocacy group, said SFMTA needed to speak more to communities about e-scooter equity.

“SFMTA needs to partner with the community to assign locations where e-scooters can or cannot be parked,” Chen said. “Our main concern is sidewalk space is limited in San Francisco.”

Despite concerns, complaints to 311 plummeted during the pilot program. That’s a vast difference compared to the renegade release of e-scooters early last year, when three companies released e-scooters in San Francisco without obtaining permits (which didn’t yet exist) or obeying any existing regulations.

Complaints to 311 spiked, people complained of e-scooters parked on the streets and people riding illegally on sidewalks. SFMTA now requires a locking system so the e-scooters never block a walkable path.

And they’ll need somewhere to lock to. The four permitted e-scooter companies will pay about $300,000, collectively, so SFMTA can expand bike racks across The City.

Bicyclists have even more reason to welcome e-scooter companies to San Francisco, as those new riders may also advocate for more protected bike lanes, a fact that San Francisco Bicycle Coalition is celebrating.

Brian Wiedenmeier, executive director of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, said in a statement, “With thousands of more scooters on our streets, advocating for protected bike lanes that will keep people on bikes and scooters safe is more important than ever.”

Ending disruption

Those three scofflaw companies who hit city streets last year now have another crack at serving San Francisco.

Lime, Spin and Bird were ordered to remove their scooters from city streets by City Attorney Dennis Herrera. Bird bought Scoot, making all three winners in this latest round of permits.

In its application to SFMTA, Spin addressed this rocky relationship with San Francisco head-on.

“After seeing the confusion and problems that can arise after operating in our hometown before a formal regulatory framework existed, we committed ourselves to never launching anywhere — no matter how small or limited — in the absence of any formal, written permission,” the company’s staffers wrote.

One of the companies that previously held a permit in the pilot program, Skip, saw their permanent permit denied.

In SFMTA’s permit evaluation, which began in August, Skip was knocked for not meeting minimum requirements for a low-income pricing plan, for not filling out a required form about how they would redistribute scooters throughout San Francisco, and for their safety plan — which was nonexistent.

Also during the e-scooter pilot program that included Skip, an SFMTA survey found that those riding e-scooters were mostly white men who earned more than $100,000 annually, perhaps confirming perceptions that the e-scooters are toys for The City’s rich elite.

The changes to geographic areas in which the e-scooters are allowed to operate could change that narrative, SFMTA staffers hope. E-scooter operators will be required to have only 40 percent of their fleets downtown while the rest must be available in San Francisco’s western, southern, and southeast neighborhoods.

“We want to make sure we’re serving the outer neighborhoods of San Francisco,” said Jamie Parks, director of livable streets at SFMTA.

All applicants submitted what are called labor harmony plans, essentially agreements that they will hire full and part-time W-2 workers and not use independent contractors, who often lack employment benefits, to redistribute and fix their e-scooters.

The tech habit of paying peanuts to gig-workers, then, will be a no-go for any company permitted by SFMTA.

While e-scooters were once viewed as a hot commodity among investors — signaling the gold rush to hit the streets last year — deep-pocketed investors have since cooled on so-called “micro-mobility” devices, it has been widely reported. The e-scooter sector has raised roughly $795 million from investors in recent months, whereas the industry raised $4.8 billion from investors in 2018, according to Quartz.

The newly permitted e-scooters are set to hit The City’s streets on October 15, the date the pilot scooter program is slated to end.

joe@sfexaminer.com

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