A Long-Term Solution for Scooter Sharing

Shutterstock

San Francisco’s scooters are back, and newly regulated. But is regulation enough to make them work in the long term?

On Monday, after the great Scooter Wars of the spring and the hotly contested permitting process of the summer, e-scooters will relaunch in San Francisco. The SF Municipal Transportation Agency blessed two companies—Skip and Scoot—of the 12 that applied for a license with the right to operate a pilot program within the city. Starting now, residents and visitors will get to see what a regulated scooter system looks like.

The rollout will be smaller and more controlled than last time, when the scooters were described as a plaguea nuisance, and a piece of a “zombie apocalypse thriller.” One day, no one had seen a scooter on the sidewalk, and within a couple weeks, everyone had. Bird’s CEO even began imagining 10,000 (!) scooters in San Francisco. The demand and the backlash accelerated in lockstep.

Skip and Scoot’s regulated adventures will be a test case not just for San Francisco and these particular contraptions and companies, but for how cities, generally, will incorporate all the new “micro-mobility” options into their established transportation systems. Jetpacks are entirely beside the point; fleets of small, shared, gyroscopically stabilized, wheeled vehicles look like the future. That is, if these companies can manage the quotidian hassles of scooter-strewn streets.

Scooter proponents argue that they reduce dependence on cars. That communal benefit is far from proven, but cars, of course, do impose tremendous externalities on cities. Since 1946, they’ve killed more than 30,000 people per year. Air pollution shaves years off lives. And “light-duty” vehicles, i.e. people’s regular automobiles, are responsible for 17 percent of American greenhouse-gas emissions. Cities have been reshaped by car drivers in more subtle ways, too, as they suck in subsidies for parking and highways, making it easier for metro regions to sprawl.

Inside the ubiquity of the automobile, ride sharing snuck into cities, a new form of transportation camouflaged as regular old cars with funny mustaches and glowing signs. By the time cities acted, Uber and Lyft had established a base of users who pressured their representatives to just look the other way on the taxi rules. And that mostly worked.

But the scooters were unmistakably new. Having learned lessons from a decade of new tech deployments in the city, San Francisco banned them in June, less than three months after they ran over the first pedestrian toe. There would be a process, and that process would work like a government transportation program, not like a start-up. “It’s clear that many of these companies continue to build corporate empires off of a basic premise,” said City Supervisor Aaron Peskin at a city meeting. “Making massive profit always trumps protecting the public and innovation is only possible by cutting corners.”

This time around, for example, Skip will concentrate scooters near the downtown core (including SoMa, where many tech companies are located). The company’s application to the SFMTA was remarkable for its focus on becoming a part of the city’s official infrastructure. It pledged to create a community advisory board with most members appointed by supervisor district, and plan to track their progress serving as a feeder system into the bigger public transit systems. Skip’s services will be new to the city, and yet the company committed to throwing down a million dollars in labor training and transportation advocacy. For comparison, that’s substantially more than the 45-year-old SF Bike Coalition’s budget.

Skip co-founder and CEO Sanjay Dastoor believes that the scooter problem is not really about the people riding scooters. They’re happy, more or less, based on the company’s experience in Washington, D.C. Riding on a scooter is, after all, a fun experience for the individual! The problem is that the people who are not riding them aren’t happy. Scooters take from the city commons. During trips, they clog bike lanes or endanger pedestrians on sidewalks. Parked, they block ingress and egress, clutter yards, and otherwise inconvenience people. There is, to borrow a phrase from transportation economists, “a gap between [the] private and social cost” of scooter travel. In economic terms, whatever the utility of the scooter for the rider, the public bears the externalities.

“The question is: How do we get the people who aren’t using the scooters to feel the system is working for them?” Dastoor said.

One step is a lock-to system that Skip is developing, which will keep scooters attached to existing bike-locking infrastructure—and off of sidewalks. Another is rider education, especially trying to get people to ride in the street like they are supposed to do. But riding in the street without a bike lane can feel dangerous, so Skip has committed $500,000 to lobby for improved infrastructure.

There’s also just basic responsiveness to citizen concerns. In Washington, Skip asked the city’s department of transportation to tell it where the big trouble spots were for citizens, Dastoor told me. It found that most of the complaints were not about scooters in motion, but what they’re doing when they’re not getting used. So, Skip did something simple: It offered a phone contact for the people making complaints to the Washington DOT. It’s not rocket science, but it is antithetical to the way that most start-ups work.

“It’s really easy to not want to listen to those folks,” Dastoor said. “If you’re growing really quickly and serving your riders, it’s easy to say, ‘We’ll return your call later.’”

And that really is the rub. The many mobility start-ups could make life much easier for city residents who don’t use their services, but that has not been their top priority. In the first San Francisco rollout debacle, Lime claimed it was only “popping up” its service, but that caused Bird to jump inguns blazing, despite the city asking the scooter companies to wait on regulation. And Spin didn’t want to be left behind and deployed, too. It was a messy scramble for customers. “Other companies think this is like software companies: Acquire as many users as possible, then later we’ll figure out how to make money.” Scoot CEO Michael Keating told us. “That mentality isn’t really sustainable.”

Blowback from local governments could slow adoption beyond scooters, including a variety of new vehicles that also promise to change the way we move around the world’s cities. Scoot’s Keating estimated that all the different small, electric vehicles (including future autonomous ones) could make up 25 percent of all travel within global urban centers over the next 10 or 20 years. Those services would aspire to push people away from owning their own cars powered by fossil fuels. The larger system could deliver the same or greater mobility for people, as each different kind of electric vehicle meets a particular tranche of uses.

In the meantime, however, there are so many things that need to be worked out. Who, for example, should regulate small electric vehicles? Departments of Motor Vehicles could be pressed into service, but that might be overkill for a one-wheel or an electric scooter. After all, bikes need not be registered with the DMV. At the same time, it feels like someone should be checking these things for roadworthiness.

And then there is the helmet problem. If scooter riding dramatically expands in San Francisco and across the country, people are going to get hurt. What responsibility do these companies have to ensure that people wear helmets aside from encouraging them to wear a helmet?

But if the many kinds of micro-mobility can be worked out, the scooters and mopeds and electric bikes and one-wheels will fundamentally change city transportation systems, and in so doing, reshape the economic geography of cities. “The history of transport and real-estate values are so closely tied,” Dastoor said.

So: Buy land near the best bike lanes?

Alexis Madrigal writes for The Atlantic, where this article was originally published

FEATURED CASE STUDIES
Powered By The Atlas
Expanding broadband access with small cell deployment in City of Ontario
Ontario, CA, USA
Community feedback increases 13x in Lancaster, PA with both offline and online engagement methods
Lancaster, PA, USA
Laguna Beach open 24/7/365 for business license renewals!
Laguna Beach, CA, USA

NEXT STORY: Resilient Cities Look to Community Development Financial Institutions for Investment

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.