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San Francisco’s scooter war: city hits back as ‘unlawful’ schemes flood streets
City officials send cease-and-desist letters to electric scooter startups, as local residents complain the unregulated schemes are a nuisance
A motorized scooter in San Francisco. The city has threatened to impound devices. Photograph: Jeff Chiu/AP
Some people are tossing the scooters into trash cans and lakes. Others are tripping over them on the sidewalk, complaining of broken toes and dangerous collisions.
The San Francisco war over electric scooters – which several startups have dumped on to sidewalks in a competitive rush to launch unregulated rental programs – dramatically escalated on Monday when the city attorney sent cease-and-desist letters, warning that authorities would “impound” the motorized devices to stop the “dangerous” and “unlawful operation”.
The battle has made international headlines and sparked hyperbolic statements from the companies, some implying that the regulatory efforts ran counter to a democratic process. In San Francisco, the scooters have become the latest target in debates over public space, inequality and tech-induced gentrification.
Graham Hancock (@grahamhancock)
Gf just texted me what should undoubtedly be the file photo for San Francisco’s dockless scooter backlash pic.twitter.com/Gko2ToHmpd
April 13, 2018
The makers of the stand-up scooters say they are providing a transportation alternative that is vital to combating climate change. However, critics have slammed the un-permitted rollout as yet another brazen maneuver from startups breaking the law and snubbing regulators under the guise of “innovation”.
“They are just coming off as a bunch of spoiled brats,” said Aaron Peskin, a San Francisco supervisor who pushed legislation on Tuesday to create a regulatory permitting program for scooters. “They have harkened back to the bad old days of tech arrogance … of petulant children who think they can have whatever they want without any government oversight.”
The scooters of companies like LimeBike, Bird and Spin are dockless and available for rent through an app, resembling popular bike-share initiatives, allowing users to do short trips. And similar to the cycling programs, the shiny, colorful scooters have for some become symbols of the inequitable tech economy – products designed to attract wealthier newcomers to neighborhoods that were once working class.
This is for white techies. I don’t know one Latino that knows anything about this
Roberto Hernandez, anti-gentrification activist
Roberto Hernandez, a lifelong resident of the Mission, a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood, said he was surprised to see the scooters appear one day and that he had since seen children bump into them and a woman in a wheelchair struggle to maneuver around them.
“This is for white techies,” added Hernandez, co-founder of a group called Our Mission No Eviction. “I don’t know one Latino that knows anything about this.”
The backlash is reminiscent of the fight over robots in San Francisco, where lawmakers have cracked down on the automated delivery machines that have increasingly roamed the sidewalks. Companies have marketed the technology as a futuristic and efficient system, but pedestrian groups and disability rights advocates have resisted, some lambasting the robots as “aggressively entrepreneurial wet dreams”.
The scooter firms also appear to be borrowing from the playbook of some of the most powerful “sharing economy” firms, such as Airbnb and Uber, which have repeatedly clashed with cities like San Francisco by ignoring traditional regulations and claiming “disruption”.
Rebecca Kaplan, a councilmember in Oakland, where the new scooters have also faced criticisms and vandalism, compared the current debate to California’s historical battles over marijuana legislation. The city is believed to be the first in the country to have licensed medical pot dispensaries – and Kaplan said she was pushing a similar approach with scooters.
A user logs into an app to use a motorized scooter in San Francisco. Photograph: Jeff Chiu/AP
“The answer isn’t to ban them, but to regulate them and have them be responsible.”
Opponents of the regulatory efforts have argued that new laws could stifle an important mode of transportation in a region that is supposed to be dedicated to reducing greenhouse gas emissions and reliance on cars.
But Jane Kim, a San Francisco supervisor co-sponsoring the regulatory proposal, said she was not opposed to the overall concept: “Honestly, it looks fun. I don’t have any problems with alternative forms of transportation … I don’t see what the issue is with having rules.”
Kim said her office had fielded repeated complaints about tipped-over scooters blocking sidewalks.
San Francisco sours on rampant delivery robots: ‘Not every innovation is great’
Another major complaint is that users are frequently riding on the sidewalk, which is illegal and dangerous, said Cathy DeLuca, a policy and program director with Walk SF, a not-for-profit organization.
“People who live here and who struggle to live here are tired of being used as a testing ground without regard for the consequences on everyday folks who are just trying to get around the city.”
A spokesperson for Bird, Kenneth Baer, said in a statement that since the company’s San Francisco launch a few weeks ago, users had logged more than 90,000 miles, “which shows that there is great demand for new, environmentally friendly ways to get around this great city”. Bird is also taking action to suspend or deactivate users who violate rules and pledged to give $1 per vehicle per day to support bike lanes, street work and “safe riding”.
A Spin spokesperson said the company proactively reached out to city officials before deploying and said it supports the legislation. LimeBike did not respond to a request for comment.