Scooters, e-Bikes and jet packs: Mobility tech’s big moment.
by Elizabeth C. Creely
Fair is foul and foul is fair, say the witches in Macbeth, warning that what seems to be appealing will seem less so as the plot grinds to an end. This is how I feel about the scooter situation and the onset of for-profit mobility companies who are in perpetual launch mode in this city, arriving daily with mobility vehicles tucked under their arms (figuratively speaking). “The next idea that comes along, I’m not even going to try to speculate what it is,” said Jeff Hobson, deputy director of planning at the SFCTA who spoke of “dockless jet packs” as a real possibility. The hyper activity of the mobility industry is no joke. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if I saw someone land in the middle of Mission street with a jet pack strapped on their back.
It’s been a busy month. Like the last twenty minutes in a Marvel movie, everything seems to be exploding and heads are twisting this way and that, trying to keep track of the action. Staff at city and county transportation agencies have spent a lot of time pulling together an emergency pilot program for the scooters and drafting an 80-page report detailing how Bay Area transportation agencies plan on dealing with the onslaught of mobility tech.
The 12-month scooter pilot program comes with a permitting system and fee schedule that allows five scooter companies to operate in San Francisco. There’s a non-refundable $5,000 fee to apply for the permit, a $25,000 annual fee to operate the scooters in the city, and a $10,000 “endowment” from each company to deal with the inevitable scooter detritus. In the first six months, up to 1,250 scooters will be allowed to operate. Thereafter, if all goes well, up to 2,500 will be allowed.
Thus it is that the scooter users may contribute $200,000 to the SFMTA budget (I personally feel it could be a bit more) something I feel certain is not on their mind. They’re too busy having fun, gleefully whizzing by with their feet in a modified fourth position, hair ruffling in the breeze.
The scooters were dumped in April, appearing on a part of the sidewalk I call the littoral zone. In marine ecology, this is the place on a beach where debris washes ashore: seaweed, plastic bottles, small dead animals. When I saw the first scooter, and then the second, and the third, and the fourth forming this sort of tidal line down Harrison Street, with no one minding them, I thought maybe the rapture had happened. Where were the owners? On their way to meet Jesus?
Well, no. The scooter-user was on the next leg of their busy day, leaving the scooter behind. If it was a Lime scooter, it was often tipped against a bike rack. It turned out that the scooter-users were just following the directions from the folks at Lime.
Because of this, it’s not unusual to find bikes racks coated with scooters, especially downtown. This has put me in the weird position of sympathizing with car owners: I now know how it feels to lose a parking space. After a frustrating experience thrusting aside scooters so that I could lock my bike, I wrote an indignant Facebook post, pointing out that even though 5,200 bike racks seems like a lot, they’re used by at least 10,000 bicyclists.
“LOL,” scoffed some guy named Tyler, an avid Scooterite. “Why not move them?”
I didn’t tell him I had. “Because, Tyler,” I answered, “I didn’t put them there.” (In San Francisco, it’s still traditional to pay for labor. ) The real problem is how effectively the scooters block the sidewalk and access for the elderly and the disabled population. A friend of mine had to remind Mr. Tyler that some people can’t move the scooters, or use the sidewalks, under the conditions created by the scooter dump.
The scooters are, by design, non-ADA compliant. And they’re litter—large objects left lying about with no natural home. Many of them ended up in singularly undignified positions: knocked over, hanging from branches, dumped in trash cans, stranded in the Broadway Tunnel, broken in pieces and left as litter on public lawns, or submerged in Stow Lake. Both bikes in the latter two examples were Bird scooters, a company that has already failed to honor its own anti-dumping pledge. “We have all seen the results of out-of-control deployment in China,” it reads. “Huge piles of abandoned and broken bicycles, over-running sidewalks, turning parks into junkyards and creating a new form of pollution—and new problems for cities.”
I’ll say. By the way: I’d bet dollars to donuts that this document was written after Bird was fined $300,000 by the city of Santa Monica for creating public hazards and unwanted litter.
When I pointed out in another Facebook post that Bird scooters had become the industrial litter the company expressed such horror at, I was taken to task (not very effectively) by Bird’s social media person, who in a series of badly written and enigmatic posts tried to argue with me. “Dear Elizabeth,What is your position on this issue – it is unclear.”
I’ll tell you what’s unclear: how many scooters got dumped and how they’ll perform on our bumpy, hilly streets. There’s a rumor going around that the scooters are only good for about 1,000 miles. I called Bird and asked if the manufacturing specs were available on the website. There was a pause.
“Um. We don’t have the info on our website,” the rider support person told me. I persisted. “Do you make the specifications, like how long they are supposed to last, public?” He said no. I emailed their press person, Nick Samonas, but made no headway. “Hi Elizabeth,” Nick wrote. “Thanks for reaching out. We have worked with a manufacturer to get Birds that meet our needs and standards. Beyond that we do not discuss Bird specifications.”
Happily, an article on Cnet identified the scooter as a Xiaomi Mi Electric Scooter. (By the way, if you’ve considered vandalizing the scooters, I sympathize, but please don’t. You’ll just create some nasty source-point pollution. Lithium is bad for water and God knows this planet doesn’t need more e- waste.)
No one, including the city, knows exactly how many scooters were dumped. A safe estimate is somewhere just south of 3,000. In a meeting with the SFMTA, Lime said they “placed” 1,600, but why take the word of an industry which rather not say? It’s so much easier to disrupt if the public doesn’t know you’re up to.
DDND: Disruption depends on non-disclosure.
It also makes the other big “D”, dumping, a lot easier. Dumping is in the company DNA, thanks to the founder, a man named Travis VanderZanden whose surname spell checks to “underhandedness.” Travis follows the motto of all Scofflaw-Bros: Do what thou wilt is the whole of their law. Travis understood how to position the scooters as a cavalry that’s arriving—just in time!—to decongest this city, because Travis oversaw the catastrophic growth of Uber, which was so rapid as to resemble dumping, as the Vice President of Global Driver Growth at Uber from 2014 to 2016. Before that, he was the COO of Lyft.
A re-cap: In November of 2016, the Treasurer of San Francisco announced that 45,000 Lyft and Uber drivers were driving the streets daily and sent those drivers letters, requiring them to register with the city. Only 21,000 Uber and Lyft drivers responded, and only about 6,000 of those drivers said that they lived in San Francisco.
The letters were an attempt to quantify the obvious impacts of ride-hailing on traffic congestion in the city. This was difficult because neither Lyft or Uber would provide data to help the city study the problem. Weirdly, and unfortunately, neither would the California Public Utilities Commission. The CPUC regulates ride-hailing and collects data from them. They’ve “declined” to share their data with the SFCTA and the SFMTA. (I’m trying to find out why.)
Fortunately, the City Treasurer and transportation planners were able come to grips with the proliferation of UberLyft driver-partners without the help of anyone named Travis. In 2017, the San Francisco County Transportation Authority, working with the 45,000 driver figure, created a report entitled “A Profile of San Francisco Transportation Network Company Activity.” This report, which was recommended to me by Paul Rose, spokesperson at the SFMTA, is a snapshot of the impact of Uber and Lyft on San Francisco. I encourage you to read it. It shows that Uber tripled its trips inside San Francisco in 2015, during VanderZanden’s tenure as VP of Global Driver Growth. Because of DDND it sheds no light on how many people share rides: “No information on TNC [transportation network company] vehicle occupancy or traveler demographics is available.” This matters. One person in one car at a time isn’t remotely environmentally beneficial.
Neither is getting people to buy or lease new cars to become drivers. This is now a standard practice at Uber, who were described in a CNBC article as “a major player in the auto finance market.” Uber’s car leasing program ensures that people who didn’t have a car, could get a car. This is no surprise to transportation planners: they’ve long known about the coziness and shared financial goals between the mobility and automobile industry and had to grapple with this as they reconsider terms like car-sharing. Consider Getaround, the supposed successor to the quasi-municipal car sharing program, City Car Share. They partner with Audi.
Late-breaking edit: Neither Lime, nor Bird, nor Spin (the other scooter company) have repair/charging facilities in San Francisco. As this Salon piece makes abundantly clear, all three pay (barely) contractors to collect and charge the scooters. This means cars on the road in search of scooters to be charged. Aside from the issue of creating unprotected labor pools, it’s hugely self-defeating if you really want to get cars off the road.
Neither Travis nor his scooters are going to solve the problem he and his colleagues at Uber and Lyft created: record high levels of auto congestion in the Bay Area. To do that, you need actual transportation advocates. And a good plan.
Here’s one: the city’s official 45-year old Transit First policy a magisterial and magnanimous gesture the city made in 1973 to give the good people of this city a functioning public transit system. When it’s pressed into service by community-based organizations like Walk SF and the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, the transportation situation in the city improves. Both organizations have organized, reasoned, argued, cajoled and lobbied city officials, merchants, neighborhood groups—anyone and everyone—to accept bicycles and walking as legitimate forms of transportation and to cross-reference these modes with BART and MUNI and other mass transit systems. (I remember when I couldn’t bring my bike on BART.) In the way of all resilient ecologies, space was created painstakingly and always in relation to the existing space for mass transit and cars. The amenities that pedestrians and cyclists enjoy—pedestrian bulb-outs, wider sidewalks, longer crossing times, and our semi-contiguous bike network, composed of sharrows, painted lanes, and in the last decade, some set-aside bike paths, are traceable to this policy and these communities.
It was and is vastly disruptive. But, in contrast to the mere non-compliance of the mobility industry, and the fast and furious profits their VC funders demand of them, it has been transparent: disclosed.
And very experimental. Take the super-bike-highway, the Valencia Street bike lane. People striped Valencia street with DIY bike lanes to convince merchants, and the city, that bike lanes were needed and were a benefit. The hugest experiment of all was convincing San Francisco that the terrain of this city, with its 48 hills, was entirely suitable for cycling and would in fact benefit this place by decongesting our aging macadamized streets.
There have always been and will always be dynastic struggles among competing forms of transportation in this city: horses and drays co-existed with steam trains, and for a short time electric street-cars and automobiles. By 1928 there were 122,808 cars in San Francisco. A century later, there are at least 496,843. The biggest problem is (still) cars. Scooters may have their place in the city. I know people who own them, and use them. But gimmicky single-occupant mobility systems will only ever be a tactic, not a solution. We need solutions.
Yesterday, I walked to my friend’s place, at the base of Mount Sutro. I was supposed to be there by 3:30 or 4. Leaving a bit late, I checked the time as I began to walk up 17th street. Ah, shit, I thought, and broke into a walk-jog up the street’s steep grade. It was hard. It was strenuous.
All around me were a flock of curious tourists out to explore the city using a variety of options: scooters, bikes and e-bikes. At the intersection of Corbett and 17th, where the grade increases, the vehicles faltered and fell back. Their battery was no match for the hill. Sweating profusely, but with a spring in my step, I planted my feet solidly on the unyielding earth and felt liberated from its surly bonds by the sidewalk, unobstructed and plainly grey, carrying me up, up, up, as far as my eyes could see.