Scooters, e-Bikes and jet packs: Mobility tech’s big moment.

A Bird scooter lays submerged in a lake in Golden Gate Park, April 2018

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.

A Lime scooter using a bike rack on Potrero avenue in San Francisco, May 2018

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.

A shattered Bird scooter lies on a lawn at the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco, May 2018

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.

Don’t have a car? Getaround can help with that!

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.

Mary Brown (1969-2015), San Francisco Bicycle Coalition Membership director, and later city planner and preservationist, watches the Valencia street bike lanes get striped in 1999.

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.

 

Written on May 6th, 2018 in San Francisco, California, city that has definitely known how.

From the 22nd Street Crossroads: Robot Wrangling in the Mission District

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I saw the robot before it saw me: it looked like a cross between a Travel Pro 3-Wheel(™) mobility scooter, the kind my elderly cousin uses, and a mini-fridge. Upon closer inspection it appeared to be a hastily assembled, somewhat jerry-rigged robot: not top shelf, really. More bargain-basement. A man was trotting along after it, in the way of a pet owner chasing his unleashed dog.

I biked up to the man. “Can I ask you what that is?” I asked, knowing which answer I’d get. This is the New Mission: no one talks about their business, particularly if it’s funded with venture capital. The man, who had long, slightly stringy brown hair and brown eyes smiled. “I can’t tell you,” he replied. “Sorry.” I smiled back at him. I wasn’t surprised. The Mission District is in the grips of a massive Non-Disclosure Agreement these days: automated cars and robots are common sights on sidewalks and streets, and yet no one can or will tell you what they are or what they are meant to do.

“Can I follow along and ask you some questions?” I responded. The man winced. I was on my bike, so it was easy to shadow him and his pet-robot as they traveled down Alabama Street. The man, who also couldn’t tell me his name, said he was from New Jersey and that his company’s headquarters was in the Mission. “But I can’t tell you where. I’m not sure I could, anyway. I’m new here,” he said. “I don’t know San Francisco yet. We’re close to Potrero and some street named after a state.”

“York? Hampshire?” I asked.
“Yeah, maybe one of those. But really: I can’t tell you,” he said.

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I’d been primed for this encounter by a Mission Local story written by journalist Laura Wenus about a “Carry” robot—a different one than the one I was looking at— that she encountered on Valencia Street. Tech companies are routinely using streets and now sidewalks to test and develop and profit from their technology, and yet none of them will disclose what they’re doing.

I flashed back to a New Yorker story about Jim Dyson, the millionaire design engineer who invented the Dyson Supersonic hair dryer. “No humans, completely automated,” he said, about the making of the hair dryer. “Can’t have any humans.”
“This is meant to be a delivery system, right?” I said, adding “Bye-bye subsistence capitalism!”
He laughed uncomfortably. “Yeah, right. This will definitely take someone’s job. Well…” he shrugged his shoulders. What are you going to do?

“How do you feel about tech firms using public space to develop their technology?” I asked.

“Well, we have to worry about competition,” he explained. “If we talk about what we’re doing—what this is”—he jerked his chin at the robot—“we run the risk of competitors stealing our ideas. I sympathize with people’s need to know, but I just can’t tell you anything. But I can say this is meant to help people, and that I would never work for a company to didn’t intend to help people. I wouldn’t be a part of that.”

We were having this discussion on Alabama street, which has the distinction of having some of the oldest houses in the Mission District. A PG&E serviceman was kneeling on the sidewalk in front of a cottage built in 1862, attending to some subterranean problem. The robot zoomed gaily ahead. “You gotta be careful,” said the man. I realized that he was talking to someone else.

“Are you controlling this thing?” I asked.
“No. Someone back at headquarters is,” he said.

The worker saw the wheelchair-mini-fridge contraption coming his way and sat back on his haunches. His eyes widened.”

Whoa!” he said. “Is that a robot?”

“Yes it is,” said the man, whom I had started to think of as the robot wrangler.
“Do you want to know what this is?” I asked the worker. “Ask him.”
“What is it?” asked the PG&E repairman.
“I can’t tell you,” said the wrangler, who looked a panicked. I could see him wondering about my persistence. When is she going to leave me alone?

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The robot moved confidently down 23rd, turned right on Harrison and made a beeline for the intersection of 22nd and Harrison. “That’s quite a curb,” the man muttered into his headset. The robot made its way into the crosswalk and, tottering a bit, managed to mount the curb cut. It veered around the woman who sits on the corner selling oranges. She eyed it with calm suspicion.  “Naranjas?” she asked to the robot wrangler as he herded it across the intersection.

“Do you think that companies that use public resources should pay for the privilege of using public sites to develop their technology?” I asked the wrangler.

“Well,” he said, “I think that fact that we’re providing some kind of benefit,” he said breathlessly (it was clear that he wasn’t used to all this running; he had the hunched posture and pallor of an tech engineer)—“to people …I can’t tell you what that is but I can say that this will provide some kind of benefit. So I dunno. If we had to pay a special tax we might want to go somewhere where we didn’t.”

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I wasn’t surprised by his answer: this is the era of the Libertarian New Deal which has evolved a formula exactly opposite to the three R’s: instead of Relief, Recovery, and Reform, it’s Deny, Deconstruct, and Dissemble. Small “l” Libertarianism, as I’ve seen it practiced by start-ups in the Mission District, is avoidant, anonymous and prefers to to create things—cars and miscellaneous gadgetry—that make more private space.

This is how I view “innovations” like automated vehicles; the self-driving cars Cruise Automation has spent the last two years test driving around the Mission (and I do mean around, and around, in dizzying regularity) function like private BART cars. Included in this avoidance of common space is a suspicion of public safeguards, permits, in other words.

Uber’s decision to place their driverless cars on San Francisco streets in defiance of California’s entirely reasonable vehicle permitting laws is a perfect example of the tantrumy we’ll-do-what-we-want-to-do-you’re-not-the-mother-of-me reaction to public safety laws.  I asked the robot wrangler if the anonymous tech company had checked in with the city or sought any sort of permitting. “No,” he answered.

I recounted this conversation a day later to Nicole Ferrara, Executive Director of Walk SF who said immediately: “They are not legal. They are not permitted to be on the sidewalk.” She’d read the February 21st Mission Local story about the “Carry” robot, and thought I had seen the same robot.

“This was a different robot,” I told her. “It looked like a mobility scooter.”

She sighed. “We’re concerned that this is the beginning of the era of Wall-E. More and more public space is being taken away. People that live in the city enjoy the fact that they can walk places, like the grocery, for instance. Maybe you bump into a friend on the way. Sidewalks form social spaces and are part of the fabric of urban culture. To stop that culture from unfolding is detrimental to urban life. And it has an impact on the elderly and disabled population.” I asked her if they had a plan to deal with scofflaw robots. “Yes,” she said. “We’re working on that.”

The robot and the wrangler crossed the street and entered the crosswalk. I decided it was time to stop talking and start documenting. I laid my bike down next to the woman selling oranges and grabbed my cell phone.

“I don’t want to be in the picture,” said the wrangler.
“I can crop you out,” I said and then thought wait a minute. He’s walking around with this thing on a public sidewalk. Sorry, guy. The robot vroomed past me and churned down Harrison street. The conversation with the wrangler was over. He was nice, but I knew there was nothing for me to know; all I was required to do was watch the spectacle of a robot, zooming through my neighborhood.

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But I followed them, anyway. We came to the corner of 23rd and Harrison.  A nattily dressed man wearing a porkpie hat stood on the street corner. His eyes lit on the robot and his eyes widened.

“Woah! Is that a robot?” he asked.
“Yes!” I said, answering for the wrangler, who was busy running after the robot.
He looked happy. “Is that like R2D2’s great-great-great-great Grandfather?” he asked gleefully. His name was Eric Peralta. “I’m a furniture designer and sci-fi geek,” he told me. He was enchanted by the robot.
“Do you want to know what that is?” I asked Eric.
“Yeah! Hey! What is that?” Eric called after the wrangler.

“I can’t tell you,” answered the wrangler. He and the robot zoomed off. Eric’s eyes were alight: the future was all around him in the Mission and it was awesome. Eric, a self-identified extreme-Left-Libertarian didn’t see a problem with the robot’s developers using the sidewalks and streets for product development or financial profit. “That’s what most companies do, right?” Neither did he mind the secrecy of tech culture. “When you’re working on sensitive technology, you need to be able to protect your design to keep your work from being stolen.” Who’d want to steal that thing? I wondered. What evil tech competitor would be interested? It looked so slapped together a Jawa might have second thoughts about scavenging it. In comparison, the “Carry” robot that Wenus encountered looked sleek, definitively high-tech and convincing in its role as the delivery person of tomorrow.

Eric looked thoughtful as he gazed at the rapidly vanishing robot. “It’s strange to be alive in this time. I can remember when computers were barely a thing…they fit in closets, not people’s hands. I grew up in the forest and love nature, love the environment. But the earth has become a human sphere. We are changing it.” He seemed to think that the future was upon us, in all its glory, unmovable, unchangeable and suddenly just present. I felt differently, of course: the future that tech companies seem to be building seems to be concerned with banishing the quotidian in favor of a future free of human activity and monopolizing my environment with a monoculture of non-disclosure and anonymity. Gee, no thanks. Like St. Joan of the Stockyards, I Want To Know.

What seems to be at-large in the streets of the Mission district (aside from unpermitted robots) is a culture that is at once voluble, and cagey: the public humble-brag and carefully scripted candor of the tech community when it speaks of the future at tech conferences vanishes when you encounter tech engineers roaming around the Mission District sitting inside self-driving cars or running after robots. They are legally and culturally tongue-tied. When asked what they’re doing, and what the things they’re developing will do, they can only say I can’t tell you. This is probably the truth. They probably don’t know.

Which is weird. An opaque, undisclosed future is at odds with the kind of Futurism I grew up with. It took delight in explaining everything: there will be ansibles, veldts, holo-decks. There will be genderless societies, black obelisks, undiscovered galaxies far, far away, monsters made from cadavers who need to be loved, tiny green people in elongated spaceships that either want peace or to destroy us. The authors and writers of the movies and the books I love (I’m a sci-fi geek, too) are in the business of description: new worlds, relationships, and environments. Some of the stories were cautionary. Some were frightening. But the makers of these scenarios wanted me to consider, to anticipate, to know.

The tech community of the Bay Area do not. They only ever show a bizarre mix of squeamishness and surprise—You’re only here to witness. We Can’t Tell You— as they develop an undisclosed future on the streets of my neighborhood.

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Written after a long time of not writing. The Moon is brand new and in Pisces. Venus is in the evening sky these days: go ahead and blow her a kiss.
Here’s to unsettled exoplanets!