San Francisco is a city where companies frequently like to try out new ideas. Uber had its start here many years ago, as did success stories like Twitter and Airbnb. So it's no surprise that San Francisco happens to be one of many cities experiencing a new form of transportation: sharable electric scooters. They appeared in downtown SF seemingly out of nowhere, taking over sidewalks and pedestrian paths. But what was marketed as a low-cost, eco-friendly way to get around town soon became a public nuisance.
It all started in late March when three companies -- Bird, Spin and LimeBike -- unveiled their scooter-sharing solutions in San Francisco. All three work the same way: You unlock the scooter with an app, pay a nominal amount -- $1 to unlock and 15 cents a minute thereafter. When you're done, simply lock it with the app and it'll be ready for the next person to hop on.
Unlike docked bicycles, like the Ford GoBikes in San Francisco or New York City's Citi Bikes, you don't have to park them in designated spaces; they can be left anywhere. These scooters are then rounded up and collected every night for any necessary repairs or charging and then redistributed the next day.
In the meantime, though, they're often strewn aside carelessly, blocking the public right-of-way, thus making it especially difficult for wheelchairs and those with disabilities to move past them. Further, scooter riders are using them on the sidewalk, which is not only illegal but dangerous. I've personally had scooter riders zoom up past me, yelling "Watch out!" as they whizzed by. According to California state law, motorized scooters must be used in the bike lane or on the road. This means it's also against the law to ride them without a helmet and without a driver's license (therefore user must be 16 years or older).
All three scooter companies do give sufficient warning to their riders about these rules in their apps and on the scooters -- only Bird requires you to scan your driver's license barcode prior to the ride. If you request a helmet from any of the three, you'll get one free. LimeBike also offers educational videos for riders to watch and learn safety tips and rules of the road. But clearly, people still aren't following them.
So San Francisco is cracking down. Not only is the city working on legislating the scooters, but on April 16th, the city attorney sent cease-and-desist letters to all three companies to end operations until regulations are in place. The city also passed a law, demanding that all scooters have permits. Scooters found without permits will be subject to impoundment. San Francisco's Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) hopes to open up the permitting process starting May 1st.
Proponents say the scooters are a good thing. One of the ideas behind them is to solve the "last mile" problem, where commuters need a way to get to their destination from the train or bus stop, but without having to call an Uber or Lyft. After all, Uber and Lyft can be pricey, and an electric scooter burns a whole lot less fossil fuel than gas-guzzling cars.
To see what all the fuss was about, I decided to try out a few for myself. Each app has a map that shows you where the closest scooters are. At first, I didn't think I would be able to find one because San Francisco had sent a cease and desist letter to all three companies just the day before. But a quick look at the apps showed there were still plenty of scooters around.
All three apps have pretty similar interfaces, though I notice that Bird is the only one that shows you the battery level of each scooter as well. For all three scooter brands, you scan a QR code on the vehicle in order to unlock it. Then you pay the initial fee -- either through Apple Pay or a credit card in my case -- agree to the rules and away you go. The one big difference appears to be with the Bird app, which is the only one that required me to scan my driver's license barcode.
On my first try with a Bird scooter, I received an error alerting me that the vehicle was damaged and needed repair. I tried again with the scooter right next to it and got the same error. This would turn out to be a recurring problem throughout the day -- I encountered broken and damaged scooters with both LimeBike and Spin as well, even though they showed up on the app as ready and available for use.
Thankfully, it doesn't take long to find a backup. All I needed to do was cross the street to find five more Bird scooters leaning against a wall. I went ahead and unlocked one, and the Bird app gave me instructions on how to ride -- you push along a few times to kick-start the scooter, and then press the throttle on the right handlebar to trigger the electric motor; there's a brake on the left.
Spin and Bird scooters are built by Xiaomi and then reconfigured to be used in a sharing program, while LimeBike works with an unnamed manufacturing partner in China to make their own. Specifically designed for sharing, LimeBike's scooters are noticeably much larger, with bigger batteries that can last 37 miles between charges. Bird and Spin's scooters are smaller and lighter, but only last about 18 miles before they have to be charged again. All scooters have a 15 MPH speed restriction.
Here's where I'll admit that I personally found the scooters too difficult to ride. As soon as the scooter got any kind of speed from the throttle, I instinctively jumped off due to insufficient balance and just not feeling safe enough to be going at such high speeds. I would definitely encourage using a helmet (I didn't because I had no intention of actually riding for any real distance). Still, my colleagues seem to have no problems with it, and I can see its appeal from getting one place to another fast.
Of course, other "last mile" solutions exist -- the aforementioned docked bicycles are an example of that, as well as dockless bicycles like the Uber-acquired Jump. Spin and LimeBikes have their own dockless bicycles too.
So why scooters? Well, they're easier to ride than bikes and, also, they're just more fun. Bird CEO Travis VanderZanden told Business Insider that riding scooters reminds people of "when they were kids." The companies also told us that they simply wanted to provide an "alternative" mode of transportation.
But the other reason scooters have proliferated at such a rapid pace in San Francisco is because there were no laws regulating it, thus allowing the scooter companies to quite literally roll in without notice. All three companies told us they did have talks with the city of San Francisco prior to deploying their scooters, but according to the SFMTA, they weren't given enough warning. "While we were aware of the companies' interest in eventually launching these scooters in San Francisco, they did not notify us they would begin operating when they did," said SFMTA spokesperson Paul Rose.
This go-in-and-apologize-later approach is similar to how Uber and Lyft started out their businesses in San Francisco too. Which is why it's more than a little eyebrow-raising that the founders of two of the three companies hail from Uber and Lyft as well. VanderZanden is a former executive of both companies, while Spin's team is led by Uber, Lyft, Disqus and Y Combinator alumni. LimeBike is the only one that does not have tech startup roots.
Both Spin and LimeBike started out as bike-sharing businesses but branched out recently into scooters, while Bird is scooter-only. VanderZanden also told Business Insider that since Bird skipped bikes and went straight to scooters, they "invented" the scooter sharing industry.
Regardless of whether that's true, Bird is certainly the most dominant brand in San Francisco at the moment, with more than 175 scooters in the Bay Area. Spin reportedly has less than 50 and though LimeBike has not reported numbers, it told us that it's still in a relatively limited rollout period. Aside from San Francisco, Bird has its scooters in Santa Monica, San Diego, San Jose, Los Angeles, Austin and Washington DC, while LimeBike has scooters in Austin, San Diego and D.C. Spin's scooters are only in San Francisco right now, though it plans to roll them out in Seattle, D.C., and Dallas in the future.
"Working with cities to introduce electric mobility can be a potential barrier," said Spin co-founder and president Euwyn Poon. "But we have the policy expertise to partner with cities and create regulations that benefit cities and their communities." Poon also emphasizes that Spin has been in conversation with SFMTA from the beginning, explaining that its current rollout is only a pilot. "We only moved once we were informed that our operations would not conflict with existing state or local laws. Since then, we've provided multiple updates on how the pilot is going, including sharing preliminary usage data."
LimeBike has done its share of community outreach too. It actually started testing out its scooters at local street fairs and in further out neighborhoods like Bayview and the Excelsior, where there aren't as many transit options. "We've done proactive community outreach," said Caen Contee, LimeBike's VP of marketing and partnerships, adding that, unlike the competition, LimeBike has been in discussions with bike coalitions and local neighborhood groups. It's also currently working with the city to come up with designated parking spots for the scooters, to avoid the sidewalk clutter.
In order to comply with new regulations in San Francisco, LimeBike, along with Bird, are going to start requiring their users to upload photos of their parked vehicles after they're done riding, to make sure they're not obstructing the sidewalk. Bird also started a "Save Our Sidewalk" pledge a while ago, that asks signatories to promise not to leave their scooters on the sidewalk, to increase the number of vehicles only if each vehicle has at least three trips a day, and give $1 to city government for each vehicle deployed.
Still, it's clear that the relationship between the scooter companies and the city is strained. Last week, Bird spread the news of an emergency ban on scooters, when the city had no plans for that. According to Bird, it was simply a misunderstanding, but it didn't leave a very good impression on city officials. In an interview with the San Jose Mercury, San Francisco Supervisor Aaron Peskin, who co-wrote the bill to require scooter permits, called the company executives "a bunch of spoiled brats."
"San Francisco has learned from the earlier experience of Airbnb and Uber that we should be at the table from the beginning and not after the fact," he told the newspaper. At the scooter hearing in City Hall, Peskin expressed this sentiment again: "It would be very nice if the tech bros could come in and ask in a collaborative fashion for permission rather than after the fact forgiveness."
In fact, Peskin dug deeper into the Uber comparison. "We're told somehow that Uber is a public transit alternative that has decongested our streets even as we have hard data prepared by the San Francisco County Transportation Authority that shows, at peak in some parts of the city they are adding 26 percent of the congestion," he said at the hearing.
In the end, the problem isn't the scooters; it's how they're implemented. The concept of the scooters themselves are fine -- who doesn't want an affordable and more eco-friendly way to get around? But the issue is with how these companies seemingly invaded the city without sufficient collaboration on the details and scope of the scooter rollout. Seeing as cities across the world have been blindsided before by companies like Uber and Airbnb rolling in without regulation with the aim to "disrupt" the status quo, it's clear that San Francisco is finally tired of being a guinea pig to tech company whims.