The scooters are back in town.
Three months after ejecting the networks of shared, sidewalk-cluttering vehicles from the city, officials with the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency announced today the two winners of its e-scooter pilot sweepstakes: Scoot and Skip.
The city chose the companies from a crowded field of 12, which submitted a collective 800 pages in proposals on their operations, safety, and plans to extend the scooter bounty to San Francisco’s neighborhoods. Skip and Scoot now have the right to operate at least 625 scooters each in the city—a number that could eventually double. Scooter lovers, mark your calendars: The agency says it will finalize the companies’ permits by October 15 at the latest. They’ll be good for a year.
Conspicuously not among the chosen few: Bird, Lime, and Spin, which launched scooter service in SF last March, without formal approval from the powers at be—kicking off the hysteria that prompted the city to step in.
SFMTA officials insisted, however, that the unapproved launch methods weren’t solely responsible for the companies losing out on prized permits. “Prior experience was one of the criteria, but overall no single factor made the decision for us,” Jamie Parks, who oversees the agency’s Livable Streets initiative, told reporters. Instead, the companies’ proposals got dinged for failing to provide sufficient rider training, scooter rebalancing to fit demand, and service in areas typically underserved by transit.
This is exactly where Scoot and Skip shined, the officials said. Scoot—which has operated a shared electric-moped service in the city since 2012—said it would force riders to watch instructional videos before hopping aboard, and would use swappable batteries to keep the electric things charged and running throughout the day.1` San Francisco-based Skip proposed a community advisory board, and promised to extend service well beyond the city’s downtown core. Both companies said they could furnish their scooters with “lock-to” mechanisms that will help keep the vehicles out of the way of pedestrians and other sidewalk users.
Plus, these two companies played extra nice with the city. For Skip—launched by the creators of the Boosted board—it’s kind of its brand. “We find the collaborative approach to be more effective,” Sanjay Dastoor, Skip’s CEO, told WIRED earlier this month.
In Santa Monica, California, meanwhile, officials just announced their own scooter rules, issuing operating permits to Bird, Lime, Lyft, and Uber. (Bird, notorious for entering markets by deploying its vehicles without warning, announced yesterday that it had created a virtual dashboard for cities to use to manage the scooter onslaught.)
The cities’ decisions may prove a bellwether in the Great Scooter Storm of 2018, which has seen the little vehicles pop up everywhere from North Carolina and Texas to Wisconsin. As locals hop aboard, complain about the scooters taking up street space, compete to collect and charge them, and hurl them into lakes, municipalities are left to wonder: How do we manage these things? Some, like Austin, have decided to let the companies be. Others, like San Francisco and Santa Monica, have cracked down, limiting which companies can operate, and how.
“Everyone’s looking at everyone else,” says Bruce Schaller, a transportation consultant and former New York City transportation official.
Now many city officials are pondering pilot programs, cast as opportunities to see how scooters might fit into the urban transportation mix. Do scooters really replace car trips, as companies like Bird have claimed? Might they really be solutions to cities’ traffic woes? Could they be used to widen transportation options for everyone, but particularly cities’ lower-income or more far-flung communities? Are they safe? Expect cities to try to learn from others’ successes and missteps.
Officials also see this as a do-over, a chance to regulate a new mobility option in the way they never did for Uber and Lyft, when those options stormed into cities less than a decade ago. (Both companies applied for scooter permits in San Francisco and were denied.) “Cities learned two things: to be open to new stuff,” says Schaller. “And you need to guide the introduction, be partners in guiding, testing, and piloting.”
San Francisco’s decision to kick the scooters off the streets, then carefully control their return, signals that cities are ready to take back control.
1` Correction appended, 8/30/18, 5:35 PM EDT: Scoot launched in San Francisco in 2012, not 2016.
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