The scooters have disappeared from San Francisco.
In anticipation of regulations that took effect today, Bird, Lime Bike, and Spin have warehoused their fleets of the shared electric two-wheelers. They won’t be able to redeploy them unless the city grants them a special permit, which could take the better part of the month.
Good riddance, many will say. The city should cap their numbers, control their behavior, or, better yet, incinerate the whole lot. They and their hubristic riders are a menace, terrorists of the sidewalk. That’s why I smear them with feces and throw them into trees.
Yes, the scooters have been a pain since these three companies tossed them by the thousands onto San Francisco streets in March, then saw ridership rates explode. But it’s not because those newly scooting users are jerks. It’s because the city as structured is hostile to people willing to look like dopes in exchange for a ride that doesn’t get stuck in traffic, that’s faster and easier than walking, and doesn’t emit greenhouse gases.
City officials shouldn’t limit the scooters. They should do everything they can to benefit them. Namely, rejigger San Francisco’s infrastructure—every street, every block—with their riders in mind. Because a city made for scooters is a city ready to embrace a cornucopia of mobility options that don’t require sitting in a car, clogging the streets, and choking the planet. A city made for freedom.
Most anti-scooter vitriol falls into one of two categories. The first is that they represent everything said to be wrong with San Francisco. Their riders are the same tech workers who are driving up the cost of living. The tech workers who are making already scarce affordable housing even scarcer, and exacerbating the already distressing problem of homelessness. The employees of companies like Bird, which is drowning in venture capital money and is reportedly worth $1 billion.
These are big, knotty, real problems, but the scooters didn’t cause them, and their disappearance won’t mitigate, let alone solve them. San Francisco needs a smarter, bolder zoning policy that encourages (demands) more affordable housing. It needs smart, bold ways to make life livable for those who aren’t rich, and to help the thousands of people living on its streets.
The answer is bike lanes: big, wide, protected bike lanes. The way to make them is to take away parking. Make the sidewalks wider too.
The second general complaint about the scooters is that they’re infuriating. People ride them on sidewalks, weaving around pedestrians or passing them from behind without warning. Because they can park them wherever they like, they leave them in the middle of the sidewalk, where they get in people’s way and make getting around even harder for those who have trouble walking or use wheelchairs.
These are valid gripes. But let’s look at why people ride the way they do. First, scooter riders don’t have a monopoly on obnoxious behavior. Drivers speed, block the box, and stop in crosswalks. Pedestrians cross the street when they shouldn’t and step cluelessly into the bike lane. Cyclists roll through red lights and stop signs, even when it means cutting off somebody with the right of way. You’re not perfect either, so zip it.
Now, about riding on the sidewalk, which is illegal under California state law (not that anyone’s enforcing it): No one does this because it’s convenient. The sidewalk is narrow and cluttered—with humans on foot, trees, parking meters, and those dang scooters strewn about. But compared with riding in the street, where bike lanes are scarce, routinely violated by cars, and speeding is pervasive, the sidewalk is safe. You can be annoyed by these two-wheelers sharing your walking space. But you shouldn’t be surprised.
What to do? Make the street a safe space for scooters. This part’s easy, and it looks a lot like what San Francisco and other American cities have finally started to learn. The answer is bike lanes: big, wide, protected bike lanes, and lots of them. The way to make them is to take away curbside parking—that shared space that car owners get to take over, often for free—and use the space to make the streets safe and convenient for everyone who wants to ride a scooter, or a bike, or a one-wheel, or whatever ridiculous thing comes next. While you’re at it, make the sidewalks wider too.
The obstruction issue is harder to forgive. I constantly find scooters parked near the middle of the sidewalk, instead of leaning against a wall, or somewhere that isn’t obviously horrible. How about leaving them in bike corrals, or something with a more inclusive name? We’ll call them No-Car Corrals. The recipe is straightforward: Take one to two parking spaces now used by cars. Paint a big box around the space or, better yet, surround it with bollards, or planter boxes, or whatever. Put in some bike racks. Maybe some railings to keep the scooters upright. Repeat the process until you’ve got one on every block. Then engage with Bird, Lime Bike, Spin, and every other scooter provider, and get them to penalize users who don’t use the corrals.
OK, so look at this! You’ve got a city full of wide, safe spaces for people who aren’t in cars, and you’ve scooched all the scoots off the sidewalk. Sure, you’ve killed some parking, and that will inconvenience some people. But you’ve made it easier and safer to get around without a car, reducing traffic in the first place. Now you just have to pour some money into public transit and really make cars optional.
And if some jerk on a scooter still chooses to roll down the sidewalk? Well, then you have my permission to clothesline them.
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