Bike Safety Advocates Fume over City’s Scooter Priorities

Ubers in the bike lanes, sub-standard bike infra, hit-and-runs, broken pavement--but SFMTA cracks down on scooter rentals

Back in June, a group of San Francisco bike advocates joined forces with scooter supporters to demand better bike infrastructure. Is there a natural synergy between these two transportation modes? Photo: Luis Guerra
Back in June, a group of San Francisco bike advocates joined forces with scooter supporters to demand better bike infrastructure. Is there a natural synergy between these two transportation modes? Photo: Luis Guerra

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Anyone who rides a bike in San Francisco has experienced the frustration of watching police cars drive right past Ubers, Lyfts, and sometimes even city vehicles parked in bike lanes. Anyone who walks in San Francisco has had to go around cars blocking crosswalks, parked on sidewalks, etc.

Given this massive problem, the city has decided to crack down on little electric scooters.

Last week, three companies – Limebike, Bird, and Spin – started leaving app-based, electric scooter rentals on the sidewalks of San Francisco. The SF Examiner did a great report laying out the issues; Scooters are not explicitly covered in the city’s transportation code, although it is illegal to place any object in a manner that obstructs the sidewalk or other pedestrian paths of travel, Paul Rose, an SFMTA spokesperson, told the Examiner.

Even though there’s nothing specifically banning the scooters, as TechCrunch also reported, SFMTA director Ed Reiskin wrote a letter to the three companies asking for their business plans, asking them to wait for the city to finalize a permit program, and saying that the city “…will not tolerate any business model that results in obstruction of the public right of way or poses a safety hazard.”

That last bit had safe-streets advocates fuming. This tweet from safe-streets and micro-mobility advocate Michal Naka sums up the screamingly obvious double-standard nicely:

“Ed Reiskin’s comments got us fired up. He is talking about enforcing scooters parked against parking meters but does nothing about the thousands of cars that block bike lanes, crosswalks, and sidewalks?” wrote Matt Brezina, one of the organizers of the ‘people protected bike lane‘ protests on Valencia and elsewhere.

Aside from banging their heads on the nearest solid object, there wasn’t much to do about it except go for a ride. So Thursday afternoon, a group of about ten protesters with the People-Protected Bike lane crew, including San Francisco County Supervisor Jeff Sheehy, decided to rent some scooters and go for a tour of SF’s good and bad bike lanes and infrastructure as another form of protest (and to blow off some steam).

“I rode one from the Giants ballpark to BART and these could be a boost towards addressing the ‘last mile’ of a mass transit trip,” wrote Sheehy in an email to Streetsblog. “I actually thought it might be useful to have these around City Hall—I take so many relatively short trips and these could be a quick way to pop to a meeting and back.  I wonder how many other short trips where people do ride shares now might end up as scooter trips.”

The scooters that pose a grave threat to San Francisco, flaunted in front of the baseball stadium. Photo: Luis Guerra
The scooters that pose a grave threat to San Francisco, flaunted in front of the baseball stadium. Photo: Luis Guerra

That said, not all advocates see a problem with the SFMTA’s actions on the little machines.

“Walk SF supports the City’s efforts to develop a permit structure for motorized dockless scooters. The City has an obligation to make sure any vehicles that are part of San Francisco’s transportation system are consistent with local policies and that they operate in the best interests of the public,” wrote Cathy DeLuca, Policy & Program Director for Walk SF. “The potential of these vehicles to cause problems on sidewalks should be addressed proactively, and we’re confident that this sort of oversight can happen in parallel with the rest of the City’s important Vision Zero work.” Meanwhile, the SF Bike Coalition hasn’t taken a stance on scooters–at least, not yet.

Brezina also isn’t against regulating scooters–if and when it becomes a real issue.

“I absolutely don’t want scooters blocking pedestrian and ADA access to sidewalks,” he told Streetsblog. “But let’s address that when it is a problem. We have a way bigger problem right now which is cars constantly and dangerously blocking the right of way.”

  • mx

    SFMTA can’t be trusted, and it’s no wonder that scooter operators would launch without working with the agency. After the crap they pulled with e-bikes (giving JUMP an exclusive permit for 18 months without telling any of the other companies they would only be selecting one firm), no business interested in transportation in this city could possibly view SFMTA as anything other than an adversary.

  • neighbor

    I adore this mobility revolution. I feel pity for the old bureaucratic machines that are so far behind the 8 ball that they have resorted to a “no because we don’t understand it” party line. I get all this caution and deliberation when building highways and train tracks, or bus bulbs (in mta’s world) – but come on – these are temporary things with no infrastructure. Let them run wild, let them make mistakes, let’s just learn from the experiment and regulate the real issues not some potential issues that are made up by some old-headed bureaucrats. . . get back to your core tasks ED!

  • Ethan

    ” it is illegal to place any object in a manner that obstructs the sidewalk or other pedestrian paths of travel”
    You mean like the newspaper racks that used to be on far more sidewalks? Or the bike racks and parking meters obstructing the sidewalks? There’s already stuff obstructing sidewalks and there used to be more stuff. As soon as the government works out a way to get a cut of revenue, like it does with parking and newspaper sales, these scooters will be OK with the city.

  • crazyvag

    Aren’t homeless tents a worse ADA access issue? A scooter can be moved aside to get by. How’s a wheelchair going to get around a tent?

  • Guy Ross

    Until you drag cops out of cars and make them walk and take public transportation (instead of expecting the general public to ask as their Stasi ‘if you see something, say something’) then these priorities will remain. Windshield perspective in policing is the worst form of it.

  • Asher Of LA

    Is that Euwyn Poon, second from right in the second photo (Asian male)? Co founder of Spin, and they’re on Spin scooters.

  • TS

    This is pretty transparently a tech bro movement to advance their business interests. Advocacy in SF is in a weird state right now.

  • Asher Of LA

    What a ‘problem’ – when ‘tech bros’ want the same thing you do.

  • Jeffrey Baker

    Is there a pejorative I’m allowed to use for you, or will the standard insults suffice?

  • Jeffrey Baker

    For real. In Oakland, the sidewalks are hardly even passable by able-bodied people.

  • Thomas Goetz

    I’m a big fan of Streetsblog but I find this piece off base. Enforcement shouldn’t be a zero-sum game, and these scooters are all over San Francisco’s sidewalks – both using the sidewalks as parking and with scooter riders barreling along and pushing pedestrians out of the way. My primary means of transportation in the city are bicycling AND walking, and I would expect Streetsblog to advocate for safe, non-motorized transportation over startup fads.

  • Sierrajeff

    This. I bike commute to work, and after Uber drivers, noobies on scooters (Scoot and otherwise) are the biggest danger that I face.

  • mx

    I think this comes down to what you want the city to look like. For some of us, it’s about getting people out of cars, because of the serious impacts of cars on safety, traffic, pollution, space given to parking, housing density, etc… From that perspective, any transportation option that gives an alternative to driving is potentially beneficial. Bicycling and walking are great means of transportation, but they aren’t for everyone or for every trip.

    Motorized transportation isn’t inherently evil, and I’m a big fan of providing more safe-speed high density options for people to try.

    That’s not to say that scooters don’t have issues (a giant honking “IT’S ILLEGAL TO RIDE THESE ON THE SIDEWALK, YOU DINGUSES” sticker on each one would be a minimal starting point), and those should be addressed. But transportation also isn’t a zero-sum game, and your preferences aren’t everyone’s preferences. This city is not going to ever be entirely bicycling and walking, and we have to provide more options than that.

  • Stuart

    Those problems don’t require the city to create a permitting system though. CVC 21235:

    The operator of a motorized scooter shall not do any of the following:
    (g) Operate a motorized scooter upon a sidewalk, except as may be necessary to enter or leave adjacent property.
    (i) Leave a motorized scooter lying on its side on any sidewalk, or park a motorized scooter on a sidewalk in any other position, so that there is not an adequate path for pedestrian traffic.

    The way to keep people from illegally operating these on the sidewalk is to enforce the existing laws, not ask for business plans.

  • Thomas Goetz

    fair enuf. to be clear, my point is hardly that biking/walking are only viable options, but simply that these scooters have massive safety implications for pedestrians, because the default behavior is to use them on sidewalks. These companies would have us pretend otherwise, but the net impact will be to make walking less safe. That should be unacceptable for our city leaders. We’ll see.

  • mx

    I agree more should be done to stop people from riding them on sidewalks. And more should be done to ensure the street is a safe place for bikes, scooters, and all other non-car forms of transportation. I just don’t think that means we only have to advocate for non-motorized forms of transportation.

    Every form of transportation can be used unsafely. We have a couple dozen deaths and thousands of injuries from 3,000+ lb cars every year, yet it’s the presence of some scooters that causes everyone to panic the streets are unsafe?

  • John French

    I emailed, and received a reply from, Ed Reiskin when he used those same words (“We will not tolerate any business model that results in obstruction of the public right of way or poses a safety hazard”) in a letter to BlueGogo and other dockless bikeshare operators considering launching in San Francisco. As far as I can tell that policy stems from a fear of “another Uber” happening.

    From what he told me, SFMTA is as frustrated with Uber and Lyft’s business models obstructing the right of way and creating safety hazards as the rest of us, but the city’s ability to do anything about it (beyond ticketing drivers individually) has been preempted by the CPUC.

  • John French

    Agreed. I’d rather someone ride an electric scooter on the sidewalk than hire an unlicensed taxi for the same trip. (Even better if they ride the scooter safely in the bike lane, or take Muni or walk, of course.)

  • Yeah, that’s what’s funny, the laws already exist, there just needs to be time and effort directed at enforcement. But politicians love to pretend they’re doing something hence their agressive language.

  • SF Guest

    The panic over dockless scooters is they can be parked or moved anywhere on a sidewalk where it becomes a trip hazard, and I suspect any dockless vehicle parked on a sidewalk is a concern for safety and slip-and-fall lawsuits.

    The key point here is sidewalk safety vs. street safety nor should they be given a free pass because they prospectively may reduce private car usage. I would accept the scooter program more readily if they are required to be docked like bicycles, but in its current incarnation it’s an accident waiting to happen.

  • mx

    As opposed to the parking meters, fire hydrants, ad kiosks, newspaper boxes, bike racks, sidewalk vendors, tents, syringes, human waste, animal waste, etc… that can be found all over the sidewalks?

    I share the philosophical objection to private companies using sidewalk space (though it pales in comparison to the amount of street space we give away for free or well below market rates for parking). But the knee-jerk instinct to regulate something new without demonstrating an actual problem to be solved isn’t going to get us more transportation options.

  • SF Guest

    Affixed or secured parking meters, fire hydrants, kiosks, newspaper racks are not trip-and-fall hazards compared to dockless scooters which can easily be moved or parked anywhere on sidewalks.

  • borngiantsfan

    I agree with Streetsblog here, we should NOT proactively address a potentially growing problem because doing so would require thought, planning, and advance action – things we are very poor at doing here in San Francisco. Instead, I agree that we should wait until it becomes as big a problem as the others issues cited here before we take action. That way we can write lots of stories about how dangerous things are and get more readers of Streetsblog – because if we address the problem in advance, then we reduce the controversy and have less readers.

    Get real Roger, what is wrong with addressing the scooter issue early before it escalates? Yes there are cars parked illegally – that is an enforcement issue. Right now there are no rules in place that regulate the scooter – that is a legislation issue. The cars are illegally parked so it is up to the police to enforce the already existing
    laws. But for the scooters it is still in the phase of the supervisors and MTA leaders to decide what to do about them.

    So are you are proposing that SFMTA director Ed Reiskin go out and start writing parking tickets or that he hire more police officers to enforce the parking laws? That would be interesting considering he doesn’t have the authority to do those things..

  • borngiantsfan

    MX, the problem with your attitude of “it’s about getting people out of cars” is that some people in the city need vehicles. Forcing people out of cars in the city makes it difficult for some of the people (such as families) who we want here to continue to live here.

    Think about the families with children – a demographic that city officials are trying to encourage to stay in the city. One family I know has 3 kids they need to shuttle between a preschool in the Inner Richmond, Middle School in Outer Richmond, dance lessons and baseball lessons in Lone Mountain, and little league games and other after school activities in Laurel Heights/Inner Richmond/etc. For them, then must drive to these activities and public transportation just doesn’t work. So making life more difficult for them will end up driving them (and the other families we want to keep here) out of the city.

    We need solutions that are good for all people – and a singular solution is never right for all.

  • mx

    You’re absolutely right. I don’t have a car, but I do drive or use
    Lyft when it meets my needs, along with a lot of other transportation options, and that works for me. For other people, especially families and seniors, it doesn’t work. I know that’s true of my parents, for example.

    My attitude is that fewer people should have cars and that the third of households who don’t have cars need better options to get around. That was really the premise of my comment: we need lots of solutions, and scooters can be one of them, so people can figure out which ones to use. Scooters aren’t the right way to get your preschooler to dance lessons, and cars aren’t the right way for a SoMa tech worker to get to Caltrain.

    Not all the solutions work for everyone and every trip, and that’s fine.

  • Stuart

    Right now there are no rules in place that regulate the scooter

    That’s not true though. See my other post quoting the CVC regulations about motorized scooters. The scooters blocking the sidewalk are illegally parked, and it is an enforcement issue.

  • NoeValleyJim

    I am raising a family with two children in The City just fine without a car. I don’t arrange my life so I have to go all over the place like that. There is plenty of things to do within two miles of my house. A cargo bike works fine for the daily commute with children. Those children don’t “need” to go to baseball practice halfway across town they (and their parents) just prefer to do so and just like every car driver they believe that their preference is more important to them than my health and the environment.