Cap the Number of Scooters? Don’t be Surprised They’re Not Well Distributed

Those same caps are also increasing Vehicle Miles Traveled and greenhouse gases

Scooters on Market Street. Photo: Andy Bosselman
Scooters on Market Street. Photo: Andy Bosselman

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Bird Scooters announced yesterday that it is launching a workaround program for SFMTA’s permit process, which effectively banned them from doing business in the city. Instead of depositing scooters for per-trip use, it is now offering them for rent, in the more conventional sense of the word, at $24.99 per month.

From Bird’s release:

People can open the Bird app and enter information such as where and when they would like their Bird delivered (home, work, elsewhere). After your order is placed, a Bird representative will follow up to confirm details and arrange for a personal Bird, charger, and lock to be delivered. When your rental period expires, Bird will come and pick up the vehicle, charger, and lock from your location.

The announcement comes after SFMTA’s release of its findings for its scooter pilot study.

Streetsblog readers no doubt read the headlines last week (since overshadowed by Ed Reiskin’s departure and Friday’s Muni meltdown) such as, “Who’s riding those scooters around San Francisco? We’ll give you a hint, bro” in the San Francisco Chronicle or “Can Scooter Companies Meet Their Diversity Quota?” in SF Weekly.

These results were somewhat perplexing for those following the scooter phenomenon. After all, scooter use has been shown in many places to increase options for a wide range of people – more than bike-share and more than other micromobility projects. Anecdotally, across the Bay, scooters appear to be popular with more than just “bros.”

So maybe there’s something particular about San Francisco that is causing the problem.

“Demand for powered shared scooters is strong, and scooters may reduce private auto use and VMT [vehicle miles traveled],” concludes the study. It also has the point that the Chron, Weekly and others hammered: “More robust equity engagement is needed.”

That was based on data from the study showing that 61 percent of survey respondents were White. “This compares with the demographics of San Francisco as a whole–41 percent White, 34 percent Asian or Pacific Islander, 15 percent Hispanic/Latino, 5 percent Black or African American, and 4 percent other and/or mixed” according to the study.

As we covered previously, San Francisco’s reaction to the initial onslaught of scooters on the streets was to ban them–and then set up a pilot program which launched on Oct. 15, 2018. Scoot and Skip were the only companies allowed to operate in San Francisco, limited to 625 scooters for each company. Thus Bird’s current workaround tactic.

At the time, Streetsblog chatted with scooter company employees and advocates for shared mobility options, and they expressed concern that the limited fleet sizes might prevent them from saturating some neighborhoods with enough machines for the systems to be useful. Instead, they would have to focus on downtown. The SFMTA permit program has stipulations about placing a percentage of the fleets in “communities of concern,” but if you’re attempting to distribute 20 percent of your scooters in a relatively large and lower-density “community of concern,” and there’s a scooter cap–how is that supposed to work exactly?

Oakland took a different perspective–they decided to equally enforce (albeit often that really means equally not enforce) current regulations as they apply to scooters, such as no riding of a motorized vehicle on the sidewalk, or blocking the public right of way, etc. Meanwhile, they are studying how they’re getting used and by which groups, working with the companies to help crunch the data, meet equity concerns, and address complaints. The plan is to then, and only then, figure out a regulatory framework and permit program to address concerns about equity and other issues.

How are things going so far?

Well, so far they “…don’t have comparable data,” to San Francisco, wrote Sean Maher, a spokeperson for Oakland’s Department of Transportation. But he added that “Our anecdotal observations point to a diverse and racially representative group of Oaklanders using scooters.”

(Again, that’s probably consistent with the observations of anybody who lives or spends any time in Oakland, but please let us know what you think in the comments section).

“I don’t even know what you are talking about here in Oakland when you say ‘tech bros’ on scooters,” added Bike East Bay’s Dave Campbell, in an email to Streetsblog.

Meanwhile, a study from Populus, which makes its living by crunching data about scooters, bike-share/micro-mobility seems to confirm the anecdotes, at least broadly. Nationally, it found that “electric scooters attract a more diverse group of users,” when compared to standard, docked-bikes that are part of an official bike-share system. Our sister publication Streetsblog USA looked at the issue in Washington D.C., where, actually, a disproportionate number of scooter users are Black. Citylab also ran a piece asking if dockless micro-mobility could pump up diversity in cycling.

In other words, it seems likely that SFMTA’s own caps are the reason for, or at least contributed to, the disparity in San Francisco. It will be interesting to see what the Oakland study comes up with and then compare the two.

Oh, and on those VMT reductions, the San Francisco study concluded that “42 percent of all scooter user survey respondents indicated that they would have taken an automobile mode on their last trip had a scooter not been available… The vast majority of those users would have taken ride-hailing Uber or Lyft (36 out of 42 percentage points).”

In other words, it seems reasonable to conclude that if scooters are reducing car trips, then the SFMTA scooter caps result in more CO2.

Furthermore, “SF is missing out on all the fun,” wrote Campbell. “Dumb policies sometimes lead to that.”

  • crazyvag

    Rather than voting on fixed caps, I’d like to see a more market driven system similar to what NYC did for Lyft/Uber drivers. For scooters, pick a utilization target of say 5 users per day, and if target is exceed to say 6 users per day, we permit another 50 scooters net month. If we drop to 4 users per day, then we adjust at remove 50 scooters.

    This ensures that focus is on benefit of residents rather than picking a round number to make politicians happy.

  • Mario Tanev

    The only problem with that is that usage is dependent on network effects. If I know there will be a bike or oa scootern the way home, I am more likely to take one now.

    Ideally, you want to serve as many trips possible with the least amount of idling. So there needs to be gradually increased trip targets first, where for each target you assess if utilization has improved or regressed. You then look at the collateral impacts (bike rack, sidewalk space, etc.) and you decide at what point they outweigh the benefits. But just making up a utilization target makes no sense. A vehicle parked for 24 hours has lower utilization and bigger collateral impact than a scooter used once.

  • Mario Tanev

    Another issue here is that early adoption of any technology is always skewed towards tech savvy well off people. This is a pilot program with limited availability. You can’t extrapolate that to a broadly available product. That’s a bad methodology. SFMTA should know better.

  • crazyvag

    I agree with you that all collateral impacts need to be monitored. However, once they are tracked, having politicians set numbers takes us back to taxi days when someone thought that 1000 taxis “ought to be enough”.

    I think a better “knob” – if you will – is to use something that people can relate to such as response time and usage time. The number scooters is then adjusted to some metric and we don’t have to revisit hearings anytime popularity surges and you can never find out, or city is cluttered with them because the “next cool thing” in transportation came out.

    Going back to the taxi example, residents had to beg for more taxis, but what was the point of that exercise if a year later, it’s still just has hard to find a taxi. People got tired of that and invented Uber and Lyft.

  • LazyReader

    Scooters SOLVE lots of problems. Would you rather have a thousand scooters on the sidewalk/bikelanes or a thousand cars on the streets. I personally don’t care, I don’t live in the festering toilet of Sewer Francisco. The only reason they wanna go after scooters is because they cant milk them for cash the way they do for cars ala; parking and traffic. The politicians slapped huge regulatory shut downs on Lime and Bird, presumably because they didn’t kiss the politicians’ rings and beg for permission first.

    A public square needs some rules. Scooters, especially speedy electric ones, can be dangerous. But the city hasn’t gone after skateboards, bicycles and rollerblades? Social norms and manners will evolve as they proliferate. Washington DC on the other hand, the city famous for over-regulating things, embraced the scooters.

  • SDGreg

    San Francisco has more than 400,000 registered autos, but wants to limit the number of scooters to 1250. That’s way out of balance unless the goal is to kill off scooters as a meaningful transportation option.

  • Guy Ross

    ‘Milk them for cash’? When you discover the balance sheet for car ownership and it’s corresponding costs for municipalities, your head will explode.

  • Jame

    Based on my own anecdotal evidence in Oakland, I rarely see “bros” on scooters. It seems to be a pretty good of ethnicities, skewing under 50-ish. I also see a decent mix of genders. Popular destinations include BART stations, shopping districts and grocery stores.

  • LazyReader

    Car use is still the predominant form of travel in a lot of cities including San Francisco…………. Cars take people to jobs they couldn’t do in their own neighborhoods, allowing them to collaborate with people they might never have met if they walked. Just like Planes, trains and ships bring down costs by allowing inventors and businessmen to use materials and people they can’t find in their own back yards. If any of those forms of transportation had been crushed by regulation, we’d never know how many benefits we’d lost.

  • Guy Ross

    You comment has nothing to do with mine. Possibly mis-posted?

  • LazyReader

    The costs are outweighed by the advantages automobiles provide……….Like I mentioned above. Cars allow individuals to Collaborate in endeavors they otherwise couldn’t do on their own. Just like the effect bicycles gave 19th century feminists. Scooters may just be the next great wave of empowerment if enough people utilize the technology. Compared to cars, scooters are vastly greener, they use far less materials per person to own and vastly less energy. Another aspect is that the proliferation of scooters; since they’re riden outdoors, it may in fact incentivize the city to take steps and initiatives to deal with the horrible conditions of San Francisco’s sidewalks and streets, especially the defecate and syringes, not unlike Highway beautification.

  • LegalBriefs

    “That was based on data from the study showing that 61 percent of survey respondents were White.” So? What would be your point? White people are dumber? These scooter companies don’t give a CRAP who rides them, all they want is their money. Enough with the diversity b.s.