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Observing the Promise—and Annoyances—of Scooter-Share Systems

A Lime electronic scooter along a San Francisco street on May 6.

A Lime electronic scooter along a San Francisco street on May 6. Shutterstock

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As San Francisco and other cities temporarily ban electric scooters, regulations are a work in progress.

SAN FRANCISCO — On a warm and sunny Saturday, just ahead of Monday’s temporary ban on electric-assisted scooters left in public rights of way, Route Fifty witnessed a moment of exuberant glee coming from a bicyclist traveling along a bike lane on John F. Kennedy Drive in busy Golden Gate Park, near the de Young Museum.

“June 4 and scooters will be off the streets! At last! At last!” exclaimed a helmeted middle-aged man on a road bike at the top of his lungs. The comment was directed at an unhelmeted younger woman on a Lime electric scooter who was in the bike lane ahead of the cyclist. She seemed confused about what the fast-approaching bicyclist, who promptly passed her, was saying and why she was the target of his ire.

In a congested city where fights over the use of streets, sidewalks and public rights of way are not uncommon, the blowback against scooters has been particularly fierce, as has the blowback to the blowback.

On Monday, as the San Francisco Examiner reported, companies operating electric scooter share systems in the city were taking them from public rights of way to comply with the temporary ban and avoid hefty fines of $100 per day for each confiscated scooter.

In San Francisco’s local scooter war, the city’s temporary ban is only a short-term victory for those who have vociferously complained about the scooters. Municipal transportation officials are in the process of implementing a permitting program that would bring the scooters back to the streets and, presumably, the bike lanes of Golden Gate Park, which have long been a skirmish point in San Francisco’s various conflicts over public rights of way.

According to the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, which has jurisdiction over streets and sidewalks:

As part of their permit application, companies must demonstrate how they will minimize their impact on San Francisco's sidewalks, while maximizing transparency to the public. Specifically, operators would need to provide user education, be insured, share trip data with the city, have a privacy policy that safeguards user information, offer a low-income plan, and submit a proposed service area plan for city approval. Operators also will need to provide a plan that addresses sidewalk riding and sidewalk parking.

Other cities are similarly playing catch up when it comes to the scooters, the newest mobility option that’s been deployed in places like San Diego and Washington, D.C. with less-heated conflicts.

This week, Denver issued cease-and-desist letters to scooter-share operators, threatening to confiscate scooters left in public rights of way. Last week, public works personnel in Nashville began confiscating scooters. Like in San Francisco, officials in those cities are writing regulations for the scooters and their operators, like Bird, Lime and Spin.

So, are these electronic-assisted scooters the scourge and hazard that those who are complaining them—like the annoyed bicyclist in Golden Gate Park—make them out to be? Or are they a good option for moving through congested city streets, giving people a car-free alternative to complete short trips and close last-mile gaps in local transit networks?

That depends, of course, on who is using the scooters, where they leave them and if they’re zipping along sidewalks instead of the street.

In the week before San Francisco’s temporary ban went into the place, Route Fifty saw a variety of good scooter behavior and not-so-great scooter behavior. During the early evening rush hour headed outbound on Market Street, there were numerous scooter users mixing in with bicyclists, streetcars and buses along the city’s primary transit spine. Elsewhere on Market Street in the Financial District, a parked scooter was jutting into an office building’s entry alcove.

Also observed around town: users riding scooters on sidewalks, which was a no-no. It’s worth mentioning that Route Fifty also stumbled across a car blocking a crosswalk on Montgomery Street while it was idling near Market Street, an example of bad behavior often ignored or forgiven that’s also worth pointing out. But back to the scooters ...

Observing Scooters at the Ferry Building

San Francisco’s Ferry Building was a good location to observe the promise and annoyance of people using scooter share in and around a heavily trafficked public facility. The Ferry Building is a major tourist destination with a busy marketplace. But as its name suggests, it’s also a busy waterfront transit hub, connecting downtown commuters with ferries to Oakland, Larkspur, Sausalito, South San Francisco and Vallejo.

Although there are plenty of other transit options near the Ferry Building, the Embarcadero Station serving BART and Muni Metro trains is still a few minutes away by walking. Picking up a scooter at the Ferry Building can help San Francisco-bound commuters arriving by water reach destinations downtown faster than walking, avoid transferring to a bus or train or help resist the temptation of booking a ride with Lyft or Uber.

Last week, this scooter wasn’t parked for long outside the Ferry Building in San Francisco. (Photo by Michael Grass / Route Fifty)

While sitting on a bench adjacent the pier for the Larkspur- and Sausalito-bound pier last Tuesday afternoon, Route Fifty observed a ferry-bound passenger arrive dockside and deposit a scooter near a bench, mostly out of the way of people walking to or front the pier.

That scooter was only around a couple minutes. A San Francisco-bound commuter getting off an arriving ferry promptly checked the scooter out and quickly departed, presumably to somewhere in the downtown area.   

On Friday night, as commuting crowds eased, Route Fifty was waiting for an Oakland-bound ferry. The waterfront esplanade wasn’t necessary packed with people but there was also a man who was doing figure-8 circuits around those milling about outside the Ferry Building.

The difference between the two scenes at the Ferry Building: One shows the promise of environmentally-friendly, electronic-assisted scooters for commuting and helping to close last-mile connections. The other shows the scooter being used as a toy, behavior that can prove to be risky and dangerous.

Then there are questions of where scooters should and shouldn’t be left by users. That’s an issue that echoes similar regulatory discussions involving dockless bikeshare and how to best manage public rights of way, including for people with mobility impairments who may encounter sidewalks and curb cuts blocked by bicycles and scooters.  

It’s very likely that tensions and rhetoric in the local scooter wars will be rekindled as the future of scooters comes into focus in San Francisco and elsewhere. In the meantime, that bicyclist in Golden Gate Park will have a bike lane free of obstructions—at least until he encounters an illegally parked car.

Michael Grass is Executive Editor of Government Executive’s Route Fifty and is based in Seattle.

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