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San Francisco’s scooter crackdown means play nice or get out

Lime scooters are parked near Mission and Second streets in San Francisco on Jan. 7, 2020. | Yalonda M. James/The SF Chronicle via Getty Images | Source: Yalonda M. James/The SF Chronicle via Getty Images

The future of scooters in San Francisco may be at a turning point, with the city cracking down on sidewalk riding and parking as a dividing line emerges between companies that are willing to play ball with the city, and those that are not.

Bird, the company that owns and operates Scoot, admitted to regulators last week that it overstated its revenue streams for two years. Citing the possibility of an economic slowdown, which has scared other large tech companies into mass layoffs in the past few months, the company’s future looks in doubt.

The company said that strict rules in San Francisco, like hefty fines and those that banned scooter parking along two popular tourist destinations, haven’t helped matters. 

“Going forward, we will be more selective about operating only in markets with a supportive regulatory landscape that promotes the environmental and economic sustainability of this transportation modality,” wrote Lindsey Huttrer, a spokesperson for the company.

Of the three companies that currently operate on-demand scooters in San Francisco—Bird, Lime and Spin—Bird seems to have had the most strained relationship with the city. After a rocky start in San Francisco, Bird’s permit was put on pause in 2021 due to compliance issues, and the company is now only permitted to operate 1,500 vehicles to Lime’s and Spin’s 2,000.

A Bird electric scooter is chained up on Valencia Street in the Mission District on Wednesday, Nov. 16, 2022. | Camille Cohen/The Standard

Today, all three companies are licensed through June of next year. But like so many other industries, the pandemic threw scooter businesses for a loop. 

Scooter trips took a massive dive from over 150,000 trips per day to under 10,000 during the early months of Covid, according to data from the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency. Trips appeared to have recovered by October 2021, followed by a winter dip and a second peak this summer. 

But now, with city legislators pressing the transit agency to do more to curb sidewalk riding, Bird says it is fed up. The company says it will continue to comply with each new mandate, but describes the city’s geofencing measures, no-parking zones and locking requirements as “difficult to implement“ and said they have the potential to drive down ridership 20% to 30%. 

“San Francisco’s regulations are among the most restrictive and costly in the country,” Huttrer wrote. “When cities impose regulations that significantly reduce ridership and increase costs, it forces operators such as Bird to question the viability of providing our services there.”

An electric scooter parked on the sidewalk of Mission Street of San Francisco reads "NO SIDEWALK RIDING" on Wednesday, Nov. 16, 2022. | Camille Cohen/The Standard

This year alone, each of the three scooter companies have paid both their $5,000 application fees and a $38,000 program fee, plus fines—$150 for parking violations and $500 for sidewalk riding, charged to the company and not the customer—which Bird called untenable. 

Bird has racked up the most fines so far this year for a total of nearly $560,000 charged. And overall scooter violations have gone up steadily, with a record 402 citations issued on Oct. 16 of this year, mostly due to illegal parking, according to SFMTA data.

But Bird may be shouting into the wind on its own. Lime—its major competitor in the city—says it sees “limitless potential” in San Francisco and in the micromobility industry as a whole. The third company licensed to operate in San Francisco, called Spin, did not respond to interview requests.

“This is far from the early days of scooters,” said Lime spokesperson Jacob Tugendrajch. “We’re the polar opposite of that.”

While San Francisco is not Lime’s biggest market, Tugendrajch said the city’s focus on getting people out of cars and onto other transit, like scooters, combined with its interest in building more bike lanes and other scooter-friendly infrastructure, means the future looks bright for scooters in SF. 

The company has a standing biweekly meeting with the city, but Tugendrajch said its contact with SFMTA is better described as constant. Lime has even started passing on 50% of its fines to riders to discourage poor behavior and is running a widespread messaging campaign in the city this month to alert riders not to ride on sidewalks.

For now, the company’s productive rapport with city leaders appears to be helping its bottom line: According to Tugendrajch, Lime is having its best financial year on record. 

“Every city is still working on figuring out the right rules and regulations for them, but those are sort of local challenges that we see worldwide,” Tugendrajch said. “And we’re always willing to work with the cities we serve to solve them and to pick out the solutions that work for them.”