San Francisco should welcome scooter sharing as a vehicle alternative

I emailed this letter to the SFMTA board (MTABoard@sfmta.com) in advance of their May 1 meeting discussing a Pilot Scooter Share Program Permit.

Dear SFMTA board,

I’m writing to express my support for powered scooter share programs, and for a more permissive approach toward them than the proposed pilot.

As your staff report states, core SFMTA goals include reducing the share of private auto transport; improving the environment and quality of life; encouraging innovative solutions; reducing traffic; and improving public health and safety. These are important goals which scooters can promote. Unfortunately, the terms of the pilot largely ignore these goals in favor of aggressive political response to exaggerated anti-scooter reports.

Concern around scooters has focused on safety, and your report attributes one fall and one broken toe to tripping on them (the sole data points justifying the restrictive pilot). These incidents should of course be minimized, and scooter share companies are already acting on this front; for example, on Saturday, Lime introduced technology to help keep their scooters upright.

But we should keep pedestrian safety in perspective: according to the CDC, “in 2015, 5,376 pedestrians were killed in traffic crashes in the United States…Additionally, almost 129,000 pedestrians were treated in emergency departments for non-fatal crash-related injuries.” Last year, 14 pedestrians in San Francisco were killed by vehicles. Vehicles also kill over 30,000 non-pedestrians per year, including several in San Francisco.

Perhaps more important for public health is the environmental damage caused by vehicles. Air pollution is estimated to cause nearly 80,000 premature deaths across the country each year. As a resident of the East Cut, one of San Francisco’s most polluted neighborhoods, I’m acutely aware of the extremely congested streets I walk and traffic’s impact on my health.

It’s also easy to brush off the frequency with which vehicles block right of way. Drivers so routinely commit these infractions that most simply accept it as part of city life. But when I walk the streets with my wheelchair-using brother, blocked crosswalks and curb cuts are apparent and significant.

Scooters have potential to considerably reduce congestion, thereby improving public safety and air quality. But they can only replace other modes of transportation if they’re available and reliable. They’re already difficult to find, and capping each provider to 500 scooters will prevent the service from reaching the critical mass it needs to make a dent in our car-centrism.

Some argue that scooter users don’t own cars anyway, so they only replace walking and have no effect on congestion. My own story suggests that might only be half-right: I don’t own a car, but the first time I tried a scooter I did so in lieu of a rideshare. The trip was faster, cheaper, and more enjoyable than the rideshare trip would have been, and I intend to replace more short rideshare trips with scooter rides. That is, I intend to do so if I can find one; given supply, I doubt I’d be alone in taking cars off the street via scooters.

Beyond the unit cap, the terms of the pilot would put scooters at a serious disadvantage compared to similar modes of transportation. Scooter share companies would pay $10 per unit for permit applications, vs. $6 or less for stationless bikes, and $50 per year to keep the permits, over ten times the annual permit fee for stationless bikes. Considering space requirements, this also far exceeds vehicles’ $128 residential parking permit fee. This stacks atop state law’s current disfavor toward scooters: while e-skateboards can be ridden on sidewalks, scooters cannot; and while bicycles cannot be ridden without helmets — including e-bikes going up to 20mph — scooters must be. That some scooter riders use sidewalks is an indictment of San Francisco’s (mostly lack of) bike lanes, and even so, the riders bear liability for these violations, not the manufacturer.

Simply put, the terms of this pilot risk quashing scooter share programs and keeping San Francisco on our vehicle-dependent trajectory. The City should work with these companies on improving their service in a sustainable way, while also considering that each scooter share trip may well be another dangerous, unhealthy, congesting vehicle off the road. I hope you’ll reconsider the pilot’s severity with this in mind.

Thank you,

Max Ghenis

Written by

Economist. Founder and president of the UBI Center. Studied at MIT and UC Berkeley. YIMBY. Former Google data scientist.

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