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The San Francisco Scooter War

In their race to roll across San Francisco, electric-scooter companies Scoot and Skip took a surprising route: playing nice with the city.

 

The bustling city wakes. Fog curls over the landscape. Unsuspecting commuters drive or BART to work, blearily clutching cups of coffee. Schoolkids line up for the yellow buses. Bicyclists pedal obliviously. All the while, outside forces bide their time. Then—suddenly—they strike, swarming the streets and sidewalks, careening toward pedestrians, and threatening the equilibrium of already too-busy roadways. A scourge, a flood, a plague.

Not locusts, Martians, or even body snatchers. I’m talking about the scooters. Yes, the 15-mile-per-hour electric scooters that hit San Francisco last March. The scooters appeared—and became ubiquitous—seemingly overnight. Users located and activated them via smartphone apps, unlocking them for a buck plus 15 cents for every minute of ride time. When they reached their destination, they parked them wherever—in bike racks, against street signs or newspaper boxes, in motorcycle spaces, and on sidewalks.

Has any mode of transportation captured our city’s imagination the way these goofy wheeled devices have? Once low-tech children’s toys, scooters became 2018’s most contentious transportation controversy and the latest front in the agonizing civil war over how tech has remade San Francisco. Within a month of the scooters’ introduction, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency had issued cease-and-desist letters. By summer, it had banned them altogether, forcing 12 companies to compete for up to five permits that the city promised to issue. Some of those companies were backed by the biggest players in Silicon Valley: Alphabet, Uber, and VC firms like Andreessen Horowitz. But this fall, the SFMTA upended the break-the-regulations-then-be-forgiven-anyway narrative set by Airbnb and Uber by handing out approvals to only two small firms: Scoot and Skip. They sound like a cop buddy comedy or a pair of friendly dogs from a children’s book, but they represent something new: tech companies that played by the rules—and reaped the rewards.

San Francisco could benefit from more alternative transportation, but bike lanes don’t extend through enough of the city, nor are many of them wide enough for scooters and bikes to share. Streets are congested, drivers aggressive. Narrow sidewalks are unsuitable for scooter parking. Deep potholes send riders tumbling, and scooters can’t tackle steep hills, which are kind of our thing. Despite these drawbacks, however, scooters seemed like they could be a solution for what transit planners call the last-mile problem—gaps that in this case result from a rapidly expanding and increasingly dense city having an aging, limited public transit system. Could these two-wheeled ’90s throwbacks be a low- carbon alternative to cars or to waiting half an hour for the N Judah in the cold fog? The city decided to play ball with the scooter companies. And Scoot and Skip were ready to play too. Today, 1,250 scooters are legally deployed in a citywide experiment that could determine how best to mix transportation and tech. This is the story of how San Francisco hit refresh on the scooters—and why these two companies won.

 

We’ve been here before. When I ask SFMTA director of sustainable streets Tom Maguire about the history of tech and transportation in San Francisco, he says that the current state of affairs was “preceded by a few”—a pause as he picks his words carefully—“let’s call them irresponsible operators.” Actually, such irresponsible operators date nearly as far back as the city itself. In the 1880s, a fight over an easement in Golden Gate Park for a railroad line to the beach went all the way to the California Supreme Court. After the 1906 earthquake, preservationists fought the installation of overhead electrical lines for the then-ubiquitous cable cars. “We want to build a multimodal system—we just have to make sure it’s safe,” Maguire says.

The current chapter opened in 2010, when Uber hit the streets of San Francisco—asking for forgiveness rather than permission. Contractors drove their own cars but acted like taxis, navigating streets erratically and blocking lanes to pick up and drop off passengers. The company hired lobbyists to work their dark political arts, and cofounder Travis Kalanick posted Instagram pics of cease-and-desist letters from taxi companies. (Readers may recall the December 2014 cover of this magazine, for which Kalanick posed in a crotch shot to end all crotch shots.) Despite Uber’s claim that it reduced personal car ownership, a recent study by the San Francisco County Transportation Authority found that ride-hailing vehicles were the largest source of increased traffic in San Francisco, accounting for half of new congestion from 2010 to 2016.

Around the same time as Uber’s arrival came the private tech buses, which blocked Muni stops and became symbols of gentrification to critics like Rebecca Solnit, author of Men Explain Things to Me. She dubbed them “the spaceships on which our alien overlords have landed to rule over us.” Later came docked and dockless electric bikes from companies like Jump, which critics charged hogged public bike racks. In that context, scooters seemed to be yet another embodiment of the worst aspects of entitled techie culture, and riders were out in the open rather than hidden inside a bulging bus or mustachioed car. On May 24, two men rode onto the Bay Bridge and lingered on the emergency pedestrian walkway, laughing, while causing a really long traffic jam behind them.

Soon, bike-share companies like Jump and Spin pivoted to scooters. Analog players like Razor wanted in, as did Lyft and Uber. Every city has its own problems with the scooters; in San Francisco, they boiled down to riding and parking. No one really knew where the scooters belonged: In the streets, blocking the paths of faster-moving cyclists and in proximity to whizzing cars? Or on the sidewalks, where they threatened to knock over pedestrians? (The answer in California: in bike lanes or on mixed-use pathways.) Were riders supposed to wear helmets? (Legally, yes.) Was it OK to abandon the scooters in the middle of sidewalks and crosswalks? (Legally, no.)

The streets became saturated with clueless, irresponsible riders. On 311, the SFMTA fielded almost 1,900 complaints from April 11 to May 23. Scooter accidents have resulted in rider deaths in other cities, including Cleveland, Dallas, and Washington, D.C., but not, thus far, in San Francisco. What followed their introduction was akin to the reaction to the so-called Google buses—if the latter had been small enough to tip over and defecate on. In May, protesters piled scooters in front of a tech bus on Valencia Street, holding signs that read Techsploitation Is Toxic. A group called Walk San Francisco started a #scootersbehavingbadly campaign on social media. People ditched them in trash cans, threw them into the bay, and hauled them up flights of stairs to drop them off buildings. And, yes, they pooped on them. Hating on techies and inefficient transportation are, of course, beloved pastimes among San Franciscans, so perhaps it’s no surprise how many joined the #scootsistance. Still, for a city that has largely swapped out grit for gleam, it was shockingly punk rock—and sort of pointless, given how unsuccessful the campaigns against Uber and the tech buses were, to say nothing of the long-ago-installed cable car lines.

 

Sanjay Dastoor doesn’t seem like your typical tech CEO. He’s about as far away from Kalanick as his company is from acting like Uber. The 34-year-old is well-groomed and neatly put together, with a trim build and wire-frame glasses. His voice is measured, a little quiet. He more resembles a young university professor. He’s the polar opposite of the stereotypical bro you might imagine cofounding an electric-skateboard company and, later, an electric-scooter company. Yet that’s exactly what Dastoor, cofounder and CEO of Skip, did.

When I met Dastoor in September, Skip had just moved into its new offices in a peaceful corner of the Mission. The place smelled like fresh paint and new wood, and despite having some of the telltale signs of a San Francisco tech office (clean surfaces, lots of white, dark-gray mid-century couches in the meeting rooms), it was aggressively nondescript. The seating area in the kitchen consisted of just a few low-key picnic tables. When I arrived, Dastoor’s PR rep offered me coffee or water. Not charcoal activated. Not coconut sourced. Not biofiltered or “raw” or crystal infused or even fizzy. Just plain old bottled water. The office held a surprisingly small team of employees. Though Skip is now one of the sole players in the S.F. scooter game, at the time it had deployed only in Washington, D.C., and Portland, Oregon. By comparison, two of the leading companies were already everywhere: Bird is in 74 cities (5 of them international) and on 20 college campuses, and Lime is in 100 cities (12 international) and on 28 campuses.

Dastoor grew up in Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas, obsessed with all manner of transportation, from motorcycles to airplanes. He attended UC Berkeley as a mechanical engineering major and Stanford for his master’s in the same field. In 2011, he started electric-skateboard company Boosted Boards with a group of friends. Y Combinator incubated the company as part of its 2012 summer class, and Stanford’s StartX accelerator also took Dastoor under its wing. Funding came from a handful of VC firms, plus a Kickstarter campaign that netted nearly half a million dollars. Dastoor lives in San Francisco.

In many ways, Boosted became a harbinger of the issues raised by e-scooters, including helmet use and where people should be allowed to ride. As Dastoor diplomatically puts it, “You create this product, but there’s often not a set of rules of how you should act.”

He began Skip in 2017 with other members of the Boosted team, including cofounder Matthew Tran. Other companies threw money at getting as many scooters on the road as possible, which Dastoor admits is convenient for the people using the service. However, as he points out, most American cities don’t want a huge number of these vehicles on the road.

“Technology companies have a responsibility not only to serve the people who are paying them or even the people using them, but also to think about the people impacted,” Dastoor says. “In the case of scooters, one of the reasons there’s been so much backlash in certain cities is that there isn’t as much attention being paid to the people saying, ‘Hey, this isn’t working for me.’”

Skip tested its scooters in San Francisco in 2017 but couldn’t find a way to launch without violating SFMTA rules. It had worked with the city of Washington, D.C., when launching its first pilot program, and shortly after it began looking at other locations. As Dastoor tells it, Skip was trying to become a part of the scooter disruption by playing by the rules. To that end, the company hired lawyer Darren Weingard as chief legal and external affairs officer. A former general counsel for Airbnb and Luxe, Weingard wanted to work for Skip because of the quality of its scooter hardware (which he attributes to the founders’ experience running Boosted) and “a lack of arrogant thinking, like they had all the problems solved,” he says. “I was convinced that the ask-for-forgiveness model was only going to work once or twice, if it worked at all. I was convinced, am still convinced, that it’s more important to be welcome than to be first.” Weingard helped Skip secure a permit in Portland, though the company was denied one in Santa Monica, which green-lit Bird, Jump, Lime, and Lyft. Those cities were important, but as the pinnacle of tech culture, San Francisco stood apart. Having heard that the SFMTA was considering permits, Skip approached the city carefully.

On May 1, the SFMTA held a hearing attended by scooter company representatives, city planners, and members of the public. There, the SFMTA announced that it would approve a yearlong pilot program. For the first six months, up to five companies would be allowed to operate 1,250 scooters; if all went well, an additional 1,250 would be added for the next six months.

The meeting became heated. At one point, SFMTA director Art Torres asked a city planner about a proposed fine for companies operating scooters without a permit. She said that they would be fined $100 per scooter per citation.

“That’s all?” Torres asked.
“If you were a scooter company that had 50 scooters deployed in San Francisco over a course of days, then that would be 50 citations for—”

Torres interrupted in a booming voice: “One hundred dollars is nothing to these people,” he said. “They’ll continue to laugh at us.” Comparing San Francisco to Santa Monica, where Bird settled for $300,000 after operating without a business permit, he went on to say, “We ought not to be rewarding people who have stuck their fingers at us when dealing with cease-and-desist orders.”

Among the 29 individuals who spoke during public comment was Nancy McNally, an older local artist with crinkly eyes who recounted being run over by a scooter—she was uninjured—in April. McNally smacked the podium as she announced, “Somebody is going to get killed!” Longtime resident Fran Taylor, a woman in her late 60s with short gray hair, later half joked, “I think the scooters [running] amok is actually a plot of the young people to kill off all us old farts so they can have our rent-­controlled apartments.”

Both companies eagerly awaited SFMTA’s decision. “What we didn’t want to do was race to throw a vehicle out there because other guys were doing it,” says Bob Walsh, Scoot’s general manager for San Francisco.

Unbeknownst to Scoot and Skip, their best advocate was probably Lee Hepner, an aide to Supervisor Aaron Peskin, long skeptical of, if not hostile to, the tech industry. “It’s worth knowing that there are some scooter manufacturers who have not entered into our public rights of way right now and are waiting to see how this plays out,” Hepner said at the meeting. “And maybe that should be considered when we’re acknowledging who is entitled to a permit to operate in the city and county of San Francisco over some companies who have opted to move fast and break things.”

Scoot has raised at least $4.5 million. In May, Skip raised $6 million in seed funding from a handful of firms, including Alexis Ohanian’s Initialized Capital. Less than a month later, it raised $25 million in Series A funding from Y Combinator and others. But that’s small change compared with the $415 million that Bird has raised to date. Or the whopping $467 million that Lime has attracted. Both companies are valued at over $1 billion.

So if other firms are faster and better funded, what’s left? Winning the permit game. Let the other companies run themselves into the ground currying bad karma with policy makers. In tech, the slow play rarely works. But in the scooter biz? Scoot and Skip bet on a different outcome. “We were trying to be a different type of tech company,” Weingard says. “We wanted to be responsible, work with constituents, and listen.”

In early June, San Francisco banned scooters until permits could be issued; then it drew out the process by several months, which meant a summer filled with public debate, infighting among politicians, and public relations pushes from scooter companies. That frustrated some, like San Francisco mayor London Breed, who criticized the process as “opaque” in an open letter to the SFMTA.

The big-name scooter companies touted community and school events they’d put on, their support of bike lanes, helmet giveaways, the environmental benefits over cars, and their efforts to encourage the homeless and formerly incarcerated to get contract gigs as scooter wranglers and maintenance workers. Yet to many, these gestures felt hollow—the companies’ contributions to the gig economy looked like an unsustainable way to secure cheap labor without paying benefits, the helmet giveaways came across as a cover for the fact that most scooter riders don’t seem to wear them, and their participation in school events obscured the reality that many kids skirt the age-verification system. And as for their supposed environmentalism? Critics allege that scooters have a life span of only several months, after which certain companies dump them in landfills (something Weingard mentioned in a letter to the city of Santa Monica after Skip was denied a permit).

For their part, Scoot and Skip held their fire—and it paid off. On August 30, the SFMTA awarded trial permits to just those two companies. Dastoor’s reaction? He felt pleased that his team could use the company’s products in their home city. “But were we celebrating or anything like that?” he said. “It was really like: Look, we have an opportunity here. It’s a fixed amount of time; it’s ours to prove if it works or not. Winning is actually making the system work, not just someone deciding we get the chance to try it.”

 

In the wee hours of October 15, trucks dropped off hundreds of Scoots and Skips from the Embarcadero to the Castro and down through Dogpatch to Hunters Point and the Bayview. During the six weeks leading up to that day, the two companies had rushed to get everything in order. In the meantime, many of the other firms made their displeasure known.

Jump, Lime, and Spin appealed the decision. Bird talked about skirting regulations by offering to rent its scooters by the day, like cars. At the last minute, Lime backed out of a TechCrunch panel where a rep was set to appear alongside Dastoor and the SFMTA’s Maguire. Days before deployment, Lime filed for a temporary restraining order against the city, trying to stop any scooters from hitting the streets before its appeal was considered. The request was denied.

Just after 8 a.m., at the Montgomery BART station, I met with Katie Florez, a Skip PR rep, and a Skip “scout,” who would be going out on the streets for the day to educate new customers. Though the scout was supposed to have a Skip flag sticking out of her backpack, it was nowhere in sight. Instead, she was inconspicuously dressed, with a chambray shirt and a ponytail.

“It was a mad hustle to get everything out,” Florez said as we scanned Market Street to see if anyone was using the scooters. Cyclists, skateboarders, Chariot vans, buses, and cars passed by. “Ooh, there’s one,” the scout pointed out. Indeed, on the opposite side of the street, a guy was cruising along on his Skip scooter. He wasn’t wearing a helmet, but he was in the bike lane.

I fear scooting for the same reason I fear cycling: I don’t want to get yelled at or die. I don’t even bike in the Bay Area. After living in an exceptionally bike-friendly area during college, I returned to my hometown of Oakland, bought a bike, and then rode it once. My busy neighborhood was terrifying; many of my friends who opted to bike had been doored or otherwise struck by cars. Instead, I typically opt for BART, walking, or my 2002 Toyota.

My fear is not unwarranted. Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital trauma surgeon Catherine Juillard told me about a reporter who broke his arm riding an electric skateboard for an article. “So be careful,” she said. “Getting injured might change your story.” Juillard and her colleagues have seen injuries ranging from scrapes to pelvic fractures. I read a news story about a guy whose Bird accelerator got stuck. The scooter essentially ejected him, and he landed on his face, breaking his jaw.

Nevertheless, soon after I met with Florez, I found myself on the mixed-use boulevard along the Embarcadero, taking my first scooter ride. Outside the Ferry Building, I found a trio of Skips toppled like dominoes. I thought of how Dave Campbell, advocacy director for the group Bike East Bay, had said that scooter riders will inevitably get hurt. “As an advocate, chaos is not a bad thing,” he argued. “Some chaos is good, it makes people slow down.” I strapped a dorky, bright-blue helmet onto my head—the kind that a deeply uncool seven-year-old might sport—and off I went.

As the scooter lunged forward, I wavered but soon found my balance. At first I was wheeling along so slowly that joggers were passing me, so I kicked it up a notch, zooming forward at half power. A bicyclist going the other way flipped me off for no reason I could see other than that I was on a scooter. I felt the electric motor churn under me and went full throttle, which was surprisingly fast. People gawked. A tourist tugged at her companion’s sleeve and pointed at me. I felt immensely nerdy. But whatever! I zipped away. Later, jerks!

A bug flew into my eye. I pushed on. Then the sun blasted me, and when I tried to use one hand to shade myself, I nearly tipped over. I needed to pull over to dig through my backpack for sunglasses. I stopped near one of those concrete slabs on the Embarcadero that people sit on and parked.

There’s still much to be done to normalize scooters. Helmet compliance will be a nonissue starting in January. In September, Governor Jerry Brown signed a law allowing adults to ride scooters without them. Still, scooter users, like cyclists and skateboarders and roller skaters and hoverboarders and even people riding those weird gyroscopic unicycles, will surely continue to ride dangerously on sidewalks. Scooters will continue to be left in random places. Companies are utilizing community outreach and training videos, but they have yet to figure out how to enforce the lane laws.

Whether Scoot and Skip’s success (thus far) will make the ask-for-forgiveness model less popular remains to be seen. Scoot’s Walsh isn’t so sure. There were other factors at play in the SFMTA’s decision; it looked at 12 of them when it rated scooter company applications. Time will tell whether tech plans on changing its approach—and whether scooters are even viable.

Until then, it’s easy to forget that the apocalyptic product in question is, well, basically a souped-up toy with a ridiculous name, just as Uber is an improved taxi and the tech buses are just buses. “For us, it’s such a surreal experience,” Walsh says. “All of this interest generated over these funny little motorized scooters.”

Originally published in the December issue of San Francisco

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