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California is already a pioneer when it comes to electric vehicles. Some 4.5% of all vehicles registered in the state are electric, compared with a national average of 1.1%. Now the Golden State could be about to set the benchmark for other types of electric transport. San Francisco is currently throbbing to the rhythm of electric mopeds, bikes and scooters. Use of these two-wheeled vehicles is certainly a growth area within the on-demand economy. Following the rise of the on-demand ride-hailing specialists Lyft and Uber, plus on-demand car services such as ZipCar, Maven, GetAround and others, such as Turo, the model is now expanding to one-person modes of transport as well. These 'micro-mobility' alternatives are expanding, and residents are being enticed to leave their cars at home when making short journeys. So will this trend make city authorities rethink urban infrastructure? San Francisco provides an instructive example.

It all began with local startup Scoot. Back in 2012, the company's red and black electric scooters started undergoing pilot testing in San Francisco before being rolled out on a more permanent basis. Today over 700 of them are to be seen criss-crossing the city. Once the public was won over by this kind of personal self-service transport, on-demand bicycles were the next to gain popularity. Ford signed a contract with City Hall based on the same business model as the Vélib' in Paris. Spring 2017 saw hundreds of Ford GoBike stations popping up around town and close to 4,500 bikes are due to be in circulation in San Francisco by the end of the year. However, the two companies are now having to deal with competition from a slightly different type of vehicle – electric-assisted bikes.


Launched in early February in the Bay Area, the JUMP app enables users to book a self-service bike without having to go to a rack. San Francisco's famously steep streets are now becoming as easy to climb for a novice as fora Tour de France pro rider. And in addition to developing its app, JUMP signed a partnership right at the very beginning with Uber that enabled people to use the Uber on-demand app to rent a bike. Since then, Uber has acquired JUMP for just under $200 million. So what will happen after the 18 months of pilot testing  agreed with the city? The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) is taking advantage of this trial period in order to gather data and decide whether the initiative should be taken forward into the longer term.Whatever the outcome, the example set by JUMP is being followed, with FordGoBike launching its e-bikes on 24 April and Scoot announcing last December that it was about to do the same. These solutions are having a great deal of impact as the San Francisco public transportation system is meeting with heavy criticism from citizens. In addition to not being very reliable it is in all honesty not very clean either, mainly because of the high number of homeless people in the city, even though it is reputed to be much better than in most US cities. Consequently, these alternative forms of transport are striving to make up for the shortcomings of the public transport system.

Electric scooters: latest arrival on the micro mobility scene

This is why it is basically a good idea to try out any and all new mobility solutions. As of end-March three different startups have one-by- one set up their non-rack electric scooters in different area of San Francisco. For better or for worse, Bird, Lime and Spin have been taking over the pavements of SanFrancisco, dividing opinion among City residents."We've received complaints about scooters blocking the public right of way and riding on the sidewalk", reveals Paul Rose, Chief Spokesperson and Media Relations manager at SFMTA, adding: "On the other hand, we've also received positive comments about how these scooters give people an alternative and attractive way to get around without a car." Vice, a media channel that publishes guides to San Francisco, has investigated some of the negative reactions: vandalized scooters, scooters with excrement smeared on them, scooters that have been thrown up into trees – their opponents have  been quite creative and their misdeeds are widely reported on Twitter. So what exactly is the problem with these self-service electric scooters? Mainly that they obstruct the thoroughfares and are potentially dangerous both for uninitiated users – or those who do not follow the rules – and for pedestrians and vehicles with which they might collide. The right place for scooters is of course on the roads or official cycle paths, and their users are supposed to wear a helmet, which is far from being the norm in San Francisco.



City Hall has reacted in an attempt to put an end to this kind of vandalism. Its strategy is to make the on-demand transport startups responsible, and for them in turn to find a way to make their users take responsibility. Accordingly, in mid-April, the City Attorney sent cease-and- desist notices to Lime, Spin and Bird. Practically speaking this means that City Hall is claiming the right to remove any scooters that are obstructing the pavement and threatening the safety of San Francisco residents. The on-demand transport startups were given until 30 April to explain the measures they would be taking in order to meet the City Hall requirements.

New regulation on the way

The startups are well aware of what is at stake and have already tried a number of ways of responding positively to the injunctions of the SanFrancisco authorities. The approach being taken by Bird, which has already encountered similar problems in Santa Monica, is not dissimilar from that of the other startups involved. The firm delivers helmets to anyone asking for one via the app, and is trying, by means of the Save our Sidewalks initiative, to raise awareness among both its users and other companies of the need to protect the pavements. The management of the other on-demand electric scooter startups have all been asked to sign up to three commitments: 1) not to increase the number of two-wheeled vehicles unless there is proof of growth in demand; 2) transfer part of the revenue – $1 per scooter per day – to the city coffers in order to help build more cycle paths, or widen them; 3) pick up the scooters at night, carry out the necessary maintenance and repairs before the next day and then put them back at the locations where they are most likely to be needed. Management at Lime have stated that they are now asking users to send a photo at the end of every completed journey so as to ensure that the scooter is properly parked and not hindering pedestrian circulation.

If the startups don't conform, "it could likely result in fines, vehicle removal and/or permit revocation"

Meanwhile the SFMTA is planning to impose a permit system on companies running on-demand electric scooter businesses that want to deploy their vehicles in the city. According to the SFMTA spokesman: "The three vital components of pending permit legislation could be: 1) maintaining safe pedestrian spaces by eliminating blocking sidewalks or sidewalk riding; 2) a requirement for the startups to share data so as to make sure that operators are meeting their responsibilities and ensure the companies review theirGeneral Conditions of Use so as to ensure consumer protection; and 3) capital requirements, affordable membership fees and encouraging providers to serve a wider geographic area." 

If the startups don't conform, "it could likely result in fines, vehicle removal and/or permit revocation", warned the spokesman, adding that the details were currently being drafted.

cycle path on san francisco's main drag


A common goal: making journeys more environmentally-friendly

Regard d'expert

Paul Rose

Chief Spokesperson and

Media Relations Manager,

San Francisco Municipal

Transportation Agency

The idea would be that these new modes of electric transportation co-exist with traditional ones so as to complement each other. We're always looking for solutions to the first and last mile of transit trips and this could be another attractive option for many people 

The aim is to make it easier for San Franciscans to get around while at the same time cutting the number of cars on the roads and reducing their pernicious consequences – i.e. traffic jams and air pollution. Although two-wheeled vehicles are essentially one-person solutions, they do have the advantage of a very limited carbon footprint. These electric modes of transport do not directly emit any greenhouse gases, with just a marginal indirect degree of emission from the vehicles used to move the scooters from one street to another. This is a positive aspect which City Hall has no hesitation in recognizing. "The more attractive options we can provide to get more people out of their cars, the more it will help keep San Francisco moving", underlines Paul Rose, explaining: "The idea would be that these new modes of electric transportation and the traditional ones complement each other. We're always looking for solutions to the first and last mile of transit trips and this could be another attractive option for many people." In fact he reckons that the future of transportation will be as much about multimodal transport as electric vehicles. In answer to the question whether the city authorities are ready to put money into adapting the road infrastructure to this revolutionary approach to mobility, the answer was: "Not at this time. The startups will have to conform to our rules for safety, rather than the other way around." There remains one fundamental question: who is it that is actually using these new modes of transport? Dyed-in-the-wool car drivers who are now getting out of their cars?Or fervent users of on-demand ride apps? This is what Bird wants to believe; the Santa Monica-based startup reckons that half its scooters are used to substitute for a car journey of less than a mile. The company has calculated that its two-wheeled transport has so far helped to avoid 445,334 pounds (202,000 kilos) of carbon emissions. While this is a highly positive outcome, a San Francisco Assembly man recently tabled a bill that would require every passenger car sold in California from January 1 2040 onwards to be a zero-emission vehicle. However, there is nothing to indicate that these electric scooter fans were not previously users of public transport. If so, this would actually tend to increase the total number of vehicles circulating on the roads. So who in fact are the new on-demand two-wheeler users? "It's too early to say", Paul Rose told us. Watch this space!

By Sophia Qadiri
Managing Editor & Journalist