In San Francisco, Keeping Micromobility at Bay

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This is an excerpt from NLC’s report, “Micromobility in Cities: A History and Policy Overview.”

San Francisco has been a pioneer in micromobility, long before the term existed. The city introduced the Bay Area Bike Share pilot in 2013, and expanded the concept (now called “Ford GoBike”) in 2017. This program started with 700 bikes based at 70 stations throughout the city. It has since grown significantly and established partnerships with East Bay cities and San Jose.

After finalizing a permit application in June 2017, San Francisco was one of the first cities to create a comprehensive permitting process for dockless bikeshare providers. This allowed the city to regulate and monitor the deployment of the bikes while also allowing providers to quickly roll them out. In 2018, JUMP bikes became the sole permittee to operate a pilot program that included an initial 250 electric assist bikes as well as potential expansion of up to 250 additional bikes. The intention of the pilot was to see how well dockless bikeshare works in the city and to develop further policy recommendations based on its successes and failures.

The introduction of dockless electric scooters into the Bay Area initially elicited some tension. When these companies deployed in early 2018, there was no permitting process or existing regulation in place for dockless e-scooters. Initially, Lime placed a limited number of pop-up scooter rentals throughout the city to test the waters for the scooter market. Their pop-up deployment initiated a rapid rollout by other competing, scooter companies. Lime, Bird and Spin deployed hundreds of scooters in a matter of weeks, and residents quickly began to take notice. Although the scooters saw immense usage, some residents saw scooters as hazardous and irritating.

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Almost a month later, the city passed a law requiring companies to have a permit to park scooters on sidewalks and in public spaces. They also began working on a formal application process. On June 4, nearly three months and 2,000 public complaints later, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) banned scooters until a permitting process could be developed. After a dozen companies applied for permits, the city allowed two companies, Scoot and Skip, to each deploy 625 scooters, with a cap of 2,500 after the six-month halfway point.

Applications were assessed with 12 criteria in mind, detailed below. According to the chart, both Skip and Scoot came up with innovative and satisfactory ways to promote safety, increase access and conduct community outreach. The city also shielded taxpayers from implementation costs, charging each company a $5,000 application fee, a $25,000 annual permit fee, and a $10,000 endowment per company to cover costs.

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San Francisco’s approach has been replicated in cities like D.C., and may
set the tone for other cities. The three major steps in the process — a legislative restriction on what is allowed in public spaces, a permitting and piloting process, and a cost recovery mechanism on the back-end — show how cities can leverage control over public assets to influence companies’ behavior while staying nimble and innovative.

About the Authors: Nicole DuPuis is the former manager of the Urban Innovation program. Jason Griess is a former Heinz Urban Innovation Fellow. Connor Klein is a former research assistant in NLC’s Center for City Solutions.