Santa Monica and San Francisco both became epicenters of the fight over electric scooter share programs operating on public space over the past year.
After both cities eventually banned the alternative electric transportation options due to the companies operating without the cities’ blessings, they opened an application processes for permits allowing companies to operate scooter share programs. Now both cities have announced the winners of those permits, and the results are shocking riders and operators alike.
Santa Monica is the home base of Bird, the largest electric scooter share company that rocketed to a valuation of over $1 billion in under a year.
After completing an initial review of companies applying for operating permits in the city, Santa Monica’s planning department staff recommended that only Uber and Lyft’s electric scooter share operations be given permits to operate in the city.
The decision to snub Bird as well as other large scooter share companies such as Lime and Spin was based largely on a review of the past performance of the companies and their ability to adhere to local laws and regulations.
Bird, Lime and Spin famously rolled out operations with a flagrant disregard for local regulations, forcing cities across the country to play catch-up in an effort to police the thousands of electric scooters that were descending on their streets and sidewalks. Bird often declared that it had “worked with cities” before rollout, with the cities usually denying the claims and insisting that the company began operations without coordination.
After the original recommendation not to provide permits to Bird and Lime, the two companies, mostly led by Bird, undertook a massive influence campaign in an attempt to change the city’s mind.
Although not clear how, it appears that the two largest scooter share companies were successful in their efforts, as Santa Monica just added Lime and Bird to the ranks of Uber and Lyft in granting permits to operate in the city.
While Bird and Lime were somehow able to manipulate the system in Bird’s hometown, they didn’t fair as well further north where the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Authority (SFMTA) just announced that only two companies would receive permits to operate in the city: Scoot and Skip.
With the larger companies of Bird, Lime, Uber and Lyft expected to be favorites among a field of 12 for the “up to five” permits that San Francisco was considering offering, the city ultimately granted permits to just the two smaller companies.
Neither company is guilty of the brash rollout strategies applied by the larger scooter companies, with Skip famously touting itself as the “only scooter company without a cease and desist order”.
Scoot also has a long history of operating full-size sit-down electric scooters and mopeds in San Francisco, and has demonstrated its ability to work with the city to solve transportation issues.
Both Skip and Scoot were offered permits to operate 625 scooters in the city over the next year, with the possibility for the number of scooters to double upon approval by the city.
The move is similar to Long Beach, which recently rolled out its own permit program and forced the dockless electric scooters into designated parking zones around the city, solving the issue of abandoned scooters strewn about the city’s sidewalks.
San Francisco’s decision is interesting, considering they have been serving as something of a city upon a hill for the electric scooter industry. While studies show that the majority of Americans love electric scooter share programs, many others emphatically oppose their rampant spread across cities. That clash has been larger in San Francisco than perhaps anywhere else in the country.
San Francisco was one of the first to respond by banning the electric scooters while simultaneously developing a pilot program to reintroduce them within a framework of rules that served to help companies provide the beneficial service while still avoiding the problems and pitfalls to which many residents objected.
Ultimately, it appears the early scooter companies were penalized for choosing the “ask for forgiveness, not permission” strategy famously employed earlier this decade by ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft.
In what seems like an odd twist of fate, Santa Monica appeared to originally agree with San Francisco by snubbing the most problematic scooter companies, but was somehow convinced in the eleventh hour to change its mind and welcome Bird and Lime back into the fold. I’d be very curious to hear how that happened and if everything was on the up and up.
Moving forward, I believe more cities will be following in San Francisco’s footsteps, welcoming the beneficial scooter share programs that can be a boon to a city’s transportation issues, while more strongly enforcing local regulations and ensuring that the companies prioritize safety and rule-following over pure profits.