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A man rides an electric scooter in a crosswalk with pedestrians in downtown San Francisco. Justin Sullivan / Getty

Scooter companies tried to barge into San Francisco and got kicked out. Now they’re making big promises to get legal.

Have cities learned from Uber?

Years after Uber and Lyft changed the fabric of San Francisco, city regulators now find themselves in a familiar position: Trying to reel in a new wave of transportation startups that simply showed up and started operating without permission.

This time, it’s scooter-sharing companies, some of which the city kicked out earlier this month and which are now applying for official permits.

The startups — momentarily trendy and eyeing potentially massive growth — are so eager to get back on the streets that some have committed to spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on safety programs, investments and do-gooder initiatives in San Francisco alone.

Competition is fierce among the dozen applicants. San Francisco is only granting up to five scooter-sharing permits, covering a total of 1,250 scooters for a six-month pilot. The city could decide which companies, including Bird, Lime, Skip and even Uber and Lyft, will be allowed to operate — and how many scooters each could manage — as early as next week.

Here are some of the major promises these companies are making:

A plan for lower-income users

One of the big ideas with new shared infrastructure like scooters is that it could be useful to lower-income residents — not just rich people or tourists. So as part of the application process, the scooter companies are pledging to offer affordable plans for people who are eligible for federal or state assistance programs.

Bird, for example, is offering to waive its $1 fee to unlock a scooter and only charge its typical 15 cents-per-minute usage fee. Lime has pledged to offer either 50 percent off all rides or a 100-pack of rides for $10. Uber, via its Jump subsidiary, and Lyft are both considering annual memberships that initially cost $5 and include a certain length of free ride time per day.

Each of these companies is also exploring its own version of cash payments to enable those users who are unbanked or don’t have a phone to use the scooters.

Skip wants to hook into the region’s Clipper Card transit network and has pledged to set up kiosks in disadvantaged areas to help people create accounts without mobile devices. Others propose partnering with companies like PayNearMe to offer payments that don’t rely on credit cards.

A plan for underserved transit communities

Another big promise is that scooters could help bridge access to public transit in neighborhoods that are poorly served by the city’s buses and trains. San Francisco wants to make sure each company is dedicating some of its vehicles to these areas.

But how many scooters each company is willing to commit to serving these areas depends on how many scooters each gets to operate. Bird says it will dedicate half its fleet to disadvantaged communities if it receives 500 to 1,000 scooters as part of its permit. Lime said it will only be able to dedicate scooters to these communities if it gets 1,000 scooters — the majority of the total 1,250 scooters San Francisco is planning on allowing for the six-month pilot.

Lyft scooter service map
Lyft’s application shows its proposed service area with 500 scooters (left) and 1,000 (right). The purple areas are San Francisco’s “communities of concern.”

Both Skip and Jump say they expect to initially dedicate only 20 percent of their fleets to underserved areas. Jump would only make scooters in the disadvantaged areas available for most of the day — between 6 am and 10 pm — while it expects to have scooters in the rest of the city available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.


A big concern for the city is the safety of scooter riders and those around them, so each company has proposed a variety of ways to prevent unsafe riding. All of them have some version of a helmet giveaway program and require riders to wear a helmet, which is also required by law.

Many, including Bird and Skip, require riders to scan their license during sign-up to ensure riders are licensed drivers and over 18 years of age, in compliance with California law. Lime, on the other hand, opposes scanning the ID, saying it poses privacy issues and may be a deterrent for immigrants “given the current political climate.”

Scooters are supposed to be used on city streets and bike lanes — not on the sidewalk. Lime said it would issue penalties to people who ride on the sidewalk.

Keeping sidewalks clear

One early complaint about the scooter phenomenon is that people leave them everywhere, parking them on sidewalks, in front of buildings or otherwise blocking the right of way.

Jump scooter parking
Jump parking

As a result, the scooter companies are trying to come up with innovative ways to incentivize good parking behavior or detect bad parking. Bird and Lime require riders to take a picture of their scooter in order to end the ride to make sure scooters are parked correctly. Jump and Lyft are also exploring this option. The companies will eventually build software that can detect whether the scooters are not parked in the right of way or strewn about.

Many of these companies are looking into or have already integrated tilt sensors to determine if scooters have been knocked over.

Some are thinking about incorporating physical infrastructure. Uber’s Jump, for example, is proposing a scooter parking rack to avoid clutter. The company may also have Uber drivers re-park scooters that aren’t parked properly. Lime says it will work with local merchants to set up preferred parking spots, which users will be incentivized to use with a points system. Lyft is also considering this.

A hypothetical Lyft-preferred parking zone
A hypothetical Lyft-preferred parking zone

San Francisco is also considering requiring scooter companies to incorporate locks on the scooters, though this would force the companies to physically alter the scooters or buy new ones.

Skip, which pitches itself as the friendly and compliant company, is already ahead of the curve on that. The company’s big pitch is that it already has a prototype with a built-in, pull-out lock that will allow riders to tether their scooters to racks or other poles, theoretically out of the way. Its fleet also already has tilt sensors.

Bird, however, thinks the so-called “lock-to” system will create more problems because it will be harder to move scooters that are in the way — but said it would comply if needed. Other companies like Lyft and Lime said they would be open to the option but would need three to six months notice.

Investment in the city

Then there’s the do-gooder aspect of the companies’ bid to operate in San Francisco. Some have promised significant funding.

Bird pledged to give $1 per vehicle per day to cities to help build out bike lanes. Skip also says it will donate $500,000 in the next two years to groups in San Francisco that advocate for protected bike and scooter lanes. The company has also committed to giving out $150,000 in incentives to make sure riders park the scooters properly.

Lyft, Jump and Lime are also considering creating incentive programs to users to park the scooters properly or bring low-charged scooters to be charged. (The companies famously employ armies of freelancers to move scooters around by hand and keep them charged.)

What’s next?

The San Francisco model, if successful, could become the blueprint for cities across the country as these companies move quickly to expand — and justify increasingly lofty valuations.

Cities will also be looking to see whether the companies actually stay committed to the promises made to San Francisco.

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