Driving Change

San Francisco's decision is a wake-up call to scooter startups

Scoot just won a coveted pilot permit to deploy scooters around San Francisco. It was one of two companies that won the permit.

The long-awaited decision about which scooter-sharing startups will be allowed to operate in a pilot program in San Francisco is finally here. On Thursday afternoon, the San Francisco Municipal Transit Agency (SFMTA) announced that it will offer permits to just two companies — Scoot and Skip — out of the 12 that were vying for spots. 

What!? Yes. 'Tis true. Two smaller, lesser-known companies beat out the ride-hailing giants Uber (which owns Jump) and Lyft, as well as scooter specialists Bird and Lime, which each have raised hundreds of millions of dollars. 

While San Francisco's one-year permit program is relatively small — it will allow each company to deploy 625 scooters in the first six months — it's a bellwether for how cities could manage these scooter-sharing services. At the discretion of the SFMTA, Scoot and Skip also can increase their networks to a cap of 2,500 several months down the road. 

Many companies that were excluded from the initial permits are headquartered in the San Francisco Bay Area, so being (temporarily) excluded from their home market could be particularly frustrating for them. (Scoot and Skip are both based in San Francisco.)

The decision could be seen as a wake-up call to the scooter-sharing companies that early on seemed to follow in the footsteps of Uber, operating without permission of cities. In recent months, cities such as New York, San Francisco and London have pushed back on these mobility companies (both ride-hailing and scooter-sharing) and demanded they operate within regulation. 

Scooter-sharing services hace faced many complaints from city residents about scooters blocking sidewalks. A recent death in Cleveland — where a car hit a scooter rider — has put a spotlight on scooter safety concerns. 

San Francisco said that Scoot and Skip won the pilot program permits because their applications prioritized safety, protecting sidewalks and equitable access for underserved communities. The SFMTA wrote that Scoot and Skip's applications demonstrated "a high level of capability to operate a safe, equitable and accountable scooter share service." 

You can see all of the gory details of how each of the 12 applicants scored on each of SFMTA's assessment's here. Uber's Jump scored strong for equitable access but poorly on safety and protecting sidewalks. Bird's application scored pretty poorly across the board. 

Scoot's application included ideas around training users with mandatory instructional videos, as well as including helmets with each rental. Scoot also will deploy battery-swapping for its scooters, which could be a more efficient way to charge batteries than picking vehicles up the vehicles for that purpose. (It also could reduce urban congestion.) 

Skip's application drew strong scores for keeping sidewalks clear of scooters, equitable access and community outreach. Skip suggested deploying ambassadors to approach users about safe riding and providing helmets, as well as providing a 50 percent discount for low-income users.

Both Scoot and Skip got strong marks for having a history of "complying with city regulations."

Scoot operates a network of seated battery-powered motorbikes (more powerful than the stand-up scooters ) in San Francisco and Barcelona. When Scoot launches its first scooters in San Francisco later this year, it will be the first time that the company is offering the scooters. 

But Scoot has had a longstanding good relationship with San Francisco. The company didn't deploy scooters across the city without a permit, the way that competitors Bird, Lime and Spin did. 

Reached by phone, Scoot CEO Michael Keating said: "We've proven a lot to the city over the years. We're happy with the outcome." Scoot plans to add staff in San Francisco to manage the new scooters and also will launch a new app that will include the new scooters. 

On Thursday, officials for Santa Monica, California, also announced that the city has chosen four operators for its scooter-sharing program: Bird; Jump; Lime; and Lyft. Bird is headquartered in Santa Monica. 

If you're interested in learning more about how cities will be working with mobility companies, don't miss the transportation tracks at VERGE 18 (mid-October in Oakland, California). Featured speakers include execs from Lyft, Bird and Lime as well as transportation planners from cities including Oakland, Sacramento, San Francisco and San Jose.