S.F. Scooter Battle: City Crews Seize 66 Mini-Vehicles From Sidewalks

A Bird scooter on King Street near San Francisco's AT&T Park.  (Dan Brekke/KQED)

Updated 4:40 p.m. Friday

San Francisco Public Works crews, responding to complaints about electric stand-up scooters blocking some city sidewalks, impounded 66 of the mini-vehicles Friday morning.

Public Works spokeswoman Rachel Gordon said that the department was responding to "numerous complaints" in launching the enforcement action.

Rental scooters from all three companies that distributed hundreds of the motorized machines in the city in late March were seized, Gordon said. The scooters -- 29 from Bird, 23 from Spin and 14 from LimeBike -- were removed from sidewalks in the city's Financial District, South of Market neighborhood and the Mission.

"If they were in the middle of the sidewalk or somewhere where people would be walking, potentially -- in the path of travel -- our inspectors went and observed that, documented it through photographs and then picked them up and brought them to storage," Gordon said.

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The scooter companies face a minimum fine of $125 for violating a section of the city's Public Works Code that bars obstructing the public right of way. The penalties can be appealed through an administrative hearing.

A representative for Southern California-based Bird said company officials "look forward to engaging with city officials in a fair process to review the reasons for impounding any of our vehicles that have been confiscated."

The Bird spokesman, Kenneth Baer, added in an email: "Bird respects the DPW’s role in enforcing all parking rules, including the thousands of car parking tickets issued each day. We will continue to build upon Bird’s user education efforts so that our growing user base becomes accustomed to considering their fellow San Franciscans and park safely out of the right of way."

LimeBike spokesman Joe Arellano said in an emailed statement that the company views the city as a partner and seeks to work "to craft solutions that meaningfully address safety and right of way issues, so no scooters will need to be impounded in the future."

Spin said it would have preferred to have handled any parking problems itself.

"Had we been notified by Public Works, we would have quickly dispatched our operations team, which is something Spin actively does when notified by our government partners across our 50 markets," Brian Kyuhoon No, the company's director of public policy, said in an emailed statement. "We take responsibility for our scooters in San Francisco, and users and members of the public are encouraged to reach out to us directly to address any issue or answer any questions."

No said the company wants to gain "more clarity from Public Works on what constitutes obstruction to help minimize these occurrences."

The three companies distributed their scooters in the second half of March, acting after Board of Supervisors member Aaron Peskin introduced legislation directing the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency to develop regulations and a permit process for companies operating the devices.

The three firms have launched with an identical price structure. Riders use smartphone apps pay $1 to unlock a scooter and 15 cents a minute for their rides. The scooters are equipped with GPS to allow the companies to track them, and they're dockless, meaning they can be left anywhere.

In response to a request for information from the SFMTA on March 28, Spin said it planned to launch its service with 200 scooters in the South of Market area this month and would add more "as our operations capabilities grow." Bird said it began with 100 machines and planned to add more when usage statistics showed scooters "are being used on average at least three times per vehicle per day." LimeBike does not appear to have shared information on its fleet size.

The Board of Supervisors' Land Use and Transportation Committee is scheduled to consider Peskin's regulation measure on Monday. SFMTA spokesman Paul Rose said Thursday that the agency is already working on a scooter permit process and expects to have it in place by May 1.

Critics of the scooter companies, with Peskin and city pedestrian advocates at the forefront, have raised concerns not only about sidewalk obstruction but also that most users appear to ignore a prohibition against riding on the sidewalk and don't wear helmets as required by state law.

The companies have responded that they're trying their best to educate users about legal requirements and scooter etiquette through their apps and other outreach efforts. All three firms have said their scooters have met with an enthusiastic public response and offer a way for the city to reduce traffic congestion and achieve long-term goals for reducing emissions of greenhouse gases.

San Francisco Mayor Mark Farrell told KQED Thursday that while he agrees with encouraging different modes of transportation, "We can't have scooters, bicycles just willy-nilly throughout the city. What we really need is partners in the private sector willing to work with the city. We'll design a permit system, and we'll design it so residents have access to these types of transportation modes, but also so that it doesn't litter the city and we have control over it."

On Thursday, Bird spokesman Baer suggested in an interview that if the city was experiencing problems with misplaced scooters and other infractions, it ought to begin citing violators.

On Friday, the city did just that. And Gordon, of DPW, said the enforcement effort will be ongoing.

"Today, we went out and hauled a lot of them away," she said. "Now we're going to go complaint by complaint to do the confiscation of the scooters. So if someone calls 311 or calls our department and says, 'There's a scooter lying on the sidewalk at Mariposa near Bryant Street,' we will send an inspector to see if it is indeed causing a potential hazard, and then we will take it away."

Updates
4:30 p.m. Post updated to include statement from LimeBike.
4:40 p.m. Post updated to include statement from Spin.

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