//A Solution to Scooter-Rationing: The Key is in the Law

If you have been reading the news, you will know that San Francisco has been at the epicenter of what are being called the “Scooter Wars.” You probably also know that San Francisco’s Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) not-so-recently opened up a somewhat drawn-out permitting process that drew a dozen applicants.

While the permitting process allowed up to five companies to be chosen, SFMTA decided to award permits to two companies.

Our concern isn’t the permitting process per se. Rather, we are concerned that it only allows for a total of 2500 dockless scooters in San Francisco. This is not enough.

This artificially low number creates “transportation deserts” where people do not have access to dockless electric scooters. While “access to a dockless scooter” may seem trivial to some, the truth is that access to transportation is a key equity issue.

In fact, a recent Harvard study has shown that access to transportation is the leading determiner of upward mobility. See: https://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/07/upshot/transportation-emerges-as-crucial-to-escaping-poverty.html

With the above being said, we think there is a way to bypass the 2500 scooter limit.

The key is that the law is written such that scooter rentals are completely outside of the law, as long as they aren’t self-serve scooter rentals. We think this is a carve-out for existing scooter rental companies that cater to tourists. You need to read the law as a whole to see how this parses out. It’s not completely obvious from just reading Section 901.

Here are the relevant code sections (all cites refer to the San Francisco Municipal Code, which is located at http://www.amlegal.com/codes/client/san-francisco_ca/):

  • SEC. 901. POWERED SCOOTER SHARE PROGRAM: [. . .] “A system of self-service Powered Scooters for hire in the City and County of San Francisco operated by a Powered Scooter Share Operator that offers to users a pool of at least 10 self-service Powered Scooters for use in the public right-of-way or on public property in the City and County of San Francisco, Alameda County, Contra Costa County, Marin County, San Mateo County, or Santa Clara County.”
  • SEC. 916.  POWERED SCOOTER SHARE PILOT PROGRAM. [. . .] (b)   Permit Required. No Powered Scooter that is part of a Powered Scooter Share Program may be parked, left standing, or left unattended on any sidewalk, Street, or public right-of-way under the jurisdiction of the SFMTA or the Department of Public Works (Public Works) without the Powered Scooter Share Operator first obtaining a permit under this Section 916.
  • SEC. 7.2.111.  POWERED SCOOTER SHARE PARKING RESTRICTIONS.  (a) To park, leave standing, or leave unattended a Powered Scooter that is part of a Powered Scooter Share Program, on any sidewalk, Street, or public right-of-way under the jurisdiction of the Municipal Transportation Agency or the Department of Public Works without a permit issued by the Municipal Transportation Agency authorizing the Powered Scooter to be parked, left standing, or left unattended at that location. Powered Scooters parked, left standing, or left unattended in violation of this Section 7.2.111 constitute a public nuisance subject to abatement and removal pursuant to Article 26 of the Public Works Code, Sections 1600 et seq. For purposes of this Section 7.2.11,1 “Powered Scooter ” shall mean a “motorized scooter ” as defined in Section 407.5 of the California Vehicle Code as it read on April 1, 2018, and any vehicle defined as a “Powered Scooter” under Division II of the Transportation Code.
  • SEC. 1603.*  PROHIBITED DUMPING ACTIVITY. (a)   It shall be prohibited for any Person to deposit, leave, place, keep, maintain, or abandon, Debris and Waste Construction Materials, industrial materials, or more than 100 pounds total of any other waste, refuse, or debris, Powered Scooters , as defined in the Transportation Code, that are part of a Powered Scooter Share Program, or bicycles that are part of a Stationless Bicycle Share Program, on any Public Property without the lawful and express written permission of the City and County of San Francisco.

[Emphasis added]

The way we read the law is that a scooter that is not a “self-service” rental is completely outside of the law, at least as currently written. In fact, an argument could also be made that scooters that are parked, left standing, or left unattended on any sidewalk, street, or public right-of-way are also not affected by the law – as long as they are not self-service rentals.

The term “self-service” is not defined, however. We think that the common-sense definition probably applies. In other words, “not self-service” means that a human needs to interact, in real time, with another human to rent the scooter. Whether or not this requires both humans to be standing next to each other is an open question.

What this means is that even the scooter companies that were rejected in the first battle of the San Francisco Scooter wars can still rent scooters to people in San Francisco. They just can’t rent self-service scooters to people. This leaves open various interesting scenarios.

For example, scooter kiosks could be located in pre-existing stores, places of business, places of employment, etc. People who wished to rent a scooter would need to interact with a human attendant in some manner (which, as noted above, would presumably take the rental outside of the realm of “self-service.”)

Scooter apps might have a two-tiered pricing structure. Perhaps with either discounts (or premiums) for non-self-service scooters. The scooter app would show the locations of kiosks, and the scooter companies would levy a fine against renters who did not return the scooter to a kiosk.

In what are called “Communities of Concern” (generally, socioeconomically challenged “transportation deserts,” as defined by the SFMTA and the regional RTA), kiosks could be placed in local grocery stores, and perhaps store owners could be economically incentivized to charge scooters and make them available for rental.  

We think that this would help bring the benefits of emerging mobility services (in this case, electric scooters) to people who would not ordinarily have access. This increases transportation equity.

The above is not legal advice. But it would be epic to see a company do this.