Did San Francisco just solve scooter-sharing?

The sad news of a young man's passing in Dallas have made headlines nationwide. The reason? This may be the first documented death after a scooter accident. Although the investigation is still ongoing, news reports suggest that a scooter broken in half was found near the unconscious man. Moving forward, what is the recipe for a successful scooter deployment, and how can dockless mobility become a safer, truly sustainable alternative to cars? 

San Francisco recently awarded permits to two dockless scooter providers: Scoot Networks and Skip. Although the announcement came as a bit of a surprise to most, the choice that left giants like Uber, Lime, Lyft, and Bird without permission to operate in San Francisco was clearly the product of considerable deliberation. So, what could other cities and scooter providers learn from the thorough process that San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) followed to reach its final decision? 

It becomes evident, after looking at the matrix created by the SFMTA, that the areas in which most scooter providers are lacking are Safety, Disabled Access, and Community Outreach

Safety: Helmets, helmets, helmets.  

Source: SFMTA

Although the majority of providers agreed or already have in place strategies to educate and train users which should result in safe operations of scooters by riders, strategies to promote and distribute helmets are not in place. Out of the 12 providers that submitted proposals, only three outlined a sustainable helmet policy: HOPR, Skip, and Scoot Networks. As the evaluation documents reveal, the differentiating factor with regard to safety is that the providers which received a "Strong" classification offer helmets with their scooters (upon rental). Skip, which was the only other candidate not to receive a "Poor" grade in safety, was given a "Fair" due to having field staff distribute helmets to users on the street, rather than just dispatching helmets upon user request. Additionally, both Scoot and Skip offered a way to carry the helmet (a lock-box and a carabiner respectively), which, according to SFMTA, increases rates of helmet usage.

Disabled Access: Get out of my -right of- way.

Another aspect of dockless riding that has come under scrutiny is their ability to disrupt - not always in a good way. Incidents of disruption include badly parked scooters blocking the right of way, scooters parked outside the borders of the municipality in which they are available, and improper locking (in cases of lock-to scooters).

The majority of the applicants managed to present strategies that would ensure scooters stayed out of pedestrians' right of way. Where most applicants fell short, though, was enforcing the rules for appropriate use of their vehicles. Only two of the applicants managed to score a Fair or a Strong grade in the enforcement aspect of Disabled Access: Scoot and Skip. Scoot Networks, on the one hand, provided comprehensive documentation of exact penalties to be used for non-compliance: the mostly included fees for parking citations/safety violations and suspension of a user's account upon repeated violations. Skip, on the other hand, took a more collaborative approach: Apart from providing one of the most thorough applications with respect to penalties (including different types of escalating penalties for different violations), it also presented a plan to allow SFMTA to access their compliance reports. Notably, Skip included provisions that allow it to immediately deactivate a user's account in case of egregious incidents.

Community Outreach: Everyone welcome, rider or not.

The final chapter in the book of shortcomings of scooter companies is inclusion. The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency examined two aspects of the Community Outreach. Firstly, the ways in which low income residents can become aware of the service and participate. Secondly, the SFMTA examined how everyone, including people not participating in scooter-sharing (nonusers) will be included - and this is where most scooter-sharing companies failed.

Only three of the applicants managed to move the needle from "Poor" to "Fair", and only Skip managed to present a "Strong" case for its inclusive attitude with respect to the public, and more specifically, nonusers. While other applicants limited themselves to a baseline strategy, including vague mentions of "stakeholder meetings" and "attendance at community events", Skip went into more detail by proposing an advisory board to address community concerns and proposing actively gathering feedback from both users and nonusers. Evidently, this aspect of Skip's application stood out too, as the SFMTA praised the unique level of detail and thoroughness among all applicants. Other ideas which were considered "above the baseline" by the SFMTA included "collaboration with community groups representing non-users who may be impacted by service", such as bicyclist and pedestrian groups (Lyft, Scoot), as well as 311 integration to respond to complaints (Lime). 

So, what can be done better? 

Evidently, the competition was not a close call: Scoot and Skip only scored "Poor" in one category each, managing a "Strong" performance in six and seven of the remaining categories respectively. To provide some perspective, the runner-up was Lyft, which scored "Poorly" in five categories, "Fair" in three, and "Strong" in the remaining three. The vast score difference between the two providers that stood out and the rest of the pack is telling: If the thorough Assessment Plan / Scoring Scheme used by San Francisco serves as any indication of what other municipalities may use in the future, scooter-sharing providers need to pay closer attention in order to remain competitive at the permit-granting stage. 

Admittedly, the areas in which most applicants failed are the very areas that are often ignored in the process of "launching without consulting cities" and "dropping scooters without examining the effects on nonusers".

Helmets, an often ignored, yet obviously fundamental commodity, need to become part of the game: as the SFMTA Assessment reveals, there are no "upon request" options when it comes to the safety: since some operators are willing to get creative about helmet availability upon rental, the standard will inevitably be raised.

Blocked sidewalks, perhaps the most discussed negative consequence of dockless scootering, also needs to be tackled more creatively: apart from the obvious options of geofencing, tethering, and locking, there needs to be a specific plan to address behaviour or incidents that do not align with the planned procedures. What happens if a scooter is tipped over, for example? And what if a scooter is inappropriately parked - will the user engaging in this behaviour be penalised or just notified? The highest scoring applicants had detailed plans on how they will leverage penalties and termination of accounts to ensure compliance - as fruitful as educating riders about proper parking is, a harder stance is sometimes essential to preserve the well-being of both users and non-users.

Finally, the aspect of scooter-sharing that is often neglected is the inclusion of all voices, and more specifically, the inclusion of nonusers into the discussion: so far, nonusers only had a voice on Twitter or on other social media, and it was mostly used to complain about scooters blocking the way or ruining their beautiful streets. If scooter-sharing is to become a truly viable alternative to biking, driving, and/or walking, everyone in the "scooterised" communities needs to be heard. Imagine if the only people consulted as to where cars and buses can be parked were the owners of cars and the bus users - how fair would that be on the rest of the road/sidewalk users? Progress is being made, but scooter providers need to ensure that voices of nonusers are not just "welcome", but actively included. This will ensure that the nonuser feedback collected is not just "ranting", but rather, constructive feedback which tackles both positive and negative aspects of living alongside scooter-riders. 


Photo Credit: Skip