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3 Big-City Bay Area Mayors Talk About E-Scooters and Communication Tech Tools

Mayors from San Francisco, San Jose and Oakland discuss their stand on these technologies during Nextdoor’s first annual Mayor Summit.

by / August 2, 2018
From left to right: San Francisco Mayor London Breed, Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf and San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo. Government Technology/Dawn Kawamoto

San Francisco, San Jose and Oakland mayors tackled the topic of communication tools to stay connected to constituents to controversial, yet “cool,” electric scooters during Nextdoor’s first annual Mayor Summit on Wednesday.

Electric scooters zooming down city sidewalks and deposited in random places from doorsteps of businesses to even Lake Merritt in Oakland became a hot topic and challenge for local governments this year, as a number of companies began setting up scooter rental businesses without the blessing of cities.

The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency is currently in the process of reviewing applications from a dozen scooter rental companies and is aiming to award permits to five companies in August.

“I am a big fan of scooters. They are the coolest things to get around. You can wear a skirt or a dress and hop on a scooter and get anywhere quickly and I think that’s great,” newly minted San Francisco Mayor London Breed said during the panel. “But, sadly, a few bad actors make it bad for everyone else.”

The scooter issue largely centers on the safety of citizens, the mayors say.

For San Francisco, that means ensuring that the city has the infrastructure to accommodate new technologies and opportunities before introducing them to the community. Case in point is the width of the sidewalks in San Francisco. 

“Not all our sidewalks are wide enough (to accommodate electric scooters) and we also have to be respectful of one another,” Breed said. “Part of our goal is trying to regulate the scooters to make sure we keep people safe.”

As for the cities of Oakland and San Jose, the mayors’ responses to scooters were more tempered. 

“I am not sure if scooters are transportation or entertainment,” Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf said during the panel. 

Oakland city council members, according to an NBC report, are proposing that electric scooter companies obtain new permits. City of San Jose council members, meanwhile, are eyeing potential restrictions from the number of companies that can obtain a permit to requiring annual fees, The Mercury News reports.

One of the challenges cities have had to face with the initial flurry of electric scooter rental companies is a marketplace built on the ethos of “ask forgiveness, not permission” when setting up shop, Schaaf said. 

“We want you to come to our city and ask permission, so you can work with us around our unique needs,” said Oakland’s mayor.

And if vendors’ customers continue to ride the electric scooters on sidewalks, the city of San Jose is considering a technology workaround. 

San Jose is currently talking to geofencing companies about the potential for deactivating electric scooters when they are on sidewalks and reactivating them when they are in bike lanes, said Sam Liccardo, San Jose's mayor. The city of Los Angeles is also considering geofencing scooters, reports the San Diego Union-Tribune.

“We love the scooters, but we want them off the sidewalks and into the bike lanes,” Liccardo said during the panel. “And that can be a challenge.”

Communication Tools to Connect with Constituents

Oakland’s mayor uses Zoom’s remote video conferencing service to hold invite-only town halls with various communities that run up to an hour long with groups of 20 to 30 people. Previous Zoom town halls have been held with LGBTQ leaders and neighborhood leaders to discuss different topics.

With local news outlets shrinking their reporting staffs, Schaaf said it is really important to use such technology tools to inform people what their cities are doing.

The cities of San Jose and San Francisco, meanwhile, are among the 3,000 public agencies that use Nextdoor’s platform, which is a private social network that allows members to communicate with neighbors. 

The San Jose City Council, for example, is on Nextdoor’s government dashboard, Nextdoor for Public Agencies. 

But although 205,000 households are on it, Liccardo said many of San Jose’s residents are not. And he further points out that 40 percent of its citizens are born in foreign countries and English is often not their first language.

“You got to be out there using every tool that you can,” said Liccardo, noting government officials cannot solely rely on social media tools for communicating with constituents.

Breed holds a similar view. Although the San Francisco Department of Emergency Management’s SF72 emergency preparedness hub has partnered with Nextdoor, she pointed to the digital divide in her city.

“I think technology is great … but a lot of seniors are not on the Internet and a lot of seniors still have landlines too,” she said. “We can’t just focus on technology like Twitter and all these things we use to communicate with. We have to remember there may be people who don’t speak English, or are senior citizens who don’t use technology.”

Dawn Kawamoto Former Staff Writer

Dawn Kawamoto is a former staff writer for Government Technology.