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On-Demand Scooter Companies Scramble for Place on SF Streets

After electric rental scooters flooded its streets in late March, the city was forced to take a step back and examine its policies.

(TNS) — San Francisco’s scooter frenzy, temporarily put on hold, accelerated Thursday as ride-hailing companies Lyft and Uber joined a list of a dozen firms bidding to run motorized scooter rental programs on the city’s streets.

The display of interest in a 12-month test program comes despite months of controversy touched off when startups Spin, LimeBike and Bird suddenly deposited hundreds of electric-powered rental scooters on the streets and sidewalks of San Francisco in late March.

The unexpected arrival of the standup two-wheelers created immediate controversy, as well as a division between those who hailed the scooters as a quick, cheap and fun way to get from BART to work and make short trips, and those who were angered by users who rode them on sidewalks, weaving between pedestrians, and then abandoned them on walkways and in building entrances.

The controversy led the city to force the scooters off the street until the Municipal Transportation Agency could set up a permit process regulating the devices, limiting rentals to five companies and putting a 1,250-scooter cap on the total number of that can be offered to customers within city limits for at least six months.

Lyft and Uber, which would rent out scooters under a recently purchased electronic bike company called Jump, are the biggest names to enter the permit competition.

But Spin, LimeBike and Bird will also vie for permits along with newcomers Razor, a popular manufacturer of millions of electric and human-powered scooters; Scoot, which already operates sit-atop scooter rentals in San Francisco; and Ofo, a Chinese firm that rents 10 million yellow dockless bikes in 250 cities and 20 countries and plans to get into the scooter business.

Other newcomers to file applications with the Municipal Transportation Agency at Thursday’s deadline were Waybots, which rents motorized scooters in Washington, D.C., under the Skip brand, and CycleHop, which operates dockless bike sharing in Santa Monica, Beverly Hills, Phoenix, Cleveland and other locations.

Rounding out the list are Ridecell, a firm that operates a car-sharing and ride-sharing platform, and USSCooter, a company for which no information was available.

It’s possible the list could grow if any other companies mailed their applications before 5 p.m. on Thursday.

San Francisco’s scooter test will issue permits to five companies and the cap on the number of scooters will be divided equally among the firms. If all goes well, the cap could double to 2,500 during the second six months of the experiment.

Who gets the permits won’t be determined until late June, said MTA spokesman Paul Rose. While applications are being processed, nobody will be allowed to operate motorized rental scooters.

The experimental program was created in reaction to the controversy created by Spin, LimeBike and Bird in March.

As the company’s scooters flooded streets and sidewalks, especially South of Market, downtown and in the Financial District and the Mission, complaints poured in to City Hall. Supervisors gave the MTA authority to regulate scooters and require permits, and the agency adopted an ordinance requiring scooter companies to seek permits. In addition, City Attorney Dennis Herrera issued a cease-and-desist order against illegal scooter rental operations and Public Works officials seized 503 scooters they said were blocking sidewalks.

That battle ended, or at least paused, on June 4, the date the MTA began accepting scooter permits and prohibited rental businesses from operating without them.

The ordinance adopted by the MTA included language directed at the three companies by stating that “past experience including compliance with applicable laws” could be considered when determining if a company should be offered a permit.

Applications also require the companies to explain how they will keep sidewalks clear of scooters, protect riders’ privacy, provide insurance coverage, offer access for low-income riders, and share trip data with the transportation agency.

“The program was built to prioritize public safety, build in equity and focus on accountability,” Rose said.

The program is also designed to cover the city’s costs. Companies paid a $5,000 fee to apply for a permit, and those granted one will be charged a $25,000 annual permit fee and be required to put down a $10,000 deposit to cover such things as damage to public property and maintenance.

“The idea is we don’t want the taxpayers to get stuck with the cost of anything not covered by the annual permit fee,” Rose said.

What’s revealed in the applications won’t be known for several days, after the MTA reviews the documents and redacts information that shouldn’t be publicly released.

They could disclose interesting details, such as CycleHop’s plan to install parking racks and a technology that requires scooters to be locked to racks. Jump, an electronic bike rental company, requires its bikes to be secured to bike racks or signposts, said Josh Squire, founder and CEO. CycleHop is also testing a new type of battery that could reduce the number of dead scooters sitting on the streets waiting for a charge.

©2018 the San Francisco Chronicle Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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