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How One San Francisco Scooter Company Spots Illegal Use

Sidewalk riding bans have been a point of tension among scooter companies, local gov and riders as everyone points fingers about who’s to blame for breaking the law and who should enforce it.

(TNS) — We’ve all seen it: an electric scooter zipping by on the sidewalk, weaving through pedestrians. In California, this is illegal.

The sidewalk riding ban has been a point of tension among scooter companies, local governments and riders as everyone points fingers about who’s to blame for breaking the law and who should enforce it.

Now, one San Francisco company says it has a solution.

Lime, which has scooters across the Bay Area, is introducing technology, which may be the first of its kind, to detect sidewalk riding. It’s based on the assumption that sidewalks — with evenly spaced grooves between concrete slabs — have a predictably different surface than roads. The company says its in-app software, which The Chronicle viewed a demonstration of prior to the company’s planned announcement on Tuesday, can judge based on vibration data at timed intervals whether the scooter is on a sidewalk with up to 95% confidence.

Scooter riders who spend more than half of their trip on what appears to be the sidewalk will get a notification and a map in the app saying that their activity was illegal. The company will follow up with an email. There are no penalties, at least not yet: the company says the pilot program is about educating riders.

The technology will come to Lime’s 1,200 scooters currently in downtown San Jose (it’s permitted for 2,300) in coming weeks. That’s an easier testing ground than the congested streets and bumpy sidewalks of San Francisco or Oakland, where Lime hopes to expand the sidewalk-detection pilot, but doesn’t have a timeline.

“I think every mayor in this country knows that you could deploy a police officer to every corner and you still wouldn’t be able to stop folks from riding scooters on sidewalks,” San Jose mayor Sam Liccardo said. “We clearly need to find a technological solution.”

EV Ellington, Lime’s Northern California general manager, said in a statement, “We may have finally cracked the code on this issue and developed a technology that is effective and scalable.”

For more than a year, Lime tried out other technological solutions, but found that GPS wasn’t accurate enough to identify sidewalks, and if technology caused a scooter to suddenly slow down when crossing a curb, it could be unsafe. Adding cameras and storing video data was costly.

Bay Area cities have been scrambling to regulate scooters since they popped up in spring 2018. Part of San Jose’s permit pushed companies to develop sidewalk riding detection technology and prove its effectiveness by Friday. If they fail to do so, San Jose could penalize them by limiting scooters or issuing fines.

“Ultimately, the primary responsibility of any city is for the safety of its residents,” Liccardo said. “We recognize there are disruptive technologies that are challenging to regulate. Then we need to put it on the companies to utilize their technology to help us make the industry safer.”

San Jose is meeting with the five other scooter companies (Bird, Lyft, Spin, Gruv and Razor) this month to review plans.

Some locals questioned whether rider education without penalties will make a difference.

“It’ll be ignored like it currently is,” said Scott Knies, executive director of the San Jose Downtown Association. “People don’t feel safe in the bike lane or the road, and they’re going to ride on the sidewalk and going to whiz past pedestrians. ... As people get fed up with it, it’s going to end up falling mostly on the companies and the public sector.”

Technically, it’s the city’s responsibility to enforce laws, “but there’s much higher priorities,” Knies said. “That’s not what the community is clamoring for in terms of police time.” He believed that ultimately, if companies receive enough backlash, they will have to come up with innovative enforcement — like Lime is doing.

Assaf Biderman, associate director of MIT research organization Senseable City Lab and CEO of scooter designer Superpedestrian, said it’s “fairly simple” to count lines on the sidewalk, but it isn’t foolproof because not all surfaces are the same.

“We can make improvements, but we don’t yet have a 100% detection method that’s deployable at the moment to detect sidewalks,” Biderman said, adding it’s difficult to detect immediately.

Superpedestrian’s scooters can enforce rules, by for example automatically slowing down incrementally in an area where technology has indicated that it’s necessary, in less than a second. Lime’s technology detects sidewalk patterns after a few seconds.

Lime said it would be extremely rare if someone was falsely notified that they were riding on the sidewalk. If that happened, the rider wouldn’t suffer any consequences and could just let the company know.

The company intends to collect data on riders using sidewalks and give that to San Jose to help the city decide which streets could use more protected bike lanes, a move that the Silicon Valley Bike Coalition applauded for safety. A recent UCSF study found scooter-related injuries resulting in hospitalization more than tripled over five years nationwide.

Another San Francisco scooter company, Jump, owned by Uber, previously said it was developing sidewalk riding detection technology, but declined to comment for this story. Bird, which owns Scoot, a company that operates in San Francisco, had no updates to share on similar technology.

A spokeswoman for Spin, which is owned by Ford and has scooters in San Francisco, said in an email that the company has technology that virtually blocks off certain areas, but “when it comes to the issue of sidewalk riding, we can’t expect riders to change their behavior if they don’t feel safe riding in our streets.” For now, the company provides in-app and in-person education to ensure riders understand the rules.

Knies said scooters were initially disruptive, blocking sidewalks and endangering pedestrians. He’s now accepted that they’re a part of the city, although problems persist.

“It’s going to take a village to get this right,” he said.

©2020 the San Francisco Chronicle. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.