Paying the price in San Francisco for pushing the rent-a-scooter envelope
San Francisco has awarded two permits to operate electric scooter platforms, choosing two smaller and unexpected competitors, Scoot and Skip, instead of pioneers Bird and Lime, or the two most prominent companies in mobility in the city, Uber and Lyft.
The decision is something of a slap in the face to companies that pushed the limit of the “better to ask for forgiveness than to ask for permission” approach, causing all sorts of problems for City Hall, which had to weather residents’ protests and come up with some speedy answers to regulate electric scooters, as well as removing hundreds of them that had been badly parked on streets and sidewalks. Whether or not City Hall’s decision in not giving the permits to the best-prepared companies is a punishment is hard to say and only time will tell what the consequences might be.
Meanwhile, Santa Monica has granted four licenses to Bird, Lime, Lyft and Jump (owned by Uber), which can operate a total of 750 electric vehicles each, distributed among bicycles and scooters. In San Francisco, the license allows Scoot and Skip to each put 625 scooters on the street for a six-month trial, and after that, 2,500.
Scoot is one of the smallest companies in its field, operating out of San Francisco since 2012, where it has managed a fleet of electric motorcycles, recently doing the same in Barcelona. Skip is also relatively small compared to its competitors, with only a few thousand scooters in Portland and Washington DC, and has raised just $31 million in funding, making it very much the ugly duckling among the unicorns. But it was considered the most likely to follow City Hall’s rules. The decision is a setback for Uber and Lyft in groovy San Francisco, although scooters seem to be now an integral part of their strategies: Uber says it is working on the design and construction of its own scooter.
After an initial unregulated stage that included conflict with city halls and residents in various cities, it would seem we are in the international expansion and consolidation phase, where city councils realize that scooters can play an important role in urban transport. Licenses, safe routes and data sharing schemes with applications such as Citymapper or city councils themselves to understand the circumstances and flows of mobility in their cities. Now, we are in the phase where we will see how cities tender and grant licenses a phase that will end when some competitors prove themselves better than others or consolidate their expansion through mergers and acquisitions. But there is no doubt that rented scooters will be part of the ecosystem of our cities in the future sooner or later, along with other vehicles such as bicycles and Vespa-type scooters, all vital steps toward the very desirable goal of reducing the number of private cars in circulation, and that will be helped by city authorities who understand this need.
(En español, aquí)