Should City Hall Get a Crystal Ball?

By now, most San Franciscans have probably had to deal with scooters cluttering the sidewalk. This is because of scooter sharing companies such as Bird and LimeBike, described as being “the Uber for scooters.” These scooters aren’t like the push scooters from our childhoods, as they are motorized. Unlike other motorized vehicles, though, they can be driven on sidewalks. Many San Franciscans are calling for the Board of Supervisors to better regulate these scooters. This is part of a pattern in the city: a new tech device comes and disrupts the city. Then, the Board of Supervisors takes too long to regulate this tech and, by the time they do, it’s too late to stop the long-term problems these companies create. Thus, the question is begged: should City Hall be doing something differently in an era of rapid tech growth?


The staff of the Foghorn understands that this situation is hard for City Hall. Companies like Uber, Airbnb and now Bird base their success off of innovating ahead of laws. For example, Airbnb says it’s not a hotel service or a renting service, but a service to connect homeowners to vacationers. This means that Airbnb does not have to follow the regulations that hotels have to deal with. These companies create ideas or products that are so new, no laws exist to protect against the disruptive effects they have. For Airbnb, the city could have regulated the app as soon as they saw its effects on rental prices. For Uber and Lyft, the city could have been more reactive to ride-sharing’s spread before they deteriorated city streets (something that studies now prove happens because of ride hailing services). In a way, Bird is in a worst spot than Airbnb because everyone can see the scooter’s negative impacts and because everyone understands why scooters being on sidewalks is inconvenient. However, with Airbnb, not everyone sees the increasing rent prices (and some, in fact, benefit from it).


In terms of Bird-specific regulation, some members of the Foghorn believe that these scooters should be regulated like bicycles. This means that they should not be allowed on sidewalks and only in bike lanes. They should also only be allowed to be parked in certain designated spots, similar to bike racks. We want this is because it makes the sidewalks cleaner and removes clutter, but it also makes the sidewalks safer. There have been cases of pedestrians being hit by these motorized scooters. These scooters can go 15 mph – they don’t belong on the sidewalks.


It is important to note that the Foghorn is not opposed to the idea of Bird. These scooters are more environmentally friendly than cars, and we think that short-distance transit is a good idea. While we don’t want the city to shut down scooter sharing companies, we want the Board to help relieve the city of the company’s flaws while keeping its benefits. One way the city could do that is by having designated drop off posts, like Ford Bikes’, to keep them off the sidewalks.


As for what City Hall should do in the broader question of reacting to tech innovations, there’s no easy answer. We cannot always predict the effects tech companies will have on the area. Today, it seems obvious that Uber would worsen traffic, but before Uber blew up, it was reasonable to think that the app would truly decongest the roads. We’re not asking City Hall to predict the future. What we want them to do is act immediately and not wait until the apps are too big to fail.


Featured Photo: This is not the first time City Hall has wasted time in regulating tech groups. Travis Wise/Flickr


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