Electric transport: San Francisco tells JUMP, Lyft, Lime to scoot off
Scoot Networks' electric two-wheelers are provided by German firm, Govecs.

Electric transport: San Francisco tells JUMP, Lyft, Lime to scoot off

Silicon Valley has told ten electric transport providers to get on their bikes and ride out of town.

San Francisco has issued one-year electric scooter and bike permits to just two on-demand providers, Skip and Scoot, and not granted them to 10 others, including popular brands such as Lyft, Spin, Lime, ofo, and JUMP – the startup acquired by Uber earlier this year.

The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) made the decision on 30 August, ending four months of uncertainty for 12 companies that applied to operate within the city, which is the hub of Silicon Valley and the Californian technology sector.

The decision followed a temporary ban on electric bike hire services in May, after Bird, Lime, and Spin began operating in San Francisco without permission – services that were popular with the city’s tech-savvy citizens, but proved dangerous for pedestrians on crowded sidewalks and streets.

The permits allow just 625 scooters into the city for each company in the first six months, with the potential to increase to 2,500 in the second half of the trial programme – at the city’s discretion. However, up to five companies may be allowed to operate in San Francisco over the next two years, depending on the success of the initial scheme.

Uber alles no more

The limited rollout of on-demand bike services can be seen as sending a strong message to the industry that a chaotic free-for-all and urban planning are mutually exclusive concepts, and that an aggressive, Uber-style territory grab may be a thing of the past.

With growing concern in the US about the safety of autonomous cars in the wake of the Uber and Tesla crashes in March, city authorities are also keen to focus on pedestrian safety as the new era of on-demand electric transport begins in earnest.

“The agency looked for applications that prioritised the city’s concerns around safety, disabled access, equity, and accountability,” confirmed the SFMTA.

“The SFMTA’s decision is based on the strength of the proposals submitted by the two companies, combined with their experience of owning, operating and maintaining a shared mobility service in the public right-of-way.”

The ten unsuccessful applicants expressed their dismay at apparently being shut out of the city for the next 12 months, with San Francisco-headquartered Uber being – predictably – the most vocal critic of the decision.

“JUMP both submitted a strong application and has a track record of successfully working with the city on our bike pilot,” said Uber. “Granting only two scooter permits unnecessarily limits mobility options in San Francisco, and we plan to follow up with the SFMTA to share our concerns.”

However, another Californian city has not been so harsh on those providers. Santa Monica – coastal resort to Los Angeles and home to many a Hollywood star – has awarded JUMP, Lime, Lyft, and Bird permits to operate electric scooters and bikes in the city as part of its own 16-month pilot programme, which kicks off on 17 September.

With the Los Angeles area being particularly hard to get around without a car – lacking as it does the public transport infrastructure of San Francisco, for example – on-demand electric bike hire could become both a vital transport option and a lifestyle choice for the area’s opinion-forming locals.

Internet of Business says

A lot has changed in on-demand transport since Uber first rode into town with all guns blazing, turning the sector into a Wild West. But whether – as Uber proved in London – limiting the options in San Francisco is workable for the thousands of citizens that have the relevant apps and have come to rely on electric bike services remains to be seen.

One thing is clear: Uber and Lyft – both of which are gearing up for IPO next year – are facing a different future to the one they imagined, along with others that have grabbed user and media mindshare in recent years, such as Lime and ofo.

If these companies are serious about transforming urban transport for the good of all citizens – rather than simply making money by any means possible – they are going to have to work with city authorities, and not against them.

Chris Middleton
Chris Middleton is former editor of Internet of Business, and now a key contributor to the title. He specialises in robotics, AI, the IoT, blockchain, and technology strategy. He is also former editor of Computing, Computer Business Review, and Professional Outsourcing, among others, and is a contributing editor to Diginomica, Computing, and Hack & Craft News. Over the years, he has also written for Computer Weekly, The Guardian, The Times, PC World, I-CIO, V3, The Inquirer, and Blockchain News, among many others. He is an acknowledged robotics expert who has appeared on BBC TV and radio, ITN, and Talk Radio, and is probably the only tech journalist in the UK to own a number of humanoid robots, which he hires out to events, exhibitions, universities, and schools. Chris has also chaired conferences on robotics, AI, IoT investment, digital marketing, blockchain, and space technologies, and has spoken at numerous other events.