Two electric scooter companies, Skip and Scoot, take the win for SF permits

Uber, Lyft, Bird, Spin and Lime miss out.

Dara Kerr Former senior reporter
Dara Kerr was a senior reporter for CNET covering the on-demand economy and tech culture. She grew up in Colorado, went to school in New York City and can never remember how to pronounce gif.
Dara Kerr
5 min read
Two pedestrians taking note of a group of scooters on an SF sidewalk.

Bird scooters won't be taking flight, but soon you'll be able to go for a Scoot.

James Martin

And then there were two.

Twelve companies, including Uber and Lyft, had been jockeying for permits to operate dockless, rentable electric scooter programs in San Francisco. But the city had said there was room for just five.

After three months of studying applications, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) said Thursday that only two companies would get the permits: Skip and Scoot. These permits will let them participate in a one-year test program in the city.

"The agency looked for applications that prioritized the city's concerns around safety, disabled access, equity and accountability," the SFMTA said in its announcement. "Taken as a whole, Scoot and Skip's applications demonstrated not only a commitment to meet the terms of the permit, but a high level of capability to operate a safe, equitable and accountable scooter share service."

The companies that didn't make the cut are Bird, CycleHop, Jump (aka Uber), Lime, Lyft, Ofo, Razor, Ridecell, Spin and UScooter.

Scooters have become a controversial topic in the Bay Area. The commotion began after three companies -- Bird, Lime and Spin -- unloaded their e-scooters in San Francisco in late March without any forewarning to lawmakers or residents. Almost instantly, hundreds of scooters littered the sidewalks.

Some locals were happy about being able to easily scoot block-to-block in the congested city. Other people complained that riders didn't follow the laws of the road and endangered pedestrians by riding on sidewalks and leaving the scooters wherever they felt like it -- blocking parking spots, bike racks and wheelchair access.

In April, San Francisco officials passed a law limiting the number of rentable, dockless scooters in the city. Along with only allowing up to five companies to operate, the law limits the combined total of scooters in the city to 1,250 in the first six months. If that number works, the cap could increase to 2,500.

In its permit application, each company had to demonstrate how it would provide user education on wearing helmets and not riding on sidewalks, as well as best practices for safe scooter parking. Each also had to be insured and institute a privacy policy to safeguard users' information. The companies additionally needed to pledge to share trip data with the city, provide access to all neighborhoods and offer a plan for low-income riders.

"We're already reaching out to local groups to learn about their concerns for equity and work together to create solutions that make e-scooters accessible for all communities," Skip CEO Sanjay Dastoor wrote in a blog post. "This pilot program is the beginning of an opportunity to invest in areas like bike lane infrastructure and job training and to connect more people to public transit systems like Muni, BART, and Caltrain." 

The SFMTA said Scoot and Skip submitted the strongest applications of the 12 companies. Skip, which runs a scooter rental program in Washington, DC, proposed deploying ambassadors to approach riders about safe behavior. Scoot, which currently operates an electric moped rental service in San Francisco and Barcelona, proposed including helmets with each scooter rental along with free in-person training.

"Our team is ready to offer this new service properly, professionally and safely, in partnership with the City," Scoot CEO Michael Keating said in an email. "With our proven, track record in delivering electric mobility offerings we understand the importance of maintaining positive relationships with both public officials and citizens alike."

A major difference between Scoot and Skip and many of the other companies that applied for permits is that these two services worked with city regulators before launching. Regulators served both Uber and Lyft cease-and-desist letters when they rolled out their ride-hail services without permission several years ago. And the same happened when Bird, Lime and Spin flooded the streets with their scooters earlier this year.

"It was a 'let's drop these onto the streets and ask for forgiveness later' approach," said Thom Rickert, an emerging risks specialist for public sector consulting company Trident Public Risk Solutions. "The very first thing scooter companies needed to do was open a dialogue with the municipal authorities. Had they asked for input first, we probably wouldn't have seen as much blowback."

The companies that didn't get the San Francisco permits said they were disappointed. 

An Uber spokeswoman said, "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." A Spin spokesman said, "We hope SFMTA will consider allowing additional operators to participate in the pilot program." Lyft's bike and scooter policy lead Caroline Samponaro said, "We remain hopeful that we will have the chance to offer scooters in San Francisco in the future." And a Bird spokeswoman said, "We will continue to work with San Francisco officials, partners, community organizations, and advocates in hopes of bringing Bird back to the City by the Bay.

Lime, which received a chunk of funding from Uber last month, had a more aggressive take.

"The SFMTA has selected inexperienced scooter operators that plan to learn on the job, at the expense of the public good," Lime CEO Toby Sun said in an email. "The SFMTA's handling of the dockless bike and scooter share programs has lacked transparency from the beginning. We call on the Mayor's Office and Board of Supervisors to hold the SFMTA accountable for a flawed permitting process... We plan to appeal this decision and will look for new ways to serve the people of San Francisco."

As the city processed the permits over the past three months, no company was allowed to have scooters on the streets. That's going to last a bit longer. The SFMTA said it's not issuing the permits to Scoot and Skip until October 15. The companies will then be able to deploy 625 scooters each, which the city estimates is about the same amount of scooters that were on the streets before the permitting law took effect.

First published August 30, 12:54 p.m. PT. 
Update, 5:38 p.m.: Adds additional background information and comments from Uber, Lyft, Bird, Lime, Spin, Scoot, Skip and Thom Rickert.

The Honeymoon is Over: Everything you need to know about why tech is under Washington's microscope.

Infowars and Silicon Valley: Everything you need to know about the tech industry's free speech debate.