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San Francisco says goodbye to electric scooters, for now

To get an operating permit from the city, Bird, Lime and Spin must first clear the streets of their vehicles.

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Three scooter companies invaded San Francisco's streets in late March.

James Martin/CNET

San Francisco gave an ultimatum to the three electric scooter companies that have descended on the city: get your vehicles off the streets until you're issued a permit, or else.

The warning comes as city lawmakers fine-tune a new law that regulates on-demand dockless scooters. The city said Thursday that the law goes into effect on June 4 and any company that wants to operate in San Francisco must apply for a permit.

City representatives said it'll take a few weeks to process the permit applications. If any of the companies put their scooters on the streets during that interim period, the city said it will impound the vehicles, fine the company $100 per scooter per day and will deny the company any type of permit.

"San Francisco supports transportation innovation, but it cannot come at the price of public safety," San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera said in a statement. "This permit program represents a thoughtful, coordinated and effective approach to ensure that San Francisco strikes the right balance."

San Francisco has seen a scooter free-for-all over the past two months. Three companies -- Bird, Lime and Spin -- unloaded their rentable e-scooters across the city in March and almost instantly, hundreds of scooters swarmed the sidewalks. Residents 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 accesses.

The three companies say they're solving a "last-mile" transportation problem, giving commuters an easy and convenient way to zip around the city while helping ease street congestion and smog.  Both Lime and Spin told CNET they're applying for the San Francisco permit and will clear their scooters from city streets by the June 4 deadline.

"We are excited to apply for a permit and will comply with the city's request that all electric scooters be removed," a Lime spokesman said. "We recognize there is still a learning curve for many riders and will use the time our scooters are off the streets to further promote rider safety and proper parking in the community."

Bird also said it's applying for the permit but didn't explicitly say whether it'd remove all of its scooters from San Francisco's streets.

"In just a short time, tens of thousands of San Franciscans have ridden more than 100,000 miles on Birds," Bird spokesman Kenneth Baer said. "The demand for a way to get around San Francisco that does not add to congestion or carbon emissions is clear, and we look forward to meeting it in the days to come."

San Francisco's scooter law was unanimously passed by the Board of Supervisors on April 24. It will be a 12-month pilot program for the city to see whether the scooters serve public interest. Under the program, up to five companies can apply for the permits. A total of 1,250 scooters may be permitted in the first six months. If that number of scooters works, the cap could increase to 2,500

To get the permits, each company has to demonstrate that it'll provide user education on sidewalk riding and parking, be insured and have a privacy policy to safeguard users' information. The companies also need to share trip data with the city and offer a plan for low-income riders.

"San Francisco is a vibrant and congested city, and this pilot will demonstrate whether these common-sense regulations address our concerns around the proliferation of motorized scooters," said San Francisco Public Works Director Mohammed Nuru. "We must ensure that our sidewalks are kept safe and accessible for pedestrians."

First published May 24, 5:45 p.m. PT. 
Update, May 25 at 9:52 a.m.: Adds comment from Spin.

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