In case you haven’t heard, civil war broke out in San Francisco last month, and it’s over dockless scooters. Battery-powered single-rider scooters which can be signed out using a mobile app and then left wherever the rider disembarks. The economics only work when you’ve got a density of riders so multiple companies descended on San Francisco, each hoping to beat the other in a landgrab. My understanding is that most (all?) of them launched without any particular outreach to SF city government, preferring to take an “ask for forgiveness” approach given that (a) they’re not illegal, (b) regulatory impact falls between multiple agencies and (c) venture-backed startups live and die on growth.
[*since publishing, one person reached out to say at least two of the scooter companies reached out to one of the city departments pre-launch and got implicit ok. I don’t have details to confirm one way or the other.]
So what happened? Like pigeons these scooters flocked, creating at best a visual detritus, and, at worst, blocking doors, sidewalks, disability accessibility and so on. The scooter companies insisted this was the riders’ fault – their apps clearly say to park the vehicles out of the way and to not ride on sidewalks. And shortly social media, tech blog and local politicians were all making noise about our city’s latest transportation option.
I fell into the camp of “ugh,” at least with regards to the clumsy launch that shoved all of the usage externalities on to non-riders. When they blocked my way I *gently* pushed them aside with a kick, and I hungered for a creative street art stickering project to turn Lime into SLime and Bird into Turd.
At the same time, it’s clear these scooters – or something like them – will be part of our future urban landscape. They make sense, are fun to ride and will be a puzzle piece in solving sprawl. So the companies are likely to go through some back and forth with the city before everyone arrives at some sort of productive conclusion.
But what could entrepreneurs and regulators take away from this spat? Should every urban startup go through an approval process just to operate (separate from business licensing, etc)? That sounds horrible and overreaching. And would also favor deep pocketed companies who post-launch would gladly support new regulations as a way of keeping potential additional entrants at bay. On the other hand, the “simply ask forgiveness” playbook sure feels very 2014 and out of step with where we want our tech values to settle post-bro.
What if city officials created a type of “Urban Startup Safe Harbor” where new products could be trialed for a limited period of time over a particular density. Startups would agree to proactively “file notice” of a test and share resulting data with the city. All tests are approved on an opt-out basis. That is, if the public official overseeing the Safe Harbor initiative has concerns, they can block the test but a judge will review the materials and rule within a few business days. The test can stay private for up to 28 days or so, after which the basic information will be made public by the city.
I’ve lived in SF for 20 years and am now raising a family within its boundaries. There are a host of growth challenges facing this town and technology companies need to be part of the solution. Not just by creating jobs but by coming to the table and building frameworks and transparency that take all citizens into account.