New tech aims to keep e-scooters off SF sidewalks. Will it work?

A crackdown on riding electric scooters on sidewalks has arrived in San Francisco, though it’s unclear if it will lead to noticeable changes.

Lime, Scoot and Spin, San Francisco’s three supported scooter operators, have recently begun deploying scooters equipped with changing technology meant to detect and slow down riders on sidewalks.

The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, which regulates companies, requires them to work to discourage people from riding e-scooters on sidewalks to improve pedestrian safety.

The operators plan to transition their entire combined fleets of 5,500 scooters to use various technologies later this year.

Lime is using a “GPS zone-based tracking system that allows us to detect when someone is either on the sidewalk or in the streets,” said Bivett Brackett-Thompson, the company’s senior manager of government relations. A pilot started around the Embarcadero.

Scooters move along a San Francisco sidewalk as the companies Lime, Spin and Scoot demonstrate new sidewalk riding detection technology.

Lea Suzuki / The Chronicle

Scoot combines GPS and “sensor fusion technology” to detect when its scooters are riding a sidewalk, according to Jonathan Grubb, Scoot’s senior director of city technology. The scooters will slow down before coming to a stop, requiring users to either walk the scooter or return to a bike lane or roadway. The company has deployed 300 scooters equipped with the technology so far.

Spin’s scooters will come equipped with sensors and a downward-facing camera meant to differentiate whether a scooter is on a sidewalk or roadway, according to Phuong Bui, head of government partnerships.

It’s unclear how accurate these technologies are at detecting use on sidewalks. The companies demonstrated their scooters this week on the streets of Embarcadero between Bryant and Brannan as cyclists and scooter riders passed by on the sidewalk.

On many trial runs, the scooters’ speeds visibly crawled to a gingerly pace once they entered the waterfront sidewalk. But in at least one instance, an SFMTA representative noted that a scooter started slowing down too soon, while the user was still on the adjacent painted bike lane.

Kate Toran, SFMTA’s taxi, access and mobility services director, said the agency will work with companies to test and monitor the accuracy of equipment and its effectiveness in reducing sidewalk-riding behavior. The agency could require companies to use whichever technology to be the most effective, she said.

With new technology, an alert pops up on a phone when a scooter moves onto a sidewalk.

With new technology, an alert pops up on a phone when a scooter moves onto a sidewalk.

Lea Suzuki / The Chronicle

“We’re going to work with the permittees so when we do see a clear front runner and technology we think really works, then we’ll have that requirement,” Toran told The Chronicle.

The proliferation of scooters in San Francisco has frustrated both pedestrians and riders after their abrupt arrival in March 2018. The city banned scooters two months later before repeatedly permitting them.

Some residents say the city is still doing a poor job of enforcing proper scooter parking and sidewalks crowded with pedestrians, placing them potentially harmful as scooters zip past speeds of up to 15 mph.

Fran Taylor, a senior and disability advocate who watched the test run on the Embarcadero, said she was skeptical that the new technology would reduce scooter use on sidewalks. She called the city’s process for reporting such behavior.

Some cyclists, on the other hand, say scooter riders would be much less likely to ride on sidewalks if the city had a better infrastructure and more protected bike lanes to give riders a sense of safety. For example, the popular scooter destination Fisherman’s Wharf lacks bike lanes at North Point Street, forcing riders to choose between sharing a road with cars or a sidewalk with people.

Riding bikes or scooters on sidewalks can come with a citation and fine in San Francisco, though the sidewalk-detection requirement only requires e-scooters to be operated by Lime, Scoot or Spin, according to an SFMTA spokeswoman. The mandate does not apply to Baywheels, the city’s bike rental operator.

Ricardo Cano is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @ByRicardoCano

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