A Skip scooter parked near a bike outside the Ed Roberts Campus. Shared scooters are not permitted to be in Berkeley. Photo: Stuart Luman

Berkeley is considering the best process for allowing electric scooter share companies to operate in the city even as residents are already noticing people buzzing along city streets on them, and scooters parked on city sidewalks.

According to Beth Thomas, principal planner for Berkeley’s transportation department, the rush to consider and regulate this new form of personal transportation is putting pressure on the city.

“Things are developing so fast,” Thomas said, mentioning that the city just completed the Ford GoBike network of 37 docked bike stations and 400 bikes and is now moving on to electric scooters and electric-assist bikes or e-bikes. “It’s been challenging for us to keep up in order to keep the public happy.”

Berkeley is part of a five-city deal with Motivate, the company that runs Ford GoBike. As part of that contract, Motivate has an exclusive lock over docked and dockless bike sharing until 2025, which puts the kibosh on competitors like Lime operating in the city. The contract also gives Motivate the first right to provide battery-assisted e-bikes to participating cities. The company is currently testing e-bikes in San Francisco and San Jose.

However, electric scooters are not covered in the agreement.

Scooters from companies such as Lime, Bird and Skip, which are allowed to operate in Oakland, sometimes make their way across the border into Berkeley, even if they are not permitted to be in Berkeley yet.

One company that has actively deployed scooters in Berkeley, without permission, is San Francisco-based Skip Scooters. A quick look at the company’s smartphone app in early August revealed at least 20 scooters spread throughout Berkeley, near Ashby BART, south of the Cal campus, downtown, at the Berkeley Marina and in the Elmwood district.

Besides Berkeley, Skip is currently operating in Oakland and San Jose and is applying to participate in San Francisco’s effort to reintroduce scooters in a small pilot program after scooter companies invaded the city with dockless scooters without permits earlier in the year and were temporarily banned. In its San Francisco permit application, Skip characterized itself as being a company that “takes great pride in backing up its assurances of respect for the rule of law and cooperation with policymakers with demonstrable action.” It also touts itself as the only scooter company that has never received a cease-and-desist order from a city in which it operates.

However the company’s unpermitted presence in Berkeley (bragged about in press releases) is not making city officials happy.

Berkeley first started noticing Skip scooters in July, according to Berkeley Transportation Manager Farid Javandel. Unlike other cities, Berkeley’s city charter specifically requires companies that offer a transportation service in the city to apply and receive a franchise agreement, in addition to other permits that might be necessary. Berkeley has not offered a franchise agreement to Skip, according to Thomas, or to any other scooter share operator.

UC Berkeley has also taken note of the presence of scooters. Dave Sorrell, manager of UC Berkeley’s Alternative Transportation Program, said Skip scooters started appearing on campus a couple weeks ago without university permission. The company did not contact the university until Sorrell emailed them on July 24, he said. The company responded with an apology on July 26 and Sorrell said he believes that most of the scooters were removed from university property after that.

At press time, Skip was in conversation with Javandel to learn how to operate in the city legally. According to a statement from the company, it “has been in communication with the City of Berkeley for months and has deployed a small fleet of e-scooters under the distinct impression that they’re doing so with implicit permission and without violating any ordinance.” Previously, the company did apply and receive a business license to operate in the city even without a franchise agreement.

A Lime scooter outside Blue Bottle in downtown Berkeley. Photo: Tracey Taylor

In Oakland the situation is quite different. Scooters from many different companies are already available even as the city works to come up with an official process to regulate them and not repeat mistakes that marred the deployment of scooters in other cities, such as San Francisco. According to data provided by Lime in a July city dockless bike and scooter share report, each of the company’s 40 scooters deployed in the city were used on average more than five times a day, making them more popular than non-electrified bike share options from Ford GoBike.

“The good news from our perspective was that the city of Oakland has permitted scooters to stay pending all this, and they were very intentional about that,” said Dave Campbell, advocacy director for Bike East Bay. “Berkeley should adopt Oakland’s approach. Let scooters come in, require these companies to get a business license, and let them operate while the city comes up with a set of scooter regulations.”

The city’s transportation division is currently working to create a process to permit scooters, which would include mandated fees, mechanisms for addressing complaints from the public, penalties for scooters left in the middle of sidewalks, etc. In addition, various city commissions will have a chance to voice their opinions before any process would be voted on by the City Council sometime before the end of the year. A report and proposal might be available for City Council approval by early October, according to Thomas, who said that if the Council approves the process, the city could begin officially accepting applications for scooter sharing by January 2019.

“Berkeley will catch up in terms of providing [transportation] options,” Thomas said, comparing Berkeley to Oakland. “We have our process for carefully considering things and involving different stakeholders. We have to look at what people’s different interests are and how we can meet those interests while providing this option to people.”

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Stuart Luman is a freelance writer based in Berkeley. He has previously been an editor at the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, a fact checker at Wired Magazine, and a high school English teacher in East...