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

Despite clear qualms, the Berkeley City Council said yes Tuesday to a staff proposal to bring shared electric scooters to Berkeley in 2019.

Tuesday’s vote, on the general terms the city will ask scooter companies to follow in Berkeley, was nearly unanimous, with Councilwoman Linda Maio voting no and Councilwoman Cheryl Davila abstaining. Officials raised concerns about sidewalk safety, speeding, privacy linked to scooter GPS data and more. They asked staff to look at all those issues as it firms up its program plans.

Under the terms council approved, up to three scooter companies would be allowed to operate in Berkeley for a 12-month pilot period. The terms would allow each company to start with 200 scooters in Berkeley, which could go up to 400 each (for a total of 1,200 throughout the city) should demand warrant it.

Councilwoman Susan Wengraf: “The older population in Berkeley is very concerned about how this is going to affect their mobility on the sidewalk.” Photo: Emilie Raguso

Farid Javandel, who runs the city’s transportation division, said scooters offer community members a more efficient approach to transportation, when compared to private vehicles, in terms of space usage and greenhouse gas emissions: “The potential is great. We just need to make sure, as the council members were saying, there’s value to the public right-of-way and we can only use it so many ways. We need to make sure we use it for the greatest public benefit.”

The city’s Climate Action Plan has set a target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, by 2020, to 33% below year-2000 levels, and to 80% below year-2000 levels by 2050.

Now that council has approved the general franchise agreement terms, Javandel told Berkeleyside on Friday, the city will review proposals from any interested scooter companies. Representatives from Lime, Bird and Razor all spoke during public comment Tuesday. Javandel said the earliest he’s likely to return to council, for a public hearing and a vote on the agreements, is mid-February. March may be more likely.

Several council members referred Tuesday to a letter from the city’s Commission on Aging, which urged council to set up “carefully defined limits and conditions” regarding scooters in Berkeley. The commission referenced the high potential for injuries, said certain areas of the city should be off-limits, and asked about plans for enforcement, among other questions.

Maio noted Tuesday that “the issue of people riding on the sidewalk, particularly at high speeds, is our main concern.” Javandel said scooters would not be allowed on sidewalks, and that the scooter companies are looking into ways to use their technology to ensure scooters are ridden only in bike lanes and elsewhere on city streets.

Councilwoman Susan Wengraf had similar qualms: “The older population in Berkeley is very concerned about how this is going to affect their mobility on the sidewalk,” she said, adding, of the aging panel’s letter, “They’re not opposed to it but they want some safeguards in place.”

Javandel told council that part of the pilot program will involve a detailed analysis by the city of data about how and where scooters are used, along with other factors. And he said, at least initially, the plan would likely be to focus enforcement on the scooter companies themselves rather than individual riders.

The companies will have to submit detailed parking plans, as well as plans for how to handle bad behavior. Each scooter would include a sticker with a 24-hour hotline to call for anyone who needs to report scooters that don’t comply with city rules.

Councilwoman Cheryl Davila said she’d already seen too many scooters abandoned around Berkeley in inappropriate places.

“They’re left in the middle of the ramp to go up the sidewalk. They’re left at driveways. They’re left at bus stops,” she said. “Everywhere they shouldn’t be.”

In response to council questions, Javandel said scooter riders must be at least 18 years old, and currently are required by law to wear helmets. As of January, however, the state has removed the helmet requirement, he said. Councilwoman Sophie Hahn asked that the city look into crafting its own helmet requirement. Javandel also told council UC Berkeley has asked companies to limit speeds on campus to 8 mph.

Council members also were interested in the type of data the city would collect about scooter use, and whether that would comply with city policies around surveillance and privacy. Javandel said the scooter companies would share crash data with the city.

Hahn said the city should pay close attention to the privacy aspect of its agreements.

“These scooters, one of their great features, is that they know who you are. And they know where you’ve been,” she said. “I’m very concerned about how they share that data with others. Do they share it with law enforcement? Do they share it with the government? Do they share it with ICE?”

She continued: “I do think that we need to look very, very carefully. I do not think, even on a pilot basis, we should be doing business with anyone who does not have ironclad protections regarding the privacy of individuals in our community, and who they are and where they’re going.”

Hahn also asked the city to look into how alarms on scooters would work and whether the city is charging an appropriate amount for the franchise agreements. Under staff’s proposal, each application would require a $2,500 fee. Each operator chosen would have to pay a $15,000 fee to the city, which would be charged annually. There would also be a $10,000 fee per operator for the city’s maintenance fund, which would help recoup staff costs if the city has to move or impound scooters.

Councilman Ben Bartlett said he’d like to see Berkeley lower its 200-scooter minimum to allow smaller operators in the city — not just “multibillion-dollar operators” — to get in on the action. He said the city should include a “robust local-hire provision” in the agreements to encourage scooter companies to help Berkeley residents access meaningful career pathways through them.

“These are digital companies. I’d like to see some kids in Berkeley learn how to code, some sort of career stipend. Real, true career pathways into this new economy,” Bartlett told the scooter reps in the room. “Those are my main concerns. And my support hinges upon you addressing these.”

Emilie Raguso (former senior editor, news) joined Berkeleyside in 2012 and covered politics, public safety and development until her departure in 2022. In 2017, Emilie was named Journalist of the Year...