Uber and Lyft Look Beyond Cars Despite SF Scooter Loss

Uber and Lyft, the twin giants of ride-hailing, are forging ahead into car alternatives even after losing their bids to be part of a scooter pilot program in their hometown of San Francisco.

Uber now plans to build its own dockless scooter, hoping to make it part of a comprehensive mobility network accessible through its app, according to news reports. Uber also has a partnership with Lime but not for a live service yet. The news broke the same day San Francisco picked two companies to participate in a scooter pilot program. The city rejected an application by Jump, Uber’s bike-sharing subsidiary. Lyft also lost out.

Dockless scooters are where ride-hailing services were several years ago, proliferating in cities around the world while being attacked as bad neighbors to other forms of urban transportation. Both types of start-ups first launched services without these cities’ permission. Ride-hailing companies are still fighting with some regulators and dockless bike and scooter operators are in the thick of those battles now.

In San Francisco, the birthplace of online ride-hailing, the city passed a law in April requiring that all dockless-scooter operators be licensed. Residents had complained that the scooters were blocking sidewalks and curbs and being ridden unsafely, including illegally on the sidewalk. All scooters were ordered off the streets while the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency made would-be operators apply for two permits to participate in the pilot. Each operator will be allowed to roll out 625 scooters when licenses are issued in October, and possibly to add more after six months.

SFMTA selected Skip, a new San Francisco-based startup, and Scoot, which already rents electric mopeds in the city. It applauded Scoot’s plans to make riders watch safety videos before taking the scooters out and to use swappable batteries to efficiently maintain its fleet. Skip said it would employ safety ambassadors to talk to users and that it would offer deep discounts to lower-income residents.

Jump earned high marks in some areas but, like most applicants, rated “poor” on several criteria, including its plans to make sure riders were safe and scooters didn’t block sidewalks.

Uber said in a statement that it was disappointed with the decision. “Granting only two scooter permits unnecessarily limits mobility options in San Francisco, and we plan to follow up with the SFMTA to share our concerns,” Uber said.

However, officials in Santa Monica, seven hours to the south (or maybe two days by scooter), endorsed Uber and Lyft for a scooter-and-bike pilot program in that city earlier this year. Bird and Lime, which had staged protests on the issue, will also get scooter permits, the city has announced.

Both Uber and Lyft (which bought bike-share startup Motivate earlier this year) want to participate in the broader disruption of urban transportation they helped to set off with ride-hailing. In April, Uber laid out a series of programs to foster alternatives to privately owned cars in cities, including public-transit ticketing and Getaround car-sharing through the company’s app, data-sharing with local agencies and the Uber Movement website for showing travel times based on its historical data.

CEO Dara Khosrowshahi sees bikes or scooters as a better alternative to ride-hail cars for some short rides, and thinks they are worth pursuing even if those alternatives may cut into the company’s traditional business, according to news reports this week. Uber hopes to make its initial public offering next year.

— Stephen Lawson is a freelance writer based in San Francisco. Follow him on Twitter @sdlawsonmedia.

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