Once El Niño subsides, “hoverboards” are expected to swerve onto the Mission’s streets and some fear that neither pedestrians, nor cyclists nor government regulations are quite ready for the new traffic from the motor-powered devices that resemble a handle-free mini-Segway.
A new state law that went into effect on January 1 requires the self-balancing electric scooters to use bike lanes, but many hoverboard riders and the independent retailers that sell them seem to be unaware that sidewalks are off limits and even police officers appear ready to give riders some leeway.
“Segways aren’t allowed to be on sidewalks, and neither are regular skateboards,” said Officer Grace Gatpandan, a spokesperson for the San Francisco Police Department, adding that under this law, hoverboards are treated just like skateboards.
“San Francisco sidewalks are extremely congested, and if you are riding on the sidewalk at whatever time at night, it’s different than if you are going down a busy sidewalk during business hours. Riders have to take that into account,” said Gatpandan, adding that the enforcement of regulations is at the discretion of individual police officers. Owners who ride on the sidewalk may find themselves getting a warning or a ticket.
Skateboarder Jamal Morris sees problems in sharing the bike lanes with hoverboards. “They are trying to make them go in bike lanes? That’s where it’s going to get dangerous,” said Morris. “I’m not hating on hoverboards, but I heard they go like 5-10 miles an hour. They should make a lane for them on the sidewalk.”
Already popular in places like London, hoverboards have been slow to take off here but stores reported that they were a popular gift item this year. Chris Vaital, a sales representative at Cyber Iman at 2705 Mission St., said the business sold about 30-40 hoverboards in the last two months, with a majority of the sales taking place during Christmas week.
“We stocked up because we saw that there would be a high demand for the hoverboard,” said Vaital. When the business advertised 10 boards on Craigslist for $300 a pop, the market-rate price in the Mission, Vaital said they sold in just two days. “We’ve had parents coming in asking about them for their children, as well as other interested customers. So we had to get more.”
But the new technology comes with a handful of unanswered questions. How the sidewalk restriction will be enforced is still unclear to many local riders and law enforcement alike. Recent media reports of faulty equipment and whether the devices will add an additional danger in traffic congested neighborhoods are also causes for concern for some Mission residents.
“I use it all the time, it’s so convenient,” said Bill Davey, standing on top of his hoverboard on 19th and Mission streets. Davey, who works in building maintenance, said he uses the device while leaf blowing. “It makes my life a little easier.”
Equipped with electric motors, tilt-and-speed sensors, and gyroscopes that keep the rider upright, hoverboards run on battery power and don’t actually “hover.” For many, they are the latest “fun” gadgets in transportation innovation.
“They are so cool because you don’t have to keep pushing on a skateboard, you just stand on it,“ said Aditya Narayanan, a student. “I think it’s convenient. I would buy one if I had the money.”
Steven Barcikowski, an employee at Freewheel bike shop at 914 Valencia St., said that he’s seen them around in the Mission and in downtown bike lanes, but also on sidewalks. “Those boosted skateboards go pretty fast, but the hoverboards don’t. I also see them ‘hover’ on sidewalks, while boosted skateboards must stay in bike lanes.”
Grouped in the same category as electronic skateboards that are fashioned with motors and brakes and can reach speeds of 16-25 mph, the same rules apply – helmets must be worn by individuals under 18, and riders must adhere to traffic law.
The new law also allows local agencies to “adopt ordinances, rules, and regulations, respectively, for the use of electrically motorized boards,” though there is currently no legislation specific to hoverboards in front of San Francisco Board of Supervisors.
“This is the first I’ve heard of this,” said David Campos, the Mission’s supervisor. “The issue has not yet been presented to the board.”
And some Mission commuters are equally baffled by the new technology and its uses.
“It seems like they just take the place of walking,” said Theresa, a cyclist in the city, adding that she is not opposed to alternative modes of transportation, but sees the hoverboard as potentially unsafe. “I’ve gotten into bicycle accidents, and I would imagine that being on a hoverboard is even more dangerous. There’s nothing to hold onto.”
“The trend makes me feel like, ‘man, don’t kids walk anymore?” said Scott Thompson of Mission Skateboards, at 3045 24th St. “Also, I read about those things exploding.”
Media reports of hoverboard “explosions” and malfunctions, allegedly because of the lithium-ion batteries, have been circling in the past year, with the latest combustion taking place in the East Bay.
Though there are many different brands of hoverboards, Razor USA is the company behind the Hovertrax, the original hoverboard that sells for $600-700. In regards to the malfunctions, the company’s CEO, Carlton Calvin, told CNN that hoverboards priced as low as $200 are “knock offs” and may not meet the device’s safety requirements.
Davey, the hoverboard enthusiast, said he’s owned several and advises to shop for quality. “Don’t get a cheap one! The cheap batteries have a chance of catching on fire.”
Vaital has certainly fielded safety concerns from customers interested in purchasing, but said that so far, none of the boards his store has sold have been defective. He said that upon purchase, he and others at his store walk the customer through the hoverboard’s usage, but that he too, is unaware that the devices are now legally prohibited on sidewalks.
Vaital acknowledged that he probably would not buy one for himself.
“It doesn’t go fast, it’s heavy, you can’t do tricks, it’s kind of pointless,” said Vaital. “I don’t see myself riding one of those down Mission street to go buy a bag of chips or catch up with my friends.”
Others wonder if safety issues will ultimately outweigh the technology’s novelty and convenience factor. As a driver, Larry Liu strongly opposes the new transportation technology.
“I don’t trust that — they are very dangerous for drivers and for pedestrians,” said Liu. “How are you supposed to see those things at night, if the lights are on their feet?”
Colby Goodman, a bike messenger, points out that riders not versed in San Francisco street traffic should be extra cautious of their surroundings. “I’ve seen a lot of people just kinda cruising with no regard to their surroundings, which is pretty common off and on those things,” he said.