Bad decisions, bad media coverage, bad actors, and so much money — it’s this city on two silly wheels
When the barbarians arrived at the gates of besieged cities of yore, they weren’t riding venture capital-backed scooters — though, in a way, underwriting a band of for-profit marauders was the medieval precursor to venture capitalism.
But, lo, that’s San Francisco circa right now, a city that has allowed itself to be pillaged by a succession of barbarians to the point where you can now scoot right down Market Street and plant your flag where you see fit.
Well, we had it coming. Years ago, my colleague Benjamin Wachs coined a term for events in which more folks show up to do coverage than to participate: “Panopticonference.”
This was more than a decade ago, prior to the ascent of social media and the resultant rise to sovereign status of the “hot take,” even among the professional media. Now almost every event is a panopticonference and the facts on the ground are, all too often, smothered under the resultant lava flow of hot takes.
As such, a Dianetics commercial-worthy erupting volcano of hot takes has inundated us, cementing the narrative that our city has hit the panic button due to a deluge of two-wheeled tech-bro invaders and our leaders are derelict in their duty to do damn near anything else while they crack down on these ungainly interlopers.
Alas. The record will show that our Board of Supervisors has, thus far, devoted one item on a 62-plus item legislative agenda to scooters during a solitary meeting. The City Attorney whipped up some pro-forma cease-and-desist letters, and Public Works deployed a couple guys in pickups to toss scooters in the back — which the companies deploying them, capitalized to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars of VC money, have retrieved for a few thousand bucks.
This does not exactly constitute the Spanish Inquisition.
Now, if any business with hundreds of millions of dollars on hand decided to drop thousands of objects into our city without consulting with the government, by design, as part of its move-fast-break-things business model — be it scooters, food carts, buses, cars, hotel rooms, rendering plants, Morris dancers, etc. — it would be incumbent on the government to act. Regular readers of this column are aware of my mother’s corollary on such matters: “You can’t shit on my head and make me wear it like a hat.”
You would think wealthy, for-profit companies using the public right-of-way should be held to at least the same standards as paleteros selling popsicles in the park. And paleteros, to their credit, don’t rifle through all the data on your iPhone as a major component — if not the major component — of their business model.
The dominant “hot take,” however, has essentially been: “Why focus on scooters when we haven’t solved every other problem this city has?” This, the young people tell me, is called “Whataboutism.” It’s a deflection, and it ignores the fact that San Francisco, a $10 billion-a-year municipal corporation that employs more workers than attendees of an entire Oakland A’s homestand, is capable of walking and chewing gum at the same time.
So, yes, this city can craft permitting requirements for electric scooters while also allowing you to use 311 to report double-parking or malevolent drivers or other foul automotive behavior. And, most notably, it can do so while spending some $77 million a year to clean our streets — including new teams focusing on needles and other such detritus.
Conflating San Francisco’s response to scooters deposited around town by wealthy industrialists and the city’s constant and well-funded attempts to clean up the tangible residue of a nationwide humanitarian crisis is ridiculous to the point of offensiveness — and it’s unfortunate to see media coverage of San Francisco reduced to recapitulating Travis Bickle’s fulminations about filth on the streets.
The fetid state of swaths of today’s city is due in large part to a homeless problem borne by four decades or more of catastrophic failures on the federal and state level with regard to housing funding and construction and curtailment of mental health resources — as well as an ongoing drug crisis, and this city’s own rampant inequalities and housing conundrums.
This, to put it mildly, is more complicated than an outlaw business tracing back to identifiable individuals. There is a necessary and serious discussion to have about broken lives on this city’s streets. But scooters do not belong in it. Because San Francisco cannot solve America’s homeless problem with a cease-and-desist order.
Whether scooters represent an unmet need or an unrealized want remains to be seen. But we can argue that the scooters could serve a useful purpose and also concede that VCs operating unregulated, for-profit businesses on city streets — and engaging in malthusian competition with one another — is not the way to an urbanist’s nirvana. It’s in any city’s interest to oversee how companies are using its public goods for profit. And it’s also in this city’s interests to oversee what those organizations do with residents’ information.
The business model of most every vehicle-sharing outfit leans heavily on harvesting user data. Scooters are no exception; an alarming amount of your information will be scraped out of your mobile phone or gleaned via your internet activity, including where you go and when. A serious scooter-user will probably have to use multiple scooter apps — meaning they will be casting personal data to the wind.
There’s a reason that the hard bargain the city drove with the Ford GoBikes people resulted in riders’ movements not being tracked as they navigate the city (provided you sign up on the GoBike site, and not the Ford Pass site). That could have been a problem if, say, Immigration and Customs Enforcement demanded the data. It would also have been problematic if data revealed a rider’s destination was, say, Planned Parenthood. Or, more benignly, Old Navy — and then the rider was bombarded with ads on his or her desktop computer.
The GoBike docking stations, while ungainly, also prevent bikes from piling up in the trendy parts of town while being absent from poorer places a for-profit operation would gladly skip. The city mandated that bike stations be in underserved neighborhoods and be restocked regularly — and that indigent people can get a year’s membership for $5 cash. These are the sorts of concessions that come out of working with the city instead of acting imperiously and then hiring former city officials and PR mavens to marshal useful idiots to lobby the government on your behalf.
City sources tell me that the regulations in the works for scooters mirror Seattle’s — which are lenient. So that means that yet another bad actor who did you-know-what on San Francisco’s head is probably going to get a sweet deal after all.
But that’s on us. This is the city that knows how … to acquiesce to the whims of moneyed interests. We acquiesced to tech companies high-handedly operating vast private shuttle lines throughout the city and even squatting in Muni stops.
We acquiesced to Airbnb running an expressly illegal business that cannibalized affordable housing during a housing crisis; we acquiesced to blackmail from Twitter; and we acquiesced to the hordes of Uber and Lyft and other vehicles rolling into town. “The scooters went full Uber on us,” noted a city official.
San Francisco fancies itself a savvy and technologically advanced city, but the notion of connected industries co-opting leaders likely dates back to Mesopotamia. The sight of wealthy corporations and individuals overtly flouting the rules with deference from the powers-that-be harks to the developing world — but, then, so does this city’s juxtaposition of wealth and poverty. Our remaining law-and-order types grouse that we roll out the red carpet in San Francisco for law-breakers. They’re thinking about the dope dealers and robbers and auto burglars who commute into town daily. But one needn’t limit this observation to street crime. Hell, at least we’re consistent.
The purveyors of electric scooters put out publicity material lauding their product as if it’s the Jetsons’ car that folds into a briefcase. So, fine. Write moderate regulations. Be as lenient as you please.
Then ban all the bad actors who came in here lawlessly; let some other VC-backed companies save the world with their electric scooters. Otherwise we’ll continue to carry the reputation as everybody’s test bed and pushover.
And we’ll deserve it.