After nearly 200 years, SF is moving faster

In 1845, San Francisco was a muddy little outpost on the ass end of the Spanish Empire with all the amenities of Yoda’s house in Return of the Jedi. Getting around the settlement was pretty easy – it was only a few blocks square – but for longer trips, say to the Presidio or to Mission Dolores, a rider on horseback could expect to make a five-mile trip in about 20 minutes at a canter, about 15 mph.

Fast-forward 170 years, and San Franciscans now have access to dozens of transportation choices. There’s the BART underground trains, MUNI’s fleet of buses, cable cars and streetcars, taxicabs, limos, ride-sharing services like Uber and Lyft, bicycle sharing and even pedicabs. When traffic is bad – and in most parts of San Francisco’s downtown area, it’s bad about 12 hours a day – your average speed in a passenger car will be … 15 mph. If you’re lucky. BART is faster, but it only serves a relatively small swath of the city, and as far as the bus goes, well, according to the San Francisco city auditor’s cheerily apologetic report, MUNI trundles along at an average speed of 8 to 8.5 mph, slower than a better-than-average marathon runner. So much for progress.

Scoot’s scoots are cute little things, easy to operate and made in an undisclosed location. 

But you and I already know the easiest way to get around a crowded urban environment, no? It’s called a scooter. It’s light, nimble and easy to ride with its twist-n-go throttle and low center of gravity. Thanks to California’s tolerance of lane-splitting (thanks, California!), a scooter can sneak between cars and maneuver around the ubiquitous construction zones and double-parked delivery trucks, cabs and buses, which can reduce trip time dramatically.

But not everybody can own a scooter. Many San Franciscans don’t have access to safe, secure parking, or don’t want to plunk down the $3,000 or so it costs to get licensed, buy gear and purchase a reliable scooter. You can rent a scooter from several places around town, but you still need a way to get to the rental place, and it’s expensive – $80 or more a day.

But what if, Scoot Networks founder and CEO Michael Keating thought, there were multiple on-street scooter rental locations, and renters could use a smartphone app to activate and pay for their rides? That’s the idea behind his company, now in its fourth year of operation. I’ve been following this company since its inception, and I had concerns about its business model and concept. How would it rent scooters to people without motorcycle licenses? Would it fully inform riders of the risks of scootering and the need for real protective gear? Would San Francisco become flooded with unskilled idiots crashing into buses and fire hydrants? And how would such a business stay afloat in a market saturated with transportation choices?

A couple of years went by, and then I noticed something – seemingly everywhere I looked in San Francisco’s densely populated northern half, there were blood-red electric scooters parked all over the place. I was seeing them riding around as well, usually by bearded 20-something hipsters. I couldn’t ignore it anymore, so I thought I’d get a membership and give it a try for myself.

It’s not quite as easy as taking the bus or an Uber, at least at first. That’s because you have to create an account and then take an orientation class if you don’t have a motorcycle endorsement (M1 or M2) on your license. But Scoot does everything possible to make it convenient, offering classes at several locations almost every day of the week.

I’m an instructor for California’s motorcycle safety program. Our class is 15 hours of range and classroom instruction, so I was curious to see how effective a 30-minute orientation would be training new riders, even riders of small, light, easy-to-handle scooters. Arriving at the “range” – a back street off of a busy South of Market thoroughfare – I was alarmed at the amount of traffic and potential distractions. I looked around at my fellow students – I was the only licensed rider, though others had experience riding rental scooters on vacation. I was particularly worried about one young woman wearing a pair of slipper-like Toms instead of the durable, closed-toe shoes Scoot recommends.

I quickly felt better upon meeting our instructor, Alex Wainwright. Confident and relaxed, he gave us a quick course in how the app works, how to unlock the scooter and put on a helmet, and also told us the three principles of Scoot – Be Seen, Be Safe and Be Nice. We then lined up to learn the basics of balancing the scooters, and then moved on to using the throttle, brakes and then riding slowly and carefully down the alley. We moved on to stopping and turning, and after a few rounds of practice, Alex decided it was time to go for a spin in rush-hour San Francisco traffic.
I was expecting mayhem, but to my surprise, all the riders were smooth, confident and stable, reacting to potholes, pedestrians, delivery trucks and all the other hazards the mean streets could throw at us in our half-mile loop. After making it back unharmed and intact – even Toms girl had a good time and felt ready to ride anywhere – Alex turned us loose; three hours of rental was free with our initial $25 membership. Total training time? Maybe a bit more than 45 minutes. After the first day, with the $19-a-month plan, it’s $2 a half hour, or $4 per half hour with the no-monthly fee plan. There’s also a $5-a-month plan that lets you scoot for $2 a half hour during off-peak hours.

Scoot started as a by-the-hour scooter rental that required riders to return the scooter where they picked it up, like a rental car. But by June of 2013, there were enough scooters, riders and parking locations to try point-to-point scooter rentals. Scoot was reluctant at first. “We were afraid of the one-way trip,” Communications and Engagement Manager Sophie Lubin told me, since customers always “want to know the scooter will be where they expect.” So Scoot scrapped the reservation system, instead relying on the huge network of available charging stations and parking spaces around San Francisco. Since people ride all over the place, the availability of parking spaces or charged scooters “sort of self-regulates,” according to Sophie.

I wanted to test the system, so I used Scoot a couple of times, riding several different scooters in different parts of the city. I parked my car near the train station in the city’s tech-heavy South of Market (SoMa) neighborhood, found a fully charged scooter right where I expected it to be, and rode it to the Civic Center neighborhood for an hour-long meeting. There was a parking garage right next to the meeting location, and it was as easy as riding my own scooter. After the meeting, I got on another scooter and rode back to the train station. No problem.

The next time I Scooted, I really wanted to test the range and performance of the little red critter. I again picked up at the train station, but then I rode along the waterfront (where I stopped to do photography with Bob) and then rode to North Beach, Fisherman’s Wharf and back to the train station via Union Square. If you’ve been to San Francisco, you know there’s some serious hills separating those areas.

The scoot surprised me. Physically, it’s about the size and weight of your average 50cc four-stroke scooter. Scoot doesn’t want to mention the brand of the product, but trust me, you haven’t heard of their suppliers (who are in China and Europe, according to Scoot). I couldn’t find a scooter that looked like the scoots on any website, so I don’t think you can buy them here. I do know that it has a low center of gravity, a very wide steering lock, a motor located in the rear hub and a lithium-ion battery. It has a disc brake in the front and a drum in the rear and a big, locking trunk that holds two 3/4 helmets, a medium and an XL, providing a good-enough fit for most of the population.

I also know that the scoot makes around 4 brake horsepower, since Scoot Networks lobbied the California legislature to raise the power limit for mopeds from 2 to 4 hp. As mopeds the scoots are an exception in licensing laws, which allows people to rent one for up to 48 hours without the M2 moped endorsement. That horsepower tweak was significant, as 2 hp is enough to go 30 mph (the max for mopeds) on flat ground, but not enough to get up the 15-degree or greater slopes on San Francisco’s hilly terrain.

I thanked Scoot for that bit of political maneuvering, as it was possible to get up and over most any hill. It would slow down to 15 mph or less on some, angering a few drivers, and it gobbled up a lot of the scoot’s 25 mile maximum range, but I still completed an hourlong tour of the city with more than half the battery remaining. And I had fun doing it – the scoot accelerates better than a four-stroke 50cc, easily getting up to 30 mph (and a little faster downhill) and has all the handling, braking and nimble feel of its gas-powered brethren. It also offers, on the cheap, that unique magic feel of electric transportation – it’s silent, odorless and vibration free.

Scoot is a terrific mass-transit option. Instead of paying out the nose for taxis or Ubers, or waiting for a stinky, crowded bus, you only need to find an available scoot nearby, tap “reserve” in the app, and the scoot is held for 15 minutes. Once you get to your scoot, you pick a drop-off location with available spots and head there – and you can change your mind about destination mid-trip. At drop-off, you lock the scooter, put your helmet back in the box and tuck the key under the seat, plug in the charge cord if it’s available, and you’re done. You’ll probably never take more than 30 minutes to get where you need to go, even going as far as you can between parking locations. Best of all, it’s fun.

Scoot also offers an easy way to sample life on two wheels. Scoot member Sarah Ingles told me she was comfortable riding the scoot almost immediately, and was “so excited about how easy it was getting around the city.” For Sarah, it was “absolutely a gateway drug” that led her to buy a Genuine Buddy of her own. “The minute I was on it, as soon as the instructor said, ‘OK, see you tomorrow,’ I knew I was getting a scooter.”

Keating hears this kind of thing frequently, and he sees that as a benefit to riders of scooters and motorcycles alike.

“We’re bringing a lot of folks to riding because we’re offering something that doesn’t require a license,” a huge barrier for busy city dwellers who don’t have the patience or energy to spend a weekend on a three-day licensing course. “We’re letting them try out motorcycling in a reasonable fashion. Some of those folks will graduate to bigger bikes and make the community bigger, stronger and safer – more riders means more awareness and respect.”

Keating also pointed out that while he won’t give specific stats about the safety of his customers, there have been very few injuries or incidents. “Our assumptions about safety on easy-to-operate scooters with proper training has been correct.” Sophie Lubin pointed out that the scoots are “safer than a bicycle, because you have your own lane, you won’t get doored, you have an effective headlight, blinkers and horn.” You don’t need safety training – or any kind of license to ride a bicycle (though maybe you should) – and you can sometimes go just as fast and incur the same kind of risks as on a scoot. Inform people of the risks, give them the training, and then let them make their own choices.

That’s what I like about Scoot. It gives city dwellers (and for now, Keating says, it’s just San Francisco, though expansion to other cities is possible) a transportation option that’s not just very affordable and reliable, but also faster and more fun than anything short of a party bus with an open bar. I’m happy somebody has figured out that the only way to get around San Francisco faster than a man on horseback is on two wheels, even if it took the better part of two centuries.