Michael Delgado was laid off twice this year because of the pandemic.
Now that same health crisis has put Delgado back to work: In October, he started at San Francisco scooter rental company Spin, part of a hiring uptick at the company as it has expanded its citywide fleet by 500 vehicles.
The pandemic has reduced the need to commute downtown and scared some away from riding public transit. That’s an opportunity for companies like Spin that style themselves as “micromobility” — providing open-air, single-rider options like scooters or street-rented bicycles that help people get around short distances, without having to step into a ride-hail car or board a bus.
Spin was one of four scooter companies that won a permit to operate in San Francisco last year, along with Scoot (now owned by Bird), Lime and Uber’s Jump subsidiary. It was the only one that continued to operate throughout the pandemic, SFMTA Director Jeffrey Tumlin noted in a July memo; Scoot resumed service in May, and Lime is operating again as well. In August, Tumlin extended the companies’ one-year permits, which were set to expire in mid-October, through April.
Delgado previously worked for 24 Hour Fitness and the bicycle rental company Bay Wheels, owned by Lyft, both of which laid him off as the coronavirus hit their businesses and bottom lines. Now he sets out and picks up Spin scooters. (The city permit program requires scooter companies to hire workers as employees.)
The SFMTA, which oversees Muni, taxi service and new transportation options like scooters, is facing tough choices as it tries to provide safe options for city residents to get around. Over the summer, the agency reported it is facing the prospect of cutting up to 40 of the 68 Muni bus lines that once crisscrossed the city. It faces the prospect of more than $500 million in lost revenue over the next four years, on top of rising costs like employee pensions.
The scooter program won’t fill that financial gap — Spin and the other companies are paying a $18,306.50 permit fee for the six-month extension — but it may help some people get to work safely as Muni service scales back.
The transportation agency announced last month that it would allow Spin to increase its fleet from 1,000 to 1,500, requiring the company in exchange to serve parts of the Richmond and Sunset districts as well as the Haight where scooters have typically been scarce.
More scooters are also available in the Mission District, Balboa Park and Bayview-Hunters Point.
Spin’s scooters are disinfected each time they are brought back to the company warehouse to be charged. Employees also don gloves, safety glasses and masks while working and have their temperatures taken when they come on shift.
Lime recently acquired Uber’s Jump division and is in the process of combining their licenses to operate 2,000 scooters in total. The SFMTA will require that the combined fleet also serve the Richmond and Sunset districts.
Bird, Lime and Spin scooters first appeared on city streets in 2018 without permits for the devices left parked — sometimes strewn — on city sidewalks. The city stepped in to regulate them and issue permits limiting where and how they could operate.
While scooters can be a useful complement to a transit system, “they aren’t a substitute for one,” said Tom Radulovich, the director of nonprofit Livable City and a former BART director representing San Francisco.
Radulovich said the deep cuts to Muni, many of which may be permanent, have been a huge blow to equitable transportation in the city. Many elderly and low-income people, along with essential workers, rely on the system, particularly for longer trips, he said.
More scooters mean more options beyond biking and walking to get to and from transit stops, particularly in areas like the Sunset where stops are more dispersed and service less frequent than in neighborhoods with higher population density.
“It’s not a zero-sum game if you’re thinking about scooters and bikes and walking in an integrated way with transit,” Radulovich said.
Integrating private, for-profit companies into a public transit network can have drawbacks. Richly backed scooter companies provide a service at a cost that is in part subsidized by investors who expect a financial return. Ford bought Spin, of San Francisco, in 2018.
“Private companies are not going to operate in the public benefit reliably,” Radulovich said. “There’s going to be instances where their shareholder interests and the public interest align but where they don’t, governments need to be smarter about that.”
In other cities, that has meant directly subsidizing bike-rental operations or taking them over and operating them as part of a public transit network.
Historically some bus and train systems have started out as private enterprises, only to be absorbed by cities, according to Paul Supanawich, who served as a transportation advisor to Mayor London Breed’s office until June.
In the early 1900s, one private, for-profit company controlled 10 separate street railways across the city, operating them with enough graft and mismanagement that San Francisco voters approved a bond for municipally operated transit for the first time in 1909.
“You could take some of those historical lessons and apply it today,” Supanawich said. He said rental scooters are still a very new idea and how they will work with other transportation options is still evolving.
So, too, are people’s commuting patterns, with the coronavirus pushing so much of life into the home or closer to it. San Francisco allowed some offices to reopen Tuesday, citing the city’s improving health metrics, though few businesses or workers appeared to take immediate advantage of the permission.
“Maybe … I don’t take the N from the Outer Sunset into downtown every day,” Supanawich said. Alternatives like scooters can potentially pick up the slack for local trips while Muni reserves its resources to serve essential routes, he said.
As Muni began making cuts to service, Spin began making more scooters available in the Richmond and Sunset districts, seeing an almost 300% increase in ridership in those western neighborhoods, according to the company.
The long-term impact of the pandemic on conventional transit and new options like scooters is less clear.
“Micromobility offers potential alternatives for travelers to take a socially distanced, active transportation mode for trips in the city,” Susan Shaheen, a professor at UC Berkeley’s school of Civil and Environmental Engineering, said in an email.
In the meantime, more scooters mean more jobs for people like Delgado and Lynwood Kirk.
Kirk delivered food through apps like DoorDash and Uber Eats before landing a job at Spin.
He starts work at 5 a.m., setting out scooters and recovering them, sometimes from tent encampments and other locations where coworkers have sometimes been attacked. Still, he said he feels lucky to have steady work and not depend on making deliveries to make ends meet.
“I feel as a person of San Francisco that if you’re not happy with your job, take advantage of the city,” Kirk said. “There’s opportunity everywhere.”