As a clash over scooters highlights inequality and a housing crisis, techies and local residents feud over whos at fault

The cold war between San Francisco and the tech industry erupted into open hostilities again this month, when the overnight arrival of hundreds of motorized scooters across the city’s streetscape reignited tensions between the techies and the tech-nots.

The dockless electric scooters, which were distributed around San Francisco by three competing startups just as the city was preparing to pass legislation to regulate them, have become the latest symbol of competing visions for city living. To critics of the tech industry, they represent everything that is wrong with the “move fast and break things” ethos. To tech evangelists, they are further proof that it’s better to ask for forgiveness than permission.

But in a city whose streets are often littered with the symptoms of a housing affordability crisis and gaping wealth inequality – homeless encampments, human waste and discarded needles are impossible for the affluent to ignore – the scooter wars have evolved into a contentious debate over who is most to blame for making San Francisco so unlivable and who should be trusted to fix it.

“Why is it that we can have emergency action on scooters but we have needles on the sidewalk?” asked Sam Altman, president of the startup incubator Y Combinator. “The existing civic institutions that are supposed to make life better and more affordable and easier in the city have not done a good job.”

Antonio Garcia Martinez, a former Facebook product manager who has lived in San Francisco on and off for 20 years, expressed a similar sentiment on Twitter, where he described the city’s response to “streets covered in human shit, drug needles, and broken glass from an epidemic of property crime” as “meh”, while its response to “startups us[ing] private money for a citywide experiment in personal mobility” was “THIS OUTRAGE CANNOT STAND”.

When another user pointed out that the city spends hundreds of millions of dollars on services for the homeless and police, Martinez shot back: “In Silicon Valley we like to measure performance via outputs, not inputs.”

A year after tech’s favorite bad bro, Travis Kalanick, was ousted from his perch atop Uber, it’s no longer de rigueur for tech entrepreneurs to flash their wealth around or offer products designed exclusively to solve the problems plaguing the 1%. Instead, startups are making the case for their existence using the language of Bay Area liberalism.

“Not everyone can afford their own electric scooter,” Travis VanderZanden, the ex-Uber executive and current CEO of the scooter startup Bird, told the New York Times. “We shouldn’t discriminate against people that are renting versus owning.”

Altman, too, cast the scooter companies as a necessary corrective to the high cost of living in San Francisco. “We have an affordability crisis beyond anything I’d imagined, and when people see a startup that is trying to help people afford to live farther out, and it would really help people, and then they see that get taken away, I think people respond very badly,” he said.

Of course, the other side of the debate also claims the moral high ground. Advocacy groups for pedestrians, seniors and disabled people turned out in force at a city hearing to speak about the importance of keeping sidewalks clear for vulnerable populations. And anti-gentrification and affordable housing activists have long harbored animosity toward the affluent tech workers displacing lower-income renters from the city’s limited housing stock.

‘Poverty and inequity don’t get solved by an algorithm,’ says a city official. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

“Sometimes a thing like a scooter or a bus becomes a symbol of something that people feel, and the feeling right now in the Bay Area is that it’s becoming a playground for wealthy tech companies at the expense of the majority of us,” said the local activist Max Alper. “The problem is when we have a system that is built for the enjoyment of the few while public transportation and public good is being cut.”

Alper participated in the first Google bus blockade, in December 2013, where he impersonated a tech worker in an act of “political theater” that was captured on video. His performance of entitlement – shouting “This is a city for the right people who can afford it” – was not actually that far-fetched. In 2016, a startup entrepreneur published an open letter to the mayor that read in part: “The wealthy working people have earned their right to live in the city … I shouldn’t have to see the pain, struggle, and despair of homeless people to and from my way to work every day.”

Alper has adopted a small act of protest against the scooters, which he explained by saying: “When I was growing up my mom always told me that if there is trash in public, that’s it’s all of our responsibility to clean it up.”

He’s not the only person to move a scooter out of the sidewalk and into a garbage bin. Others have thrown unattended scooters into trees or the San Francisco Bay or vandalized them with profane stickers – “Hey dumb fuck get off the sidewalk” – and even feces.

Liz Henry, a disabled longtime San Francisco resident and senior release manager at Mozilla, expressed some frustration at “people invoking disability and poverty as reasons not to do the scooters”.

A co-founder of the first women’s hackerspace in San Francisco, Henry also was understanding of the mindset that leads tech entrepreneurs to behave in the way they do, which she described as a “mentality of approaching social problems as well as technical problems by just trying things out, seeing the possibilities, rapidly trying and discarding solutions”. Still, she acknowledged, when techies try to iterate in the real world, “it doesn’t necessarily come out the same way as if it’s software” because the negative outcomes aren’t just buggy code.

To Aaron Peskin, a city supervisor who introduced the scooter legislation, the idea that the city government is neglecting its other responsibilities to attack a startup is absurd.

“My colleagues and I can rub our bellies and pat our heads at the same time,” he said. Peskin said that, despite the current flare-up, relations between tech companies and the city have actually been better in recent months, and that the resources expended on serious social issues like homelessness and street cleaning exceed those spent on scooter regulation by “a factor of thousands to one”.

And Peskin is not particularly persuaded by the idea that the tech world can or should come up with better ideas to solve San Francisco’s many challenges.

“Poverty and inequity don’t get solved by an algorithm. They got solved by sharing,” he said.

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