SAN FRANCISCO – Tired of San Francisco streets being used as a testing ground for the latest delivery technology and transportation apps, city leaders are now requiring businesses to get permits before trying out new high-tech ideas in public.
Supporters of the legislation, which the Board of Supervisors unanimously approved, say it is the first of its kind in the U.S. They say it’s long overdue in a city that’s a hub for major tech companies but is more accustomed to reacting to the sudden arrival of new technology – like hundreds of dockless electric scooters that appeared overnight last year.
The e-scooter trend has led to complaints from people in cities across the country.
The tech industry has showered San Francisco with high-paying jobs and cemented its reputation as a place for big ideas, but the success of home-grown companies Airbnb, Lyft and Uber has vexed some residents as streets have become more congested and the housing shortage has worsened.
“I support innovation and technology, but our residents are not guinea pigs, and our public infrastructure is not a free-for-all,” said Norman Yee, president of the Board of Supervisors who introduced the legislation.
The Office of Emerging Technology will serve as a one-stop shop for entrepreneurs who want to test their products in San Francisco’s public space. Companies will not be allowed to experiment unless the office declares the tech in question a “net public good.”
It’s not clear how criteria will be used to evaluate proposals, but companies that share data, ensure public safety and privacy when testing, and promote job creation would fare better than those that don’t.
The office will have oversight over new technology launched on, above or below city property or on public right-of-ways, but the legislation does not spell out all the possible technologies the office would oversee.
Yee said hoverboards, delivery drones and data-gathering devices on sidewalks or other public infrastructure would be subject to regulation. He’s even heard of a business that wants to promote low-tech pogo sticks as transportation. The concept makes him shudder.
“Can you imagine?” Yee said. “Let’s put a stop to that before they drop 10,000 pogo sticks into the city.”
Local officials have a duty to protect public infrastructure and to send the message that public space is “not the Wild West” for anyone with coding skills and a neat idea, said Aaron Klein, a fellow in economic studies at the Brookings Institution, a public policy think tank.
“On the other hand, too much local control and too many hoops to jump through can be easily manipulated by vested interests to fight advancement,” he said.