SF moves toward shunning robots from sidewalks

San Francisco sidewalks are made for walking.

That’s the message Supervisor Norman Yee and a number of pedestrian safety advocacy members are sending to tech companies who want autonomous delivery robots to be able to use sidewalks in The City.

Yee is proposing an ordinance that would forbid delivery robots from using The City’s sidewalks and public right-of-ways. But companies manufacturing and operating the robots, such as Marble, Starship and Postmates, are asking city lawmakers to regulate rather than forbid the robots from using sidewalks.

On Wednesday, the Board of Supervisors Public Safety and Neighborhood Services Committee voted 2-1 in sending the proposal to the full board next Tuesday. Supervisors Hillary Ronen and Sandra Fewer voted in favor of the proposal while Supervisor Jeff Sheehy dissented.

Yee said that the sidewalks are for people to walk on, not for delivery robots to roam on:

“This legislation is about keeping our sidewalks for people.”

Yee also said he wanted to ahead of the technology because The City had not been proactive coming up with “common sense regulations” when it came to commuter shuttles, Airbnb and Uber.

Fewer, who added herself as sponsor to the proposed ordinance, said space is already limited on the sidewalks and wanted to protect the walkability of The City:

“My seniors in my neighborhood are already having a difficult time navigating their sidewalks.”

Vikrum Aiyer, a spokesperson for Postmates, said the companies are open to regulations, and that CEOs of several companies have signed a letter agreeing to a regulation structure that includes a limited window of operating hours, insurance requirements, a maximum speed limit for delivery robots, data sharing with The City, and reporting incidents immediately to the city officials if incidents involve injury or property damage:

“We’re not asking you to allow thousands of theses on the street tomorrow. We’re asking you to consider the regulations in the letter.”

Sheehy said Yee’s proposal was a way to get the industry’s attention, and to get a dialogue going with the companies. He said he was glad to hear companies are open to regulations and added that the robot delivery service could benefit small businesses.

Ronen said it was time to get ahead of this emerging technology, but said she would be open lifting the sidewalk restriction if she sees those regulations.

Cathy Deluca, interim executive director of Walk San Francisco, in support of the proposal, said:

“Sidewalks are for people. It shouldn’t be up for debate who gets to use them.”

An online petition started by Walk San Francisco has more than 300 signatures in support of Yee’s proposal.