I, For One, Welcome Our New Scooter Overlords

As I predicted a week ago when I submitted my piece on dockless bike share for City Pages, scooters have arrived on the streets of Minneapolis. Even more surprising, scooters have also arrived on the streets of Saint Paul, which means that I got a chance to ride them!

Note: apparently Department of Public Works does not like this new unregulated technology and is asking for Bird to remove the scooters ASAP. Minneapolis is still vacillating…

Anyway, here are a few observations. Tl;dr: these are fun, a good way to get around medium-short distances, and they might possibly be a great thing if cities draw the right lessons from their sudden flock-like appearance on the sidewalks and streets.

Ups and Downs of Using a Bird Scooter

Once you download the app, provided a scooter is nearby, these are pretty easy to use. You input your credit card, find a scooter on the map, and take a picture of its QVC code.

Libertarian techno-utopian disruptor technology lurking in the shadow of big government.

One problem is the added step of having to photograph your drivers’ license, front and back. For me, the app did not recognize the bar code on my license, and I had to input it manually. In fact, I’m not sure that the system even recognized my License Number properly. It was annoying.

But regardless, I clicked the button enough times and eventually got to the “check out the scooter” part of the app process. Finally, you have to check a bunch of boxes like:

I will wear a helmet. (Note: I did not.)
I will not ride downhill. (Note: I did.)
I will not ride on sidewalks. (Note: I did.)

(Also note: asking people to wear helmets that 99% of users will not have with them, or asking them to not ride on sidewalks when 99% of the time it is safe and convenient to do so, or asking people to not ride down hills when the laws of gravity itself dictate that this is the best way to go, is absurd on its face. On the other hand, lawyers.)

With that, the scooter beeped and I was ready to go. It turns out actually riding the scooters is fun, and within a minute or two I had figured out how to get around.

It me.

A few observations:

It does not speed up hills. In fact, it barely makes it up hills. It barely made it up Cedar Avenue to the Cass Gilbert overlook. That’s a steep hill, but not the steepest in the city, and it’s safe to say that this puppy would not get far on the West Side where I hang my hat.

It is distracting. At least at first, a lot of your brain power when riding a bird is used up just trying not to fall off and simply having fun going around. That does not leave a lot of room for things like looking out for cars driving around or people walking on the sidewalks. I can see how, especially for newer users, they would scoot around like a-holes and in dangerous ways.
You are not far off the ground. It seems like you’re flying around but in fact you are two inches from the sidewalk pavement. It’s not that big a deal to simply hop off it.

You go at a decent clip. It’s slower than bicycling, faster than walking. I’d say you travel at about the speed of a #21 bus at 2pm on a weekday.

Bike infrastructure is your friend. Bird works best in bike lanes, and they are best parked near bike racks. Given that Minneapolis and Saint Paul have invested in these facilities, and they remain generally underused, it’s great to add a whole new group of users for bike lanes and bike parking areas. My guess it that more folks will appreciate the value of these street designs.

It’s still kinda pricey. I just tooled around the capitol area for ten minutes, and it cost me $2.50. That’s a two-hour transit fare.

It’s fun! Really it is.

Takeaways and predictions

Most sidewalks are empty most of the time.

Getting the negative stuff out of the way, these could potentially be a nuisance. But I think they will be a small fraction of the nuisance of, say, dockless bike share. For one thing, the scooters are much smaller and lighter and more moveable. For another thing, the company picks them up every night and replaces them back in their “nests”, the areas where they begin the day in the morning.

Apart from that, the other potential problem is people driving them obnoxiously through crowded sidewalks or in front of cars. That is a distinct likliehood, but is more of a problem with our streets than with scooters per se. And it brings me to my main point…

The thing I like best about these new scooters is that they focus the conversation where it should be: changing our car-centric streets.To put it another way, these simple, delightful scooters are a big neon arrow pointing out the urban design flaw in our midst.

There are two big problems that these scooters could solve.

First, cars are killing and injuring people because we’ve designed streets where drivers travel at deadly speeds. We should not be designing our cities around these dangerous vehicles.

I believe that the shared scooters will help people in the Twin Cities better understand the nuanced problems of our street designs. Hopefully, the scooters will focus our attention on reducing speeds and re-allocating space on our streets.

Second, fossil fuels are literally destroying millions of species of life on our planet and harming billions of people. Individually and collectively, we should be desperately trying to come up with alternatives to traveling around in two-ton oil-burning metal boxes.

Dockless scooters offer an affordable low-carbon way to solve the “last mile problem,” and get around short-to-medium distances in urban areas. (Heck, they might work in the suburbs too…) Even better, they offer an alternative to driving at almost zero cost to cities. This is the dot com disruptive technology I’ve been waiting for.

If anything, cities serious about street safety and climate change should be subsidizing, rather than regulating, new technologies like this. If we use these scooters and other similar technologies coming down the pipe — like eBikes, dockless bike share, and who knows what else — we could begin to see action on the environmental and moral values we have long professed.

I did not think change would come in the form of a small dumb fun electric scooter, but maybe it will.

A bird on the Cass Gilbert memorial overlook, high over Saint Paul.

16 thoughts on “I, For One, Welcome Our New Scooter Overlords

  1. Dan MarshallDan Marshall

    I agree that scooters are a welcome alternative that may help move us away from car-centric infrastructure. However, I’m not sure Bird’s business model actually does this. The company doesn’t charge their own scooters, they pay a host independent operates to drive around every day and round them up. Theoretically, in a denser city, this could be done on foot or by bike, but in MSP it seems likely this’ll be entirely a car-based pursuit. See https://therideshareguy.com/i-signed-up-to-be-a-bird-electric-scooter-charger-heres-what-its-like-2/ for how this works.

    Rounding up Birds will mean a lot of private vans and SUVs parked in bike lanes to nab scooters off of sidewalks.

    So, how many car trips and how much CO2 are eliminated once Bird’s outsourced recharging system is factored in? It may well be a net wash.

    If Bird had worked with cities and business to create a network of charging docks, then I think the environmental impact would have been far better.

      1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke Post author

        On second thought, wouldn’t this be a problem for Nice Ride as well? They use trucks and drive around and rebalance quite a bit. Maybe the bigger picture of providing alternatives to owning a car is the real goal…

        1. Dan MarshallDan Marshall

          Sure, this is a problem for any such sharing service. How do you keep scooters or bikes where the demand is highest without spending a lot of fossil fuel to redistribute and/or recharge? When we look at the environmental impact of these systems, we do need to fairly evaluate their back end operations so that we can understand the system as a whole.

          I agree tho that Nice Ride, and to lesser extent possibly Bird, are laudable for providing reliable alternatives to cars.

  2. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

    Great article, Bill.

    As for potential impact in the suburbs — I think these devices could be a great way to take advantage of the 10′ MUPs that line many suburban stroads but are only lightly used. Was talking with a friend who works for the City of Brooklyn Park, where employees often drive a mile to get to HyVee for lunch. Conceivably, if scooters were available, this could be a really good alternative.

    I think the biggest problem is just having enough in the right locations for it to be profitable for the company, and usable for users. If you have to walk half a mile to find one, the benefit kind of goes away.

    In that case, maybe the better option is specific users (city halls, corporate offices) keeping a small fleet of their own scooters)

    1. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

      Why would you take a scooter from Brooklyn Park City Hall to Brooklyn Park HyVee when the city makes sure you have ample and free parking for your air conditioned, entertainment equipped car on both ends of the trip?

  3. Matt Brillhart

    It would seem they are not really intended for commuting if the scooters are:
    A. not available until after 7:00am
    B. all placed downtown to begin the day

    I have no illusion that these are a good option for anyone commuting more than 1-1.5 miles. But for those living in close proximity to downtown, I’d think it would make sense to locate 6-10 “nests” scattered about Uptown, Whittier, Seward, The U, Dinkytown, Old St. Anthony, upper North Loop / near North, etc. Most of the scooters would probably wind up downtown by mid-morning anyways. And those neighborhood nests would probably be more convenient for the people doing the charging, rather than having to bring them all downtown overnight / early AM.

  4. Pine SalicaNicole Salica

    I got stuck behind a couple birds in a narrow bike lane with no room to pass due to heavy car traffic. 🙁 🙁 🙁 🙁 woe is me i have TRAFFIC CONCERNS 🙁 🙁 🙁 🙁

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