Six Reasons Scooters are Good and One Reason They’re Not

Scooters Are Bad Poster

Someone is putting this flier up everywhere.

So I’ve been riding scooters around lately for science. You know, to learn stuff.

I don’t know what is is about the scooters, but I’ve been extra curious about them, even more than other transportation trends like UberBlack or pogo stick sharing. Maybe it’s the fact that random conversations I have with random people about scooters rarely turn out how I imagine they will.

Really, you never know what people will say. I can rarely predict whether someone will be for them, against them, or ambivalent. Even some change-the-status-quo-at-all-costs folks I’d think would like the scooters don’t like scooters — and vice versa — and it made me wonder what’s going on.

This is to say that there are a great many perspectives on the sharable e-scooters, and somehow these small branded devices bring out hot takes in people like nothing short of a viral Netflix show. Personally, I’m coming at the scooter question as a long-time everyday bicyclist and someone who really want to see changes to our auto-oriented street designs. 

So before I get to the good stuff, here are some initial observations (like these from a year ago, or these from a bit later) about how actually using a 20-pound e-scooter for transportation differs from riding a 20-pound bicycle. Note that when I ride an e-scooter I almost always take the exact route I’d take if I was bicycling, e.g. I go in the bike lane, take the street when safe, use sidewalks only in unusual or dangerous situations.

  • Compared to a bicycle, scooter wheels are tiny. That has a lot of consequences, including the fact that… 
  • They don’t feel stable. Compared to a bike, you never feel fully in control. Turning and controlling these scooters seems a lot less predictable than a 27” wheeled bike. And also…
  • Every pothole his huge. Especially given the sub-par pavement condition, when scooting on the streets of Saint Paul, you have to keep your eyes absolutely glued to the street in front of you to avoid any pothole larger than an an inch, which on the streets of Saint Paul, are everywhere. Honestly, that has good and bad effects, good in that you are absolutely paying attention, but bad in that because you’re focused on the asphalt you might not notice other things happening around you. But on the other hand…
  • Small wheels make falling seem less bad. Seriously, on a scooter you can always just hop off and you’re immediately on the ground. It seems less dangerous than a bicycle or even a skateboard. Also less dangerous because…
  • You don’t go as fast. You really don’t. Half the speed of a bike, on average, I’d guess. It does not accelerate quickly. It’s like double-time-fast-walking. Which means, in sum…
  • Scooting along bike routes as I do is not an entirely satisfying experience. Not only do you have the pavement and acceleration issues, but another problem is that it’s a lot harder to turn your neck and look behind you while riding a scooter. (For one thing, you have the pavement thing. But another, the small handlebars are very finicky.) So, yeah, they are a different machine with very different physics, a separate technology that thrives in separate spaces than either bikes, pedestrians, or (especially) cars.

All these dynamics have some consequences, which I will get into in a bit. But anyway, with that out of the way, here’s why I think scooters are good and the dumb future we need and deserve.

Screen Shot 2019 07 09 At 7.45.40 Am

Opinion which I hope to debunk from this piece. What are “the right reasons”?

 

#1. Scooters are a walkability booster

Scooters aren’t really just about the “last mile problem” per se, though they do a nice job at solving that sticky wicket. I would guess that a lot of people can and do ride scooters from transit (e.g. the light rail station) to their house or office or meeting or whatever, if a distance is less than a mile.

But to my mind, scooters really shine on a two-to-three-mile trip, something in the range  where it would be slightly daunting to walk that distance (though it shouldn’t be). If you’re in a hurry and don’t want to walk for 40 minutes across downtown, you can scoot it in a third the time, and super conveniently. 

In fact, I did this the other day. As you might imagine if you know me, I was at one brewery and someone I wanted to see was at another brewery on the other side of downtown Saint Paul.  Presto! You scoot over there and don’t have to worry about driving and parking again. Saint Paul seems better, life seems better, and scooters helped bring people together.

That’s sort of the beauty of the scooters: they’re “pedestrian amplifiers.” I think that, if you imagine a city where scooters are a major mode of transportation, it would be one with thicker connections between businesses, shops, markets, homes, and destinations spread more widely across a city. Where once it might have seemed difficult or daunting to go “that far” to meet someone, shop somewhere, or get to the library to drop off a book, now it’s that much easier.

Just scoot it.

I think that fostering those kinds of thick street connections will be great for cities like Saint Paul and Minneapolis, further linking the walkable areas of the city with each other in a wider more robust network.

Two Scooter Trips

Two trips I took on a Lime scooter.

 

#2. They solve the “parking problem” 

This is connected to the previous point, but the real genius of scooters is that any parking stress you might have if you are driving a car disappears. On a scooter, if you are in a situation where you have to pay to park  or its somewhat challenging to find parking (and an in any real city, this should often be the case), the scooters are an amazing hack. You can park a mile or two away, and scoot to the final destination. In fact, you can scoot right up to the door or nearby convenient curb, and it’s like you folded a fitted sheet with nothing but a kung fu gesture.

Given all the millions and millions of dollars and acres and acres of space and hours and hours of time people in our cities spend trying to make it easier for people to park cars closer to the door of their destination, this is kind of a big deal. 

Hey, think about this. Is it hard to park at the game, or at the big event, on the University campus, in the expensive downtown, or at the street fair, or whatever hot destination you think of? 

Just scoot it.

 

#3. They appeal to people across racial divides

Here’s a direct quote from my friend Bill Dooley, whom if you have ever done any bicycle advocacy in Minneapolis you already know. He’s a long time African-American cycling advocate from Minneapolis, and keeps close tabs on transportation and street design issues across the state

He wrote to me, and I quote:

“I keep saying, more African Americans on scooters in the last year than on Nice Ride in the last 10 years. What percentage of scooter pushback is race based compared to nuisance and safety issues?”

Granted we don’t have good data on this, but Bill’s observations line up pretty well with mine, and I’ve seen all kinds of younger people of color using the scooters. (Sometimes there are a few too many folks on a single scooter, but whatever.) Everyone loves to stereotype scooter users as tech bros, but maybe the opposite is true in some places. 

This is important because I’ve been here for the whole “bike sharing” thing in all its evolution, and I have seen all the hair pulled and grants given and various meetings held about trying to create a bike sharing system that bridges racial and class divides. All that work amounted to very little progress. Meanwhile, scooters seem to achieve this difficult feat effortlessly.

New Yorker Scooter Cover

 

That said, the one demographic factor I’m pretty certain about is that nearly everyone who uses the scooters is a younger person, the vast majority under the age of 40. Given how terrifying they can be, this makes total sense. I don’t see a lot of senior citizens on skateboards either.

In a way, the age problem of makes scooters the perfect foil for generational battles over the street — a stand-in for the “kids today” narrative — which is not really something we need more of in this town.  

Scooter Survey Results Both

From a recent scooter perception survey.

#4.  They are light and run on electricity

For fun, Google “fossil fuels” sometime. 

Compared to automobiles or even buses, scooters are incredibly fuel efficient. Most people most of the time in our city drive around to get from point A to point B, hauling just themselves and maybe a bag. That’s a total weight of maybe 200 pounds in a 3,000 lb. steel vehicle that burns gasoline that comes from the earth through a very fraught process and puts carbon dioxide into the atmosphere at an alarming rate. 

Meanwhile, scooters weigh 20 pounds and run on electricity. 

Sure there are carbon costs involved with charging them, and that might be a good focus for improvement, but really, anything is better than driving around in your massive deadly car. 

Scooter Parked West Side

A scooter ruining my neighborhood.

#5.  They are easy to move

This is related to the previous point, but is the scooter blocking the sidewalk or parked somewhere you don’t like? 

Just move it. Be the change you want to see in the world.

(Also, pick up litter when you can. And shovel your sidewalk in the winter.)

 

#-1. They’re expensive

Honestly, my #1 problem with the scooters is that they cost too much. A trip across downtown costs $2-$3, which is more than a 2.5 hour bus fare. Given how great scooters could be for cities, they should cost half that much.

(That reminds me: bus fare should also cost half as much.) 

Rather than cities cracking down on the scooter menace, I’d like to see a city that goes “full scooter”, and even gets so far invested in it that they cut out the venture capitalists in the first place. Why not have a city-owned public scooter fleet, rentable with a library card? Why not have cities take the profits that go to the silicon valley company and make them a positive line item in the city budget?

I’m sure that for the cost of one downtown parking ramp you could roll out a subsidized e-scooter fleet that would revolutionize how people get around downtown. That would be a game changer for the local conference hotel scene, let alone small businesses and the corporate lunch goers.

Why not redesign walkable urban streets around 15 mile-per-hour scooters instead of 40 mile-per-hour cars? That might really make a dent in the car culture that’s destroying the planet and boost the local walkability-based urban economy and also help improve health and remove danger to people’s corporeal bodies.

It would honestly not be that difficult (see also), and a city that took scooters seriously (I know, that’s hard) could really change the transportation game in an equitable way that wasn’t predicated on Silicon Valley venture capitalism.

That would be an amazing city.

 

#6.  Scooters disrupt automobile hegemony

OK, so I’m not a fan of the “disruption” frame that California tech entrepreneurs seem so fond of. I think most disruption narratives are asinine self aggrandizement and profit-driven narcissistic deflection, with one exception. I’m all for anything that disrupts the way that cars have claimed the streets and public spaces of our cities.

That’s why I think the effect that scooters have on drivers is pretty wild and great. I love how scooters make drivers seriously question what city streets are all about. Given the certitude of automobile hegemony, that existential doubt is a feature not a bug.

For example, when on a scooter or a bicycle, I’ve noticed that, depending on how you look, drivers tend to treat you differently. If you’re a white guy on a bicycle who looks middle class, with lots of equipment, drivers will generally be more likely to pass you closely you and treat you like garbage. Often that’s fine, because I’m used to it and my soul has been crushed into submission by the constant stream of angry people in cars acting dangerously, generally speaking.

But for example if I’m riding a Nice Ride, I seem to perceive that drivers give me a bit more more space and deference. It actually feels a bit liberating, and my working theory is that drivers assume that anyone on a Nice Ride is less experienced — a tourist perhaps — who might not be that confident or certain on their bicycle and likely to do anything at any time. (That’s my perception, anyway.) I feel like there’s a difference in how drivers behave near you.

Well that feeling goes double for scooters. I have never been passed very closely by a driver while scooting. People assume, sometimes correctly, that folks on scooters might do anything at any moment and the effect that it seems to have on drivers is that it causes them to slow down and proceed very carefully at intersections etc. 

In other words, the very thing that makes drivers uncomfortable and likely to complain to high heaven and all the possible Facebook groups about “THE SCOOTER MENACE” is the very thing that makes scooters kind of great.

Scooters are a feature, not a bug, because if we want to change our cities, we desperately need to make drivers feel uncomfortable. Drivers of cars in cities need to wriggle, sweat, and dwell on that feeling of discomfort. Drivers of cars in cities need to be on constant alert. They need air horns going off (metaphorically) at all times when they drive down a street with people walking or biking or playing nearby.

Drivers need to be treated the way that drill sergeants in movies treat recruits during basic training. They need constant challenges and annoyance, anything to shake them out of the seemingly permanent stupor that comes from two generations of car culture.

Drivers need to be treated like a patient undergoing rehab, with a sense of firm and unyielding denial, all for the betterment of everyone in the end. Drivers need to feel unsafe, uncomfortable, and like they might kill someone at any second if they cease paying attention while driving in the city, because they very well might do that, whether there are scooters in your city or not.

In a way, if you have a downtown with lots of scooters, it has the same effect on drivers as if you pulled a full Hans Monderman (look him up) and removed all the street signs from your downtown. Having lots of scooters is like if you suddenly transformed your city into a small Irish Village and reduced every two-way street to a 12′ width. (The streets in all those places are safer than your average American city, by the way.)

In short, when scooters are everywhere, I think drivers slow down and pay attention because it seems so dangerous. And for that very reason, the streets become safer. I believe that a city that’s designed well for scooters will also be a city that is great for bicycling, walking, and transit. The only real change would revolve around drivers of personal cars, who would see their freedom to lackadaisically speed around dramatically curtailed.  

This point is the crux of the e-scooter debate, and why I think so much of the “scooters are unsafe” narratives are actually high-level concern trolling. Most drivers don’t want to have to pay attention and proceed slowly and cautiously in urban areas. Most drivers would much rather careen along while eating a burrito and calling their sister in Nevada. The status quo is currently constructed in such a way that it gives the entire street over to people driving these cars without much care, and scooters are this small persistent mosquito-like disruption of those expectations. 

In the end, the mosquito will win. Given the technological inertia of electric batteries, it’s a slippery slope, and scooters are the harbinger of change.

If scooters are allowed to exist, then what next? Hovering skateboards? Chinese food deliveries made with e-bikes? All rules thrown out the window? 20 mile per hour speed limits everywhere?

The mind boggles. Just scoot it.

Scooter 1

OhP.S. Meanwhile, here are a few other usability notes:

  • They eat up your phone battery.
  • It can be hard to know which scooters are charged and which are not if they’re clustered together, and thus that’s frustrating if you’re looking for one that has a full battery.
  • Also I admit that some people on scooters are dumb or jerks. Sure. That’s true for every mode of transportation. I’m personally not convinced scooters are any worse or better than the same age group in cars, on bikes, on foot, on buses, on trains, on skateboards, or whatever. They’re just more visible.

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24 Responses to Six Reasons Scooters are Good and One Reason They’re Not

  1. Adam Miller
    Adam Miller July 12, 2019 at 10:27 am #

    The moment I was convinced that scooters are real transportation: older guy (60s? 70s?) in a sport coat and tie using one to get across downtown.

    Still never been on one myself.

  2. Alicia Valenti July 12, 2019 at 10:44 am #

    Wholly agree that any hand-wringing about scootering is pure concern trolling, and I love that you suggested a municipal scooter fleet! I’ve been meaning to write a post about the benefits of exactly that–this may be the boost I needed to actually do it.

  3. mplsmatt July 12, 2019 at 10:56 am #

    I’m mostly a walk/bike/public transport kinda guy, but this year your point #3 really started shaping my thinking about scooters. I guess I’d rather celebrate the embrace of scooters than wishing everyone would conform to my preferred, non-automobile ways of getting around.

    FWIW, I notice some older, more business-y folks on scooters in downtown Minneapolis but they have the benefit of Nicollett Mall and some bike lanes/okay sidewalks. So, much like cycling, we’d see scootering adopted by a wider range of ages so long as we had safe places to scoot.

    • Karen Nelson July 12, 2019 at 7:17 pm #

      Yes.

      As scooter desing gets better, like fatter, wider wheels, sturdier stems, more people will feel comfortable using and if there is nice smooth comfortable, low stress places to scoot, more types of people will scoot

  4. Anon July 12, 2019 at 10:58 am #

    Great Article. Thanks. I’m a big fan of the scooters. I’m glad that there are more this year, and I hope that next year there will be an even greater number. We should build public infrastructure to support them. To make them cheaper they should be taxed and regulated less. We’ve heaped absurd taxes and rules on the scooter which we don’t apply to cars. We force them to be ‘equitably distributed’; why is this a requirement that only applies to scooters? Why not gas stations, car dealerships? Or Grocery stores for that matter? Should Whole Foods be forced to build in areas where they can’t turn a profit?

    We need the scooter companies to be profitable otherwise the party will end when dumb investors stop pouring new money in. I won’t shed a tear when Uber disappears because it has never (and probably won’t ever) turn a profit, but I’d be sad if we lost the scooters.

    I love the idea of a Municipal scooter fleet, but it must compete with a private fleet. As we’ve seen with Nice Ride; no competition results in no innovation. If a municipal fleet is better for the citizenry, then it will have no trouble outcompeting a private fleet.

  5. Bob Roscoe July 12, 2019 at 11:11 am #

    “THE SCOOTER MENACE” it will be a scary but thrilling movie!

  6. Eric Saathoff
    Eric Saathoff July 12, 2019 at 12:36 pm #

    I’m skeptical about a municipal fleet mostly because these haven’t been on the ground long enough to be really tested. Additionally, I’d like more info on whether they’re actually profitable – does that matter?
    One thing I didn’t notice in the article is the disposability regarding these scooters. I’ve read that they don’t last two years, which if true means a lot of waste.

    Recently I’ve been considering how many we would need for a wide spread adoption. There always needs to be more available than actually needed by users or there is too much risk of not finding one. Excess supply is necessary for the system to function. This is similar to bus seats, except bus seats don’t take up sidewalk space.

    I think I would feel differently if we started making on street parking spots available for parking/storage. Not an exclusive parking spot like Minneapolis’s “dockless” system, but a designated space in high use areas.

    • Eric Saathoff
      Eric Saathoff July 12, 2019 at 12:39 pm #

      this comment wasn’t meant to be a reply…

  7. Alex Schieferdecker
    Alex Schieferdecker July 12, 2019 at 3:40 pm #

    Random thoughts:

    I find scooters super fun.
    I find it weird that people blame clogged sidewalks on scooters when they are easy to move or set upright, and when a huge part of the problem is that the sidewalk is probably too narrow.
    The ease of access for scooters is incredible. It takes less than five minutes to set up the scooter app for each company, and then they work in every city. I have a bunch of scooter apps on my phone now, and it feels great to show up in a new place and immediately have that option available, before I ever have to learn the transit system or anything else.
    That ease of access is a big part of what bike share has been lacking. The early days of punching your way through three pages of an eighty page TOS on a tiny screen, putting in credit cards, entering phone numbers, etc. All of that was and still is a huge hindrance, and municipal bike shares need to hire some of the scooter software engineers and app designers to make it much easier, if they have not yet done so.
    Concerned about the waste of scooters, which Eric mentioned in his comment right above me. Obviously there’s not much of a comparison with cars, but nevertheless, an area for improvement.
    Hope that MSP will stop limiting the number of scooters in the near future, and stop limiting the number of scooter companies and changing that list every year.

    • Bill Lindeke
      Bill Lindeke July 12, 2019 at 3:56 pm #

      Most of the time, the solution to scooters on sidewalks is wider sidewalks and basic social niceties.

      • Eric Saathoff
        Eric Saathoff July 12, 2019 at 6:36 pm #

        Wider sidewalks would be great and an enormous financial investment. Also in competition for space with scooter/cycle lanes.

        • Alex Schieferdecker
          Alex Schieferdecker July 13, 2019 at 12:34 pm #

          Obviously when possible.

  8. Karen Nelson July 12, 2019 at 7:14 pm #

    Not so sure about the “go half the speed of bikes” part.

    I bike at 15 mph most of the time, seems like a pretty common normal biking speed, tho many fit bikers go faster in cities, 20 mph seems normal fast end for city biking.

    I’ve had share escooters keep up with me at 15 mph for long distances on the Greenway, so they don’t seem to be half the speed of bikes

  9. Karen Nelson July 12, 2019 at 7:29 pm #

    Great article, like all the points.

    I still contend that the ultimate little EV form hasn’t been invented yet but it’s coming.

    Maybe we will always have a big mix of current things, from e-skateboards to ebikes, escooters, supeor balancing electric unicycles, or one wheel things you stand on.

    but I think something that lets one stand or sit depending on trip distance, gets you some leg movement if you want it (standing on a scooter or segway for long time feels harder to me than walking) and allows you to easily carry a bag or two will be the winner.

    Regardless of form, cities should be all-in on little EVs, so many benefits.

    • EUC guy July 15, 2019 at 9:05 am #

      Superior Balancing Unicycles…..

      These are the best option today. Faster and more powerful than scooters, but also slower (if you want), smaller and more maneuverable. Also, your hands are free. They are long-range, off-road capable and very tough. They far more popular in Europe and China, but they are gaining traction in NY, CA and FL. Only a few here in Minneapolis. There are people with 30,000km on their EUC ‘odometer’. Some models allow you to sit. One-wheels are toys. Electric unicycles are vehicles. The only downside is the cost and learning curve.

  10. Eric Saathoff
    Eric Saathoff July 12, 2019 at 7:55 pm #

    We keep our data turned off unless we need to use it. When I used a scooter I turned the data on to start the ride, turned it off to get on and ride, then turned the data back on for a few seconds to end the ride.
    Saved data and battery.

  11. ianrbuck July 12, 2019 at 10:33 pm #

    They eat up your phone battery.

    What does that mean? You’re not plugging your phone in to power the scooter, are you?

    • Bill Lindeke
      Bill Lindeke July 14, 2019 at 7:23 pm #

      No but I’ve just noticed that your battery runs down faster when you’re scootering.

  12. Mike July 13, 2019 at 12:17 pm #

    On the comfort/pothole/wheel size issue, I’ve seen scooters in San Diego with much larger wheels (i think razor makes them) so it’s disappointing something like those weren’t brought here to pothole nation.

    In fact if you google “scooter San Diego” and look at images you will see some of these bigger wheels and some with seats.

    I agree seeing people in work clothes zipping around without getting all sweaty gives me hope this model can expand and it may be what we have here right now isnt the best or final form of scootering.

    • Frank Lehnerz July 13, 2019 at 4:00 pm #

      Oh yeah. Those larger wheeled scooters were called Wheelz.

      Unfortunately they were required to exit the San Diego market due to the not meeting the city’s definition of a shared mobility device brought on by the new laws recently passed.

      They were great to use and very stable though, they even had turn signals and an electric horn.

  13. Frank Lehnerz July 13, 2019 at 3:58 pm #

    This is one of the best articles I’ve seen on scooters. Job well done! Thank you!

  14. Andrew Evans July 15, 2019 at 9:00 am #

    I don’t know really.

    We had this big expensive push to replace sidewalk crossings with those that are ADA compliant, but then are fine or celebrating dock less scooters and bikes that can clutter up the sidewalk and prevent access to those with disabilities?

    We’re all about sustainability, but get all excited over these scooters with what’s been reported to be a short lifespan?

    I think a few more things need to happen for them, and dockless bikes, to really mature. First is that they need to have designated areas to be parked. This seems possible and has been implemented in other cities. Then they need to have some kind of speed control for congested areas. Finally, they need to have some kind of self sustaining life span or be made modular so they can be fixed as needed.

    San Diego went through some growing pains with these, and seems to have started to figure it out. Was going through an article “San Diego approves rules for electric scooters as angry residents crowd City Hall” and it seems like they are trying to make it less like the wild west.

    Then too at some point with all these new pedestrians using streets, the city (can only speak for Mpls) needs to get back to having an interest in traffic and put a group of traffic patrol officers together. I’ve said it before, but at least to me a bit hindrance of using bikes or scooters in town are the terrible drivers we have. I stopped riding motorcycles for that reason, and haven’t got my pedal bike out in years. Make the roads safer, and more people will get out and about in something other than a car.

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