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.
#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.
#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.
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.
#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.
#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.
The people that complain about e-scooters are the same people that complain about bike lanes. They just feel more emboldened. E-scooters are a great scapegoat for car culture.
— Sheila Regan (@Sheila_Regan) July 3, 2019
#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.)
A 30 pound scooter going 15 mph is “zooming” but a 4,000 pound car going 25 mph is “driving slowly”.
— Overheating Infotainment System (@dfwagoner) June 27, 2019
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.
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.