Turns out there’s a lot of latent demand for a quick and cheap way to get around.

Hundreds of motorized electric scooters quietly descended upon San Francisco seemingly overnight in March.

And then one day in June, they were gone.

In the months before their rapture, the scooters puzzled, infatuated, and infuriated residents. Those who dared to try them discovered a whimsical and cheap way to get around. Non-riders saw a swarm of locusts devouring precious inches of sidewalk and street, backed by companies that were the epitome of tech-bro arrogance. The city panicked, ordering that all scooters be removed.

In late August, San Francisco announced that it will give just two companies, Scoot and Skip, permits to test 625 scooters each in the city for one year. And it has become a microcosm of the promise and perils of the scooter stampede. Already, scooter companies operate in 65 cities and are vying for the top prize, New York City. Some city officials, however, are desperately trying to rein in and regulate scooters, which often appear without warning and without local input.

Without docks, scooters are cluttering sidewalks and blocking wheelchair ramps. Riders weaving through crowds or ignoring traffic rules have caused bruises and broken bones. In Santa Monica, California, it’s apparently hard to walk without tripping over a scooter:

The companies behind the scooters haven’t done themselves any favors either. Following in the tracks of aggressive ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft, some scooter companies have adopted the notorious “ask forgiveness rather than permission” approach when setting up shop. As in San Francisco, officials in cities like St. Louis were surprised to see hundreds of scooters suddenly perched on curbs without any forewarning.

Other cities, like Seattle, are trying to keep them out until they can write rules of the road to manage them. And this being 2018, scooter companies have attempted to seed a social media backlash to the backlash.

Amid the feverish passion for and against scooters, there’s a larger reckoning taking place about rapid changes to our cities and public spaces. The scooters are forcing conversations about who is entitled to use sidewalks, streets, and curbs, and who should pay for their upkeep.

They’re also exposing transit deserts, showing who is and isn’t adequately served by the status quo, and even by newer options like bike share. That people have taken so readily to scooters shows just how much latent demand there is for a quick and cheap way to get around cities.

Electric scooters are also challenging the king of American transit, the car. Most car trips are short, and if electric scooters do end up replacing some of them, they could alleviate congestion and help the environment. But that’s a big “if.”

So whether scooters are already rolling into your city or an infestation is looming, you might be wondering how they work, how they get charged, whether they’re safe, and if they are, in fact, good. Here are some answers. Grab the handlebars and hop on.

What are scooters, and where did they come from?

The electric scooters we’re talking about here are pretty simple. Imagine an ordinary two-wheeled kick scooter, like a Razor. Now imagine that it has an electric motor. That’s pretty much it.

The key innovation with the latest batch of scooters is the rental business model: Download the app on your smartphone for a scooter company — Bird, Lime, Skip, Scoot, or Spin — and use the map to find a nearby scooter. Enter a credit card and scan a barcode to unlock the scooter. Go for a ride. Park the scooter and end the ride on the app.

The design of the electric scooter itself has been around for years, but it was often marketed as a toy. You may also recall another grown-up, two-wheeled “personal transporter”:

 21st Century Fox

Launched in 2002, the Segway rode a wave of hope and hype into the market, promising to revolutionize transportation. The device used gyroscopes to almost magically balance on two wheels, sipped electricity, steered intuitively with body movements, and whisked riders along silently at 12 miles per hour.

But it launched with a price of $4,950, making it more a luxury bauble than a commuting workhorse. It was too heavy to carry easily when the batteries ran low. It was too fast for sidewalks, too slow and vulnerable for roads. Riders towered awkwardly over pedestrians, standing stiffly with their feet together as they whirred along. It soon became associated with tech bros and elitism, and thereafter was a punchline.

Segways are still around, but the riders are tour groups, mall security, and parking enforcement. They never became cool. As Jordan Golson wrote at Wired, “the problems that sank the Segway weren’t technological. They were social.”

So it’s these problems of Segways, plus the cost, that scooter rental companies are trying to solve.

For one thing, the rental scooters insulate the rider from most of the cost of the device. At retail, they cost between $100 and $500. But you can start riding many electric scooters for $1 and then 15 cents a minute thereafter. A 2-mile ride takes about 10 minutes and costs less than $3. When you’re done, you don’t have to take it inside or even plug it in; just leave it in a public space where it doesn’t block traffic.

This business model has drastically lowered the barrier to entry for scooter riders, allowing scooter skeptics to cheaply satiate their curiosity, turning some into loyal riders. Though the hardware is more akin to a Segway, the software makes using an electric scooter just like using a dockless bike.

Most of the scooter companies are using rebadged versions of existing electric scooter models that are already for sale. But they want their own custom devices that can handle the rigors of rental. In May, Lime announced it was partnering with Segway to design its next-generation scooter. Bird also rents out Segway-designed scooters.

The proliferation of rental scooters also draws on advances in telecommunications. The scooters have GPS units and 4G data connections to track riders’ every move. And the riders all have smartphones that locate and unlock the scooters while automatically paying the fare.

Batteries are another key advance. Since the early 2000s, energy storage systems have become more powerful and less expensive. Vehicle battery prices have dropped 86 percent between 2010 and 2016. Electric scooters now travel 20 to 30 miles between charges. These batteries have also benefited other electric transportation devices like motorized skateboards and unicycles.

Investors right now are also hungry for transportation startups, which partly explains the scooter boom. From ride-hailing to self-driving cars to electric cars, billions of dollars are pouring into companies that move people around. But short trips between apartments and metro stops or leisurely rides across parks remained a vacuum until recently.

So dockless bikes and, later, electric scooters rushed in to fill the void, securing millions if not billions in financing while clawing for market share.

On the customer side, there is a cadre of riders primed to adopt electric scooters. The generation that grew up rolling around culs-de-sac on Razor scooters is now commuting in urban centers. Balancing on two wheels is already familiar to them, so an app-enabled scooter rental service that can get you to work without breaking a sweat is an appealing throwback and a flash-forward.

In sum, the combination of entrepreneurs, technology, funding, and a race to grab a toehold in major urban centers all converged earlier this year, leading to a sudden crop of scooters starting on the West Coast in March and rippling throughout the country.

Here in Washington, DC, where four scooter companies have launched, I’ve found that the scooter has many charms. A scooter can whisk me to work past stopped traffic at 15 miles per hour. It’s very convenient to park it just about anywhere.

Some scooter firms are already “unicorns” — privately held companies valued at more than $1 billion. Bird, based in Santa Monica, doubled its valuation to $2 billion in just four months. Lime, which also rents bikes, crossed the $1.1 billion valuation mark just 18 months after it launched. Skip Scooters is valued at $100 million.

Meanwhile, Uber and Lyft are themselves getting into the electric scooter game. In early September, Lyft launched 250 scooters in Denver. Uber bought Jump Bikes, an electric bike rental service, for $200 million in April.

But could there be a crash on the horizon? We’re already seeing dockless bikes piling up in scrap yards as companies fold. In China, abandoned bike-share bikes now fill vast fields outside major cities. As scooter-share companies jostle for dominance, weaker players will inevitably fold or be acquired, but it’s too early to say whether the concept as a whole will have staying power.

 Umair Irfan/Vox

Who charges scooters, and how much are they paid?

Behind every scooter parked on a sidewalk, leaning on a kickstand, is a vast, invisible infrastructure network that keeps the scooters maintained, charged, and accessible.

Engineers track where the scooters are going. Support staff answer questions on the phone. Technicians whisk off damaged scooters to hidden warehouses for repair.

And as the sun sets and power meters run low, chargers for hire roam the streets, scavenging depleted scooters, plugging them in at home, and placing them back on sidewalks early the next morning. Bird scooters return to their “nest.” Lime scooters are charged by “juicers.”

“For many people, it’s a fun way to make extra money,” said Colin McMahon, who leads Lime’s juicer program.

The way it works: Potential juicers apply for the job with Lime. When approved, they get special access through the app that highlights scooters that need charging. Charging one nets a juicer between $9 and $12, depending on how low the battery is, so a juicer’s take is a function of how many scooters she picks up and how much power those scooters need. Charging the scooter requires about half a kilowatt-hour of electricity, about 5 cents’ worth of power on average.

McMahon said most juicers spend an hour or two in the evening walking or driving around making pickups and then redeploy the scooters in specific locations marked on the app. “We leverage our data to say where are the best spots for people to begin their day for commuting,” he said. He declined to share the number of juicers Lime has on its roster or the typical number of scooters charged per juicer.

Bird follows a similar model. A diverse array of people have signed up as Lime juicers and Bird hunters, but unlike driving for Uber or Lyft, there is no background check. Technically, you have to be over 18, but many high schoolers are getting into the charging game, as the Atlantic reported.

The sliding scale for charging scooters has also created some perverse incentives that ne’er-do-wells have already exploited, as Nathaniel Buckley wrote at Slate:

… it turns out the charging system is akin to a real-life Pokémon Go, albeit one rife with cheating. The app purports to tell you where nearby chargeable scooters are, but in reality that’s rarely the case. Duplicitous collectors have created a thriving ecosystem of stockpiling, hiding, and decoying that makes it well-nigh impossible to find a scooter in need of charging.

When picking up a scooter, chargers are supposed to “capture” it via a button on the app. Doing this deletes the flag so others don’t waste time scouting for that particular Bird. It also stops the clock on the reimbursement meter. The longer a scooter goes without being captured, the greater the commission Bird will pay its chargers.

According to Harry Campbell of the Rideshare Guy Blog, scooter bounty hunters can net $20 to $30 an hour. And since each scooter can only be claimed by one charger, it can get competitive, as Taylor Lorenz reported at the Atlantic:

In saturated markets, the race to quickly grab as many scooters as possible is fierce. “One time I pulled up to pick up a scooter, I got there maybe 10 seconds before the other guy did,” said one charger in San Diego. “He started yelling at me. He picked up a Bird scooter and started beating my car. I got the hell out of there.”

There are also repair crews who scoop up damaged or vandalized scooters, though scooter companies insist only a small fraction of their vehicles end up deliberately mangled.

Are electric scooters safe? Do I need a helmet?

“Speed has never killed anyone,” said former Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson. “Suddenly becoming stationary, that’s what gets you.”

This holds for scooters. Traveling at up to 15 miles per hour doesn’t seem like much until you rapidly become acquainted with an unmoving object — say, a street sign, a wall, or the ground. Scooters don’t have crumple zones, air bags, or padding, so riders are exposed to everything around them.

There has been a rise in scooter-related injuries, but that’s largely a function of the spread of scooters themselves rather than any inherent danger in the vehicle. Still, given the vast abundance of these scooters, some physicians are concerned. Law firms are also readying themselves for litigation.

“We’re seeing these injuries daily, and at least once or twice a week we’re seeing someone who needs an urgent surgery,” Natasha Trentacosta, an orthopedic surgeon in Los Angeles studying electric scooter-related injuries, told the Cedars-Sinai Blog. “These can be life-changing injuries, and they can often be prevented.”

Right now there isn’t any good data on injury rates among scooter riders. Many of the bumps and scrapes that come from a scooter tumble are minor, and there is no good way to track them. Health officials in California are trying to change that with a standardized data collection system.

There are plenty of threats to scooter riders for researchers to track. The tiny wheels can get trapped by uneven sidewalks and grates, causing falls. Damp weather can easily weaken the tires’ grip. On busy sidewalks, riders have to maneuver around pedestrians, pets, and potholes. On the road, scooters can be hard for drivers to see, and heavy, fast-moving vehicles can be deadly.

There’s also a learning curve. Electric motors can accelerate surprisingly quickly, and the momentum a rider generates takes effort to slow down. Keeping a leg ready to brace for a sudden stop requires some practice.

However, many of the same precautions for cyclists can reduce risks on scooters: Be aware of your surroundings, make sure the equipment is in good order, follow traffic rules, take your earbuds out, put away your phone, and be judicious with your speed.

As for helmets, scooter companies encourage riders to wear them with reminders in their respective apps (it’s also required by law in some states), though almost no one does. Bird currently offers free helmets to active riders (just pay shipping) but is also lobbying to relax helmet laws in California.

In practical terms, though, many riders won’t be carrying a helmet around for scootering since it’s a transportation mode designed for whim and convenience.

And the biggest safety issues right now stem from inexperience. Given how new scooters are, there’s no consistent etiquette for riding an electric scooter, and so pedestrians, drivers, and cyclists can’t necessarily anticipate what a scooter will do in an intersection, which can lead to conflicts (read: collisions).

Some riders claim the sidewalk; others ride in the street. Some will follow pedestrian signals, some will obey traffic lights, and some will do none of the above. Scooters don’t have turn signals, so it’s hard to broadcast your intent as a rider. They do have bells, but they don’t help much to get the attention of car drivers.

Establishing a set of best practices (and actually following them) would go a long way toward smoothing out the tensions between different modes of transport and solving the safety issues around scooters. This would require regulation from cities and education from scooter companies.

And as with any vehicle, don’t ride a scooter under the influence; it’s dangerous and illegal.

What’s the best place to ride a scooter: sidewalk, bike lane, or street?

Most city ordinances say (and scooter rental companies insist) that electric scooters shouldn’t be ridden on sidewalks. Motorized vehicles pose a nuisance, if not a hazard, to pedestrians.

So that pretty much leaves streets. And for the reasons mentioned above, it can be nerve-racking for riders as cars whizz by. Which means scooters often remain on sidewalks, against the terms of service and, in many cases, the law.

The best and likely safest place for a scooter is a bike lane since there are no pedestrians and because the lanes can accommodate faster traffic (as a daily bike commuter, scooters aren’t any more annoying than slower cyclists).

However, most streets don’t have bike lanes, and unless the bike lane is protected or separated from car traffic, scooter riders will still have to contend with cars weaving in and out. Bike lanes also don’t reach most destinations, which means a scooter ride will almost always require riding on the sidewalk or in open traffic at some point.

Are electric scooters good for the environment? And will they reduce car traffic?

The answer is an unsatisfactory “it depends.”

Like electric cars, scooters are only as green as the electricity that charges them. If your city gets most of its power from a coal or natural gas-fired power plant, that means your scoot around the neighborhood has a positive carbon footprint.

But the other piece of the environmental equation is what the scooter ride is displacing, or if it leads to trips that otherwise wouldn’t be taken.

For example, Estonia launched the largest free public transit system in the world in July. In the capital, Tallinn, researchers found that the scheme didn’t reduce car travel but did decrease walking.

If you’re scooting instead of walking, then the ride has a higher environmental cost. But if you’re replacing a car ride, then it has an environmental benefit since an electric scooter uses a tiny fraction of the energy consumed by a car.

Right now, scooters are doing both.

“Some of those walk trips are likely to be taken away at the shorter end, and some of those car trips are those at the long end,” said Brian Taylor, a professor of urban planning at the University of California Los Angeles who studies how transportation serves different population sets.

How does the environmental impact of scooters stack up next to public transit? Well, it also depends. The balance changes depending on how far you’re going and the form of transit it’s replacing, whether it’s a diesel bus or an electric train.

On the other hand, a scooter can also encourage the use of public transportation. Most scooter trips are 1 to 2 miles long, and the companies themselves pitch scooters as filling the “last mile” in transit, expanding the reach of a transit station or a bus stop.

“There’s the West LA rail station that’s a 22-minute walk from me,” Taylor said. “I took a scooter the other day and it took me five minutes.”

If a scooter can help avoid commuting by car altogether, then the net environmental benefits can be huge. And even added all together, the energy use of scooters is trivial compared to the ongoing energy use in cars, buses, trains.

Keep in mind that the vast majority of trips people take on a regular basis are short. According to the US Department of Energy, almost 60 percent of vehicle trips in 2017 were less than 6 miles:

Share of vehicle trips by distance.Javier Zarracina/Vox

Cars in particular comprise a huge chunk of these short trips. “Today, 40 percent of car trips are less than two miles long,” said Bird CEO Travis VanderZanden in a statement in March. “Our goal is to replace as many of those trips as possible so we can to get cars off the road and curb traffic and greenhouse gas emissions.”

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, if drivers decided to walk or bike instead of drive for half of all car trips shorter than a mile, drivers would avert 2 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions a year and save $900 million annually.

Scooter rides are typically less than 2 miles, which is often too short a distance for hailing a ride if you don’t already own a car. This is part of why ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft are so keen on electric scooters: They fill a need their current services can’t.

So scooter rides are going to displace car trips to an extent, which may reduce the number of cars on the road.

However, urban journeys are becoming increasingly multimodal, and scooters may add one more flexible link to the transit chain rather than replacing another mode completely. Their most valuable traits are how flexible they are compared to public transit, which runs fixed routes, and how cheap they are compared to cars. That means scooters fulfill a unique niche of the transportation ecosystem.

And if more scooters are riding in the streets, that could slow down traffic and increase congestion.

Are electric scooters good for cities?

In a word, yes. A qualified yes.

Despite the consternation about how they’ve been rolled out, public opinion is on their side. According to a July survey by Populus of 7,000 people in a report titled “The Micro-Mobility Revolution,” 70 percent of respondents on average had a positive view of scooters, though perceptions varied by city:

 Javier Zarracina/Vox

The differences in attitude across cities in part come from the fact that scooter companies and their riders haven’t always been the best citizens. Many cities were eager to deploy docked bike-share bikes because it gave them control over where the bikes end up. But dockless bikes, and now scooters, have made it much more difficult to wrangle wheels.

Scooters and bikes blocked sidewalks, disability access ramps, and green spaces. For some of the launch cities, they quickly became a nuisance. For people with disabilities or limited mobility, the scooters became a hazard. For this reason, some urban planners say scooters must be regulated.

But cities that saw a more gradual rollout have had a much smoother ride.

“In San Francisco, you saw a lot of backlash,” said Sanjay Dastoor, CEO of Skip, of the sudden, unannounced scooter deployment in the city. “We didn’t see DC in the news with a scooter armageddon. The backlash depends on the way you do it.”

Dastoor noted that Skip is proactively working with cities before deploying in a market and has never been issued a cease-and-desist order. The company is also trying to encourage riders to be more considerate through its app, informing them of the rules before they ride.

However, he acknowledged it’s still a challenge to keep miscreants in check. “In terms of enforcing behavior, that’s tough to do,” he said.

Companies are also working to ensure their devices stay out of the way. Scooter companies now ask riders for a photo to verify that the scooter is parked in an appropriate spot at the end of a ride.

The upshot of all this hassle is that scooters are bringing cheap transportation to people who may otherwise not have used it. They effectively expand the range of neighborhoods, allowing residents to easily travel further and increasing the reach of businesses. Researchers have found that mobility is a critical rung in the ladder out of poverty.

That may explain why electric scooters have a better reputation with people of lower incomes, according to Populus:

 Javier Zarracina/Vox

Bird has already proposed offering discounts for people who live in public housing or receive food stamps. Lime introduced a donation module to its app that will allow riders to dedicate part of their fare to a local nonprofit.

Cities are starting to pick up on this. In talking with city officials, Dastoor said one of the concerns that keeps cropping up is equality: Cities want to make sure scooters serve all neighborhoods and that people have equal access to them.

Scooters could also work as a stopgap solution for transit deserts, but there are still people who can’t take advantage of them, like residents who can’t afford a smartphone to unlock one. For them, the benefit of scooters may just be that they expose gaps in transportation infrastructure.

But while cities argue over what to do about electric scooters, there’s another dockless vehicle taking up public spaces that often gets left out of the discussion:

Los Angeles is the most traffic-clogged city in the world. Motorists in Los Angeles spent an average of 104 hours in traffic in 2016 that amounted to an estimated $2,408 per driver in wasted fuel and productivity.Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Los Angeles is the most traffic-clogged city in the world. Motorists in LA spent an average of 104 hours in traffic in 2016, which amounted to an estimated $2,408 per driver in wasted fuel and productivity.

It’s hard to overstate just how much cars have shaped cities, suburbs, and the country as a whole, becoming the water we all swim in. While cities are working to limit the number of scooters permitted, few have even thought about capping the number of cars. You even need a driver’s license to ride a scooter. As Populus observed in its report:

Based on the most recent public data, San Francisco, a relatively small city with one of the lowest vehicle ownership rates in the country, has approximately 500,000 registered vehicles. The city has approximately 442,000 publicly-available parking spots, including 275,000 on-street parking spaces. In comparison, various e-scooter regulations across the country that have adopted fleet restrictions have set caps on the number of e-scooters at 150 (on the low end) to 3,000 per company (on the high end, or no cap at all).

Though not everyone owns a car, everyone pays for one. There are roughly eight parking spots for every car in the United States, and free parking amounts to a subsidy to car owners of more than $100 billion a year.

That’s all before you include the impacts of driving, where the car actually moves. Roadways, law enforcement, pollution, and lost lives all add up to a huge social cost from driving, one that completely dwarfs anything electric scooters can muster.

And when a scooter company falls, it isn’t going to get a bailout from Congress.

This means there’s a strong case for demanding concessions from car infrastructure to facilitate walking, biking, and scooter riding — transit options that are more equitable and easier to access. That is, narrower roads in favor of larger bike lanes and sidewalks, also called a road diet. And as Alissa Walker pointed out on our sister site Curbed, where there’s a will, there’s a way:

Seville, Spain—a city almost identical in size to San Francisco—built out a comprehensive “lightning” bike-lane network in just 18 months. The number of people commuting by bike daily increased tenfold in about four years. How did it work? The city carved out space from existing roadways—and eliminated 5,000 places to park cars.

But scooter companies need to have city officials on their side if they want to continue doing business. Even scofflaws like Lyft and Uber are wising up, submitting proposals to cities like Santa Monica before launching their own scooter businesses there.

Perhaps one of the greatest benefits of scooters will be that they will force a larger discussion of whom or what we prioritize when we design cities. “I’m hoping that all of this disruption will help us think more systematically about these things,” said UCLA’s Taylor.

The Big Apple is eager to have this conversation. City officials are already crafting legislation to help target scooters to areas suffering from transit congestion, like the L train corridor. Earlier this month, the New York Times editorial board endorsed the prospect of electric scooters roaming the streets. “If the city is serious about wanting safe, reliable ways for people in all areas of New York to get around, the path ahead is clear,” they wrote.

Author: Umair Irfan

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