Albert Camus once likened absurdity to a man with a sword attacking a nest of a machine guns. But Camus never saw an electric scooter.
When these shared, dockless vehicles began to materialize in American cities early this year (the first scooters emerged late last year in Santa Monica), the erstwhile child’s toys seemed like a ridiculous answer to some very grown-up transportation challenges. But despite some initial dorky misgivings, e-scooters swiftly and silently inserted themselves into the American cityscape. Unlocked with smartphone apps from an array of happy-sounding four-letter startups with names like Lime, Bird, Skip, and Spin, scooters found riders among tourists, communities of color, couples, and kids. The scooter bro became a thing. Lazy people devised seating options.
By summer, hundreds of U.S. cities dared to pilot the idea, along with dozens around the world. Hiring gig-economy independent contractors to recharge the batteries overnight, some companies became financial unicorns that galloped to billion-dollar evaluations. Car-based mobility companies hitched a ride: Uber, Lyft, Google, and Ford all launched, partnered, or invested in scooter-based services. For the founder of the original Razor kickscoot, e-scootering was an urban dream rebooted and fulfilled, batteries included.
But the fad of the summer also generated a lot of pushback. Scooters blocked sidewalks and menaced pedestrians; vandals frequently targeted the vehicles and littered cities with broken machines. Others warned of safety issues: Doctors reported increased road injuries and the first fatal car-on-scooter crashes. The risks of plying pothole-riddled roads at 15 miles per hour on two tiny wheels won scooters a lot of detractors and regulatory enemies. More broadly, there was the notion that scootering was fundamentally a sideshow; the idea that these whimsical machines represented a viable means of tackling the problems of urban transportation—street congestion, climate emissions, and road deaths—seemed laughable.
In their podcast War on Cars, CityLab alum Sarah Goodyear, Streetsblog founder Aaron Naparstek, and Brooklyn Spoke’s Doug Gordon wondered if scooters were more a symptom of broader urban transportation woes rather than a solution. Goodyear mentioned that many urbanites react negatively to scooters because pedestrians are already “fighting for crumbs,” and scooters represent another incursion upon the sidewalk. Another problem: Politicians who have been unwilling to raise taxes or implement congestion pricing to pay for transit have let scooter companies basically run over them. “They’re never going to be a solution for the fact that one subway car in New York City carries thousands of people and one subway line carries hundreds of thousands of people every day,” Gordon said. “As much as I think they’re fun and represent this amazing front in the war on cars, I see it as symbol of a failure of American civic government to provide for its people.“
But outside urbanist and city planning circles, there’s another way of seeing scooters—as a kind of a conversational Trojan horse for talking about better ways to get around and plan our cities. Their polarizing presence turned wonky pet causes like curb space and road diets into everyday discussions. “So how do you feel about the scooters?” became my go-to question for Lyft and Uber drivers as we contemplated how, and if, these disruptive devices could co-exist with cars on public roads. It was easy to explain how scooters underscore the failures of safe-streets policy in American cities.
Indeed, many bike and complete streets advocates welcomed the e-scooter as a fellow traveler in the larger campaign against car-centric thinking. Dockless technology doubled the number of shareable two-wheeled vehicles on U.S. city streets overnight, reaching communities that traditional bikeshare had not. Scooters lured legions of non-bicyclists onto the streets and made them realize how valuable protected infrastructure would be. The major companies hired up big players from across the transit advocacy world to work with (and lobby) city leaders. Just this month, the North American Bikeshare Association, which represents the interests of bikeshare companies, declared, “if it fits in a bike lane, it fits [with us].”
But many questions remain about the long-term role of scooters, and what their presence does to other modes, from private cars to public transportation. In Portland, Oregon, scooters seemed to have complemented a public bikeshare program; in Austin, Texas, they might be undercutting it. There’s some evidence that car use goes down when scooters come to town: Lime’s end of year report says that 30 percent of its riders reported that the last trip they took with Lime replaced a car trip and 20 percent said their ride took them to or from public transit.
After a year of wild growth, scooter companies are now making promises to do their part to address their grown-up responsibilities of operating in cities: They’ve offered to give away free helmets, use geofencing to create no-go zones, make parking corrals, and help pay for bike lanes. But this is still a young and unruly mode. Here in D.C., I often see flocks of kids on scooters who’d found a way to dodge the in-app age verification checks. And who could fault kids for stretching the rules? It’s a lot of fun. But I’ve seen scooters nearly collide with bicyclists on bike paths, scooters dodging pedestrians on sidewalks and other vehicles on streets, scooters riding in defiant packs against traffic.
In this grand multimodal experiment, I wonder how many crashes it will take for this still auto-focused region—a city where motorists honked with anger at the dedication of a “ghost scooter” this summer—to decide to ban scooters instead of fixing the infrastructure that pushes people into harm’s way. If this souped-up toy has also unlocked new possibilities of where people feel they can go and what they could do, maybe it can also encourage city leaders to work on making places where people feel like they can fit. To paraphrase Camus again: In the midst of winter, can scooters find an invincible summer?