Tesla’s Elon Musk and others are trying to change the future with driverless electric cars. But for now, another transportation innovation is roiling American cities: electric scooters, or e-scooters. Competing startups have launched e-scooter sharing programs in dozens of cities nationwide. You wouldn’t think these two-wheelers would cause much panic or consternation, but you’d be wrong. From Washington, D.C., to San Francisco, residents, journalists and politicians have weighed in on what, if anything, to do about them.
The much bigger issue, though, isn’t how to regulate e-scooters, e-bikes, dockless bikes or any and all of the other new transportation contraptions that have popped up on urban streets. Rather, the issue is how cities treat their streets in general. That is, are streets mostly for cars and trucks, with anything else viewed as an eccentric interloper, or are they public spaces whose government stewards should favor the most efficient means of transportation available?
For people who have yet to see a commuter zipping around on one, let’s be clear that we’re not talking about a gas-powered moped or other form of mini-motorcycle that you sit on. Like a skateboard -- except with handlebars -- an e-scooter is something you stand on and push manually with your foot, or if it’s electric, it mostly propels itself. The average e-scooter weighs about 40 pounds and travels, at most, 15 miles an hour.
Under sharing programs that have been rolled out with seemingly breathtaking speed by companies such as Lime and Bird, customers use a phone app to find and digitally “unlock” a scooter parked on a nearby curb. When they’re done with it, they park it on a curb again and digitally “lock” it. Company managers can keep track of where their scooters are via GPS.
Compared to taxis, parking, some public transit and other sharing programs, e-scooters are cheap, starting at $1 a ride plus 15 cents a minute. Just like bike sharing before it, scooter sharing is primarily for commuting, not recreation. It’s particularly designed for short trips: A user might take one, for example, from the office to a subway station or a meeting that’s 10 minutes away.
The sudden sightings of e-scooters in cities large and small from coast to coast highlights a perennial reality for urban innovators: Residents -- or at least a vocal minority of them -- treat any changes to their streets, and who uses them, with skepticism. Some concerns are valid. Pedestrians rightly want vehicles that move much faster than they do prohibited from sidewalks. City officials are also worried about piles of scooters blocking walkways when they aren’t in demand.
But the language that critics use is telling. Aaron Peskin, a member of San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors, called scooters “a Wild West situation.” That attitude was seconded by the city’s transportation agency director, Edward Reiskin. “We will not tolerate any business model that represents … a safety hazard,” he wrote in a letter to e-scooter companies. Others complain that sidewalks are cluttered and clogged; that scooters are endangering people; and that scooter companies want to monetize public resources -- make money off of infrastructure that they haven’t directly and fully paid for.
The critics don’t seem to have noticed -- or perhaps are reluctant to acknowledge -- that all of these issues apply to cars and trucks as well, but to a much greater degree. As a matter of physics, someone driving a multi-ton car travelling 30 miles an hour can cause far greater injury than can a techie on an electric scooter. Last year, San Francisco had 20 traffic deaths; Washington, D.C., reported 30. None was caused by a scooter. Scooter riders, in that they are similar to bicyclists, are in more danger themselves relative to the danger they pose to others.
What’s more, cars have been monopolizing city streets for more than a century. People continue to drive them into and around cities without places to park, creating far greater clutter along streets than scooters do.
Much of the conflict between scooter users and pedestrians or people concerned about clutter is artificial, created by transportation planners who pit walkers, cyclists and now scooterists against each other by continuing to devote far more street space to the car. No, scooters do not belong on the sidewalk, but neither do they fit safely on avenues and streets with fast-moving car and truck traffic.
As more people embrace nimbler forms of transportation, smart urban planners will give them more space both to move in and to park. By necessity, they’ll have to take that space away from people who wish to drive, park or hail a comparatively large vehicle in a dense urban area. And where scooters, bicycles, cars and trucks share the road, speed limits should be lowered so that drivers do not pose as great a danger to far more efficient road users.
There’s nothing wrong with relying on a car in a city; there is something wrong with believing city streets belong solely to cars. As The Washington Post reported recently of its own city’s landscape, “D.C.’s scooter scourge is here to stay.” If so, it only joins the preexisting “scourge” of car traffic.