SANTA MONICA, Calif. — I wanted to hate the scooters. I really did.
Before going to the Los Angeles region last week for work, I had heard about the area’s invasion by dockless, rent-by-the-minute electric scooters. I saw their sudden arrival described as a plague of two-wheeled terrors that had crowded sidewalks and endangered pedestrians, and I knew that some cities had issued cease-and-desist orders and passed emergency ordinances to get them off the streets.
I also knew that Los Angeles’s leading e-scooter company, Bird — which reportedly just raised $150 million at a valuation north of $1 billion — was run by Travis VanderZanden, a former executive of Uber and Lyft. His new venture seemed to be an unholy mix of the former’s lawless arrogance and the latter’s saccharine branding. (A group of people riding Bird scooters is called a “flock,” Mr. VanderZanden has insisted.)
Tech hubris on wheels — what’s not to loathe?
But I wanted to experience the scooter craze for myself. So for a week, I used shared e-scooters as my primary mode of transportation. I rode them to meetings, ran errands across town and went for long joy rides on the Venice Beach boardwalk. In all, I took more than a dozen scooter rides, from just a few blocks to several miles.
And here’s my verdict: E-scooters might look and feel kind of dorky, but they aren’t an urban menace or a harbinger of the apocalypse. In fact — sigh — they’re pretty great.
My journey to e-scooter acceptance began when I saw an empty scooter outside my hotel. I downloaded the Bird app, entered my driver’s license and credit card information, agreed to some basic terms (no riding on sidewalks, no riding two to a scooter, no speeding downhill) and scanned a code on the scooter’s handlebar.
The scooter beeped, telling me that it was unlocked, and I was off.
Battery-powered scooters have been available for years, but only recently have they been outfitted with GPS trackers and wireless connectivity and arranged into on-demand fleets. These scooters are limited to 15 miles per hour, but that is still zippy enough to put a satisfying whoosh in your hair. And when you’re done riding, just park it anywhere, choose “end ride” on your app, take a photo to help the next rider find it and walk away. Rides are cheap (Bird charges $1 plus 15 cents per minute), and an abundant supply of scooters in Santa Monica meant that I was never more than a block or two from one.
The rise of shared e-scooters is just one of several recent tech-powered experiments in urban mobility. Dockless bike-sharing programs, which have been popular in China for years, are starting to take off in America. The programs added 44,000 bikes in the United States during the last half of 2017, according to a report by the National Association of City Transportation Officials. Other wheeled innovations — like electric unicycles and skateboards — are also making gains.
Like the earliest ride-hailing providers, many e-scooter companies have taken a cavalier approach to growth, dumping thousands of vehicles on city streets with no permits and little advance notice. This tactic has not endeared them to cities. Bird paid $300,000 in fines and other fees to settle a legal dispute with Santa Monica after the city sued it for operating without a proper license last year. Denver recently ordered Bird and LimeBike, another e-scooter provider, to remove their scooters, and Nashville and other cities have begun seizing scooters from their streets. (Citizen-led protests are happening, too — in San Francisco, scooters have been vandalized and thrown in front of Google buses.)
Emerging technology should always be scrutinized, especially when it could involve health risks and strain public infrastructure. And new forms of transportation have always been controversial. (In the 19th century, critics of bicycles labeled them tools of the devil.)
But people should think twice before condemning e-scooters as an ill-conceived tech-world fantasy. Because if you can get over their dopey aesthetics and dubious corporate strategy, e-scooters actually solve some problems. They’re lightweight and emission-free. They don’t require bulky docks or parking lots, and they’re perfect for trips that are too long to walk but too short to justify driving or hailing a car. If they take off, they could alleviate congestion and become a low-cost way of getting around cities without robust public transportation systems.
Opponents of e-scooters typically make three major claims. But as I learned during my experiment in California, none of those arguments hold up particularly well under scrutiny.
1. Scooters are a public safety hazard.
Anti-scooter activists tend to paint scooter riders as kamikaze daredevils, slaloming through cars and pedestrians. I did see a few instances of dangerous behavior — couples riding two to a scooter, people riding one-handed while taking selfies and some running red lights. There is also the issue of helmets, which many states require but which, as far as I can tell, no scooter riders are wearing.
There have been five traffic incidents involving Bird scooters in Santa Monica since November, and 424 citations of motorized scooter riders, according to a Santa Monica Police Department spokesman. Bird, which declined to provide information about accidents, offers helmets to active riders for a $1.99 shipping fee, and about 30,000 people have taken it up on the deal. (The deal is available only to riders who live in a current Bird market, which excludes out-of-town visitors like me.)
There is no doubt that scooters could be safer if helmet laws were better enforced and basic safety training was provided before riding. But it’s probably not time to panic just yet. We don’t have enough data to know if scooters are more dangerous than bikes, motorcycles or other types of two-wheeled transit, and scooter safety will most likely improve as riders get more experience and drivers learn to share the road.
In fact, the only scary scooter rides I had were the times that cars veered a little too close to the bike lane I was riding in. If cities want to encourage safe scooter riding — and they should, given the benefits they have for congestion and environmental health — they should create protected scooter lanes and encourage drivers to give them more room.
2. Scooters are cluttering sidewalks, roads and other public spaces.
This anti-scooter case was made most memorably by a columnist at The Los Angeles Times who complained that “these electric scooters are everywhere — roads, sidewalks, street corners, parking lots, boardwalks, apartment complex hallways — beeping while stationary and whirring when rolling, ridden mostly by stoic mannequins in flip-flops.”
It’s true that scooters have gone from nonexistent to ubiquitous in a matter of weeks — one morning, I counted more than 100 within a few blocks of my hotel. But their visibility is a function of their novelty. We don’t view parked cars and bus stops as eyesores, even though they’re everywhere.
This isn’t just about clutter — cities are worried that parked scooters will impede wheelchairs and block entrances. But there are easy solutions here. Just as we have parking meters for cars, cities could designate scooter parking areas on every block, and begin ticketing riders who leave their scooters in the middle of the sidewalk. Companies like Bird — which already pay armies of contract workers to recharge their scooters at night — could also give users small rewards for clearing badly placed scooters out of the way.
3. Scooters are annoying symbols of tech-world elitism.
Some people object to e-scooters on political and symbolic grounds, claiming that they represent everything that is wrong with the tech industry. Critics have taken aim at their perceived elitism (you need a smartphone and a credit card to use scooter-sharing apps) and the sudden, permissionless way they were rolled out in cities, which fit a pattern of bad behavior set by tech companies like Uber and Airbnb.
It’s true that scooter companies have not exactly covered themselves in glory. They have invited a backlash by flooding the streets with scooters with no explanation and little or no contact with local officials. As these companies grow, they will need to prove that they can cooperate with regulators, rather than trying to circumvent them.
But there’s nothing inherently elitist about e-scooters. (In fact, at between $2 and $5 for most rides, they’re price competitive with public transportation, and far cheaper than services like Uber and Lyft.) And while e-scooter companies have moved brazenly into new markets, they have also shown some willingness to compromise in cities like Austin, Tex., where local officials required that scooters carry licenses and proof of insurance.
David Estrada, Bird’s chief legal officer, told me that the company had cooperated with officials in Miami and other cities to plan orderly rollouts. He said the company obeys local laws and doesn’t introduce scooters in cities, such as New York, that expressly prohibit them. But he said that cities tended to drag their feet on new transportation policy, and that seeking pre-emptive approval for e-scooters could take years.
“We’d have happy cities, but we wouldn’t have a business and we wouldn’t be solving a problem,” Mr. Estrada said.
It’s possible that the skeptics are right, and that electric scooters will end up like Segways — novelty gadgets for big-city tourists. It’s also possible that they’ll end up like Uber and Lyft — a multibillion-dollar industry that spends years battling local officials but ultimately changes urban transportation as we know it. The answer will most likely depend on the regulations that emerge, and whether scooter companies can operate profitably in cities that, unlike Santa Monica, don’t have flat terrain and year-round sunshine.
Whatever happens, you can count me as a slightly embarrassed member of Team Scooter. If liking fun, inexpensive, short-distance transportation is wrong, I don’t want to be right.