They would understand my plight in Old Europe. In ancient, barbaric days when local vassals managed petite armies, brute knights often swept into villages, declaring the inhabitants subject to new laws and new lords before riding off again with the changing of the season.
When this latest army invaded my village, it seemed no different than the rest. I had heard rumor of it for weeks, had feared and resented it, had assured friends that its occupation would end as soon as all its predecessors. But when its foot soldiers finally arrived, I was shocked to find myself charmed. Now, I cannot imagine life without them.
I speak, of course, of the electric scooters.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. It was not rumor exactly that first warned me of these conquerors, but The New York Times. Months ago, its heralds announced that electric scooters had overtaken cities across California. These vehicles looked like the Razor scooters of yore, though they had small, zippy, battery-powered engines. You could rent one with your smartphone; ride it down the street, around the neighborhood, or across the city; and then get off, tap your smartphone, and walk away. They cost about $3 per ride.
They were a public menace, that much was clear. A certain kind of young man—the type who might bring a Wi-Fi-enabled water bottle to the climbing gym, say—could be spotted whirring atop them. In a mad bid for market share, the start-ups behind the scooters had dumped thousands of them on city sidewalks, frustrating San Francisco’s cyclists and terrorizing its wretched NIMBYs. A worrying story, certainly, but the threat seemed distant until this April when I spotted a scooter in my neighborhood in Washington, D.C. Hoofing it to the subway one morning, I caught its silhouette out of the corner of my eye: unused, teetering, a putrescent green. Immediately I despised it.
Why? I asked myself this over the weeks to come. I was bored with new technologies, bored with their repetitive promises, their glassy aesthetic, their oligarchic subsidization. And then one day I found myself late to work and staring a scooter in the face. I supposed I should try it once, for science.
I downloaded the app and activated the scooter, feeling very silly. I pushed down the throttle and lurched forward. I released it and the scooter stopped, nearly throwing me off. As I tried to figure out my balance, a teenager ran up to the scooter next to mine, activated it, and drove away. I had never felt so old.
But five minutes after stepping on the scooter for the first time, I had mastered it. It’s best ridden with one leg on the platform and the other hanging off the side for emergency braking, or fleeing. For a classic scooter, all propulsion has to come from either gravity or the rider’s body, pushing off the ground with his foot. An e-scooter only needs you to push off when coming out of a stop. (After that, the engine takes over.) The push-off/scoot-forward/hit-the-throttle movement is the only real coordination required.
Confident of my stability, I brought the scooter to its top speed: 15 miles per hour. About 10 minutes later, I was at work. My three-mile commute had never gone so fast.
On that first ride, a few things became apparent. First, I was more likely to respect traffic laws on a scooter than on a bike, because I wasn’t as worried about conserving my momentum on a scooter. Second, riding a scooter is reminiscent of riding a Segway—even if you, like me, have never ridden a Segway in your life. It turns out that even Segway virgins like myself immediately intuit the unnaturalness and awkwardness of standing-still-while-moving-quickly-forward. It feels kinetically uncool; it’s the posture of conspicuous tourists and safety-vested traffic cops. Third, the personal-injury lawsuits over these things are going to be spectacularly lit.
And yet I couldn’t quit the scooters. The next day, I took a scooter to work again, even though I wasn’t running late. The day after that, I took a scooter four miles across the city to a baseball game. The following week, after an early-morning appointment, I spent 20 minutes searching the neighborhood for a scooter so that I wouldn’t have to take a Lyft. I now check the app every morning to see if there are scooters nearby.
The war is over and I have lost. I love Big Scooter.
What became clear in those first few days—and what I’m a little shocked to be writing now—is that electric scooters are a novel mode of transportation. They unite many of the best elements of traveling by car, bike, and foot. Like cars, they have an engine, so you can get to work without getting sweaty. Like bikes, there isn’t really road congestion, so you can travel faster than most cars can. And like walking, they let you spend your commute outside.
For people like me—office workers who commute within the city they live—it’s the fastest, least-sweaty option available.
Not that every city needs this kind of transit. The scooters may actually be too perfect for Washington, D.C., where I live. Moving around D.C. is like playing Chutes and Ladders, M.C. Escher edition. That is: We have some great rapid-transit options but their placement is arbitrary. Sometimes, two miles as the crow flies can be traversed in five minutes using public transit. But elsewhere, two miles requires 45 minutes of traveling. One acclimates to such mysteries when one lives in a city built around an immense obelisk.
You can understand why the scooters feel so vital, then. A scooter reliably travels one mile in eight minutes. You can ride it door-to-door, and you don’t have to find a place to park it. Riding one feels like a superpower.
Most of the billion-dollar start-ups of the last several years—think of Uber, Lyft, Grubhub—have combined an old service with a smartphone in the name of convenience. Other have grafted new legal or logistical frameworks on old services (like Spotify, Netflix, Airbnb), also in the name of convenience. Scooters do something slightly different. They take a number of manufacturing advances made possible by the global smartphone industry—smaller and cheaper cell antennas, GPS chips, and electric batteries—and apply them in a novel and useful way, and in a surprisingly good way. When was the last time a tech company did that? The scooter companies make hardware that lets you do something you couldn’t do otherwise. They inhabit a much smaller, and much more interesting, class of companies.
They are refreshing, in other words. They are good. But their utility does not guarantee their success. Riding a scooter doesn’t feel like cruising on a Segway to me anymore, but it remains socially conspicuous. And plenty of undeniably useful technologies have never escaped their dorkiness. I suspect the scooter will join them, becoming a specialist item at best: transition lenses, cargo shorts, Camelbacks.
Yet every day I hear from a new, cool friend: I thought I’d hate the scooters but they are so easy and fast! And I wonder if the scooters will instead follow the path of the selfie. Remember the first year of the selfie? Opinion makers categorized selfies as juvenile, outlandishly sad, and hopelessly narcissistic. But then people got over it. Now I see as many Boomers as Millennials discreetly taking selfies. Perhaps that’s how we’ll look back on this era of scooters.
Now I will address some questions.
Should the scooter company Bird be valued at $1 billion, as Bloomberg News reports? Money is a social construct.
Because you wrote this article, do you agree with every boneheaded comment or policy preference expressed in the future by a scooter CEO?
Where should I ride my scooter? On the road, in the bike lane. Sidewalks are small and reserved for pedestrians, poor dears. Roads are big and have lots of space for us Big Scooter Adults.
Doesn’t riding in the bike lane annoy cyclists? Yes, of course. Cyclists are annoyed by most stimuli. But there is another irritant in this particular ointment. Scooters accelerate out of a stop faster than bicycles, but the top speed of most scooters is below that of all but the slowest bikes. So if you come out of a stop next to a cyclist, you immediately lurch forward and pass them, only to watch them pass you five seconds later. And it is annoying to pass someone in the bike lane.
Until scooters are less uncool, would you ride a scooter to a date? No.
Would you ride a scooter in front of someone you’re sexually attracted to? Also no. In fact, there are several trees on my commute home with whom I feel a deep and wordless bond. When I must ride a scooter past them, I avert my eyes.
Did you own a Razor scooter as a child? Yes. My nana got me a Razor scooter for Christmas in 2000, but she actually gave it to me more than two months before the holiday, in October, so I could use it before the Razor-scooter fad ended. She explained this at the time and I remember feeling an immense surge of gratitude—and a confusion that my parents and grandparents would arrange for something so outlandishly kind, so cool-for-cool’s-sake, to be done just for me. Little did I know that it was the last time in the known history of the world when scooters would seem cool in any way.