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Scooters at your service

For-hire electric scooters have arrived in many U.S. cities, and not everyone is happy about it

Scooters at your service

Pedestrians walk past shared electric scooters parked in San Francisco. (David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Remember fun? Your nostalgic childhood memories probably involve some sort of toy on wheels: Big Wheels, roller skates, wagons, skateboards. The latest craze is scooters—for adults.

Public electric scooters for short-term rental first appeared in California, but now people can zoom around in more than 100 U.S. cities. In Austin, Texas, for example, riders rented 13,000 scooters 2.3 million times during the last nine months of 2018. Companies with names like Bird and Lime say they’re making money while reducing car traffic and improving air quality—but not everyone welcomes the new devices.

We did dozens of scooter-in-the-street interviews with Austinites such as cybersecurity specialist Abdul Pasha, 29. He wore a University of Texas baseball cap and straddled a chrome Bird electric scooter he picked up near a corner of South Congress Avenue by a stretch of patioed cafés and boho boutiques. As a steady stream of cars rushed by, Pasha praised the new urban trend: “As more people are moving into cities … these are gonna be really great.” He likes options. When his car had a flat, he used a scooter to go back and forth to the tire shop.

Visitors to Austin said scooters are “fun for a quick jaunt.” Houston resident Kristen, wearing a purple shirt and sunglasses, shared her enthusiasm for riding scooters: “We love it so much because … you can go really, really fast, and it’s awesome because you really don’t have to walk.” She admitted to “a little worry” about safety: “You just have to be vigilant. Be smart.”

Alan Gonzales, 28, a barista at Caffé Medici on the ground floor of the Austonian, a downtown high-rise, said riders parked on the sidewalk outside his café. That’s a convenience, given the shortage of downtown parking—but he worried that few people know the rules: “I personally … bumped into someone lightly because they were driving in the sidewalk instead of where they were supposed to be in the street. … It’s a total blind spot for drivers.”

But varying regulations produce confusion on where to ride. Lyft, expanding from cars to scooter rentals, tells riders in Denver to “ride your scooter on the sidewalk—as according to current Denver law—and always yield to pedestrians.” In Austin, though, Lyft instructions say, “Please ride your scooter in the street or in a bike lane when it’s available.” Though the scooter app lists many of these rules, most riders do not read user agreements.

EAST OF DOWNTOWN sits the Mueller district, a mixed-use community of row houses with steel-framed balconies, apartment buildings, and shops. Scooters are everywhere: One lay on the sidewalk atop a flattened metal tent sign promoting local attractions. Most stood soldierlike in groups of two or three on corner outposts or near parked cars. 

Outside the Thinkery children’s museum, a pack of three riders on Bird scooters, then a cluster of two more, zipped by, while overhead a flock of the real thing—a V-shaped wedge of pigeons—dipped down. Endia Turney, 25, treated her nieces, ages 9 and 12, to their first scooter rides. Turney said the girls would ride only on sidewalks: “It feels a little like there’s not a space for it on the road just yet. People aren’t looking out for them the way they look for bikes and stuff.”

Jose Puente, 23, rode an electric scooter, trailed by his 2-year-old son, Ayden, a matching “mini-me” on his silver push scooter. Most days Puente walks and Ayden scoots, but Puente rented an electric scooter so they could ride together. Puente doesn’t think Ayden’s ready for an electric scooter: “Not right now, but maybe like in two years.”

Scooter riders Kelis Coleman and Alliah Swist, both 15, said they enjoy riding and have picked it up quickly. Swist said, “All you really have to do is stand there, and it’s easy to do, and you can go faster,” but riding on “bumpy sidewalks” can be challenging. Coleman said, “It’s cheap, too”: Five dollars covers her typical day of riding 5 miles. 

Although riders are supposed to be at least 18 years old, and the Lime and Bird apps both ask if the user is 18, riders are good to go with just a push of the “yes” button. But pushing the “yes” button also means the rider takes on full liability for any accidents that may occur. Underage drivers may not realize what they agree to: “It’s like super-duper cool, so it’s like totally worth it,” Coleman said. 

Barbara Archey, 76, does not think electric scooters are “super-duper cool.” She says they menace her toddler grandson and should not be allowed on sidewalks: “There are a lot of strollers, a lot of toddlers, a lot of kids who are on those sidewalks, and I would rather not see scooters there. It could be very dangerous.”

All scooter companies list helmets as a requirement. In every picture on Bird’s website, a scooter rider wears a helmet, and Bird even offers a free helmet, with users paying only for shipping. Despite the recommendation, we counted one helmet worn by the 150 riders we saw in downtown Austin.

Archey, sporting orange-and-black Halloween spider earrings for the benefit of her grandchild, prefers bike-shares to scooters: “People should bike instead! Because that’s better for the environment and better for your body. But the scooters—It depends on how many there are. If they take over … I don’t know.”

BACK ON SOUTH CONGRESS, a gray-haired man pounded drums, as frying-doughnut smells competed with those of steak on the grill. Allie McWilliams, 23, wearing torn jeans and a white T-shirt, said scooters are “great” and Austin is better for having them, but “they’re kinda dangerous, especially when people start drinking. … Someone was riding in the street and hit a pothole and literally flipped over the front of it …busted face. It wasn’t pretty.”

She confessed that when driving her car, “I almost hit scooters every day … because I come down a huge hill and always forget. There was a point where it was the same person every morning. … I was like, ‘Sorry.’”

Meanwhile, two well-groomed horses walked sedately down the middle of South Congress. The riders were Sam Grey Horse, a local musician who calls himself the 6th Street Cowboy, and Mateo Mares, who goes by Marijuana Sweet Tooth. Grey Horse, wearing a necklace strung with bear teeth and turquoise, said, “It’s the Wild, Wild West in the scooter world. … It’s an energy that came in too fast. … There should be more regulation on them. There are too many.” He said a scooter can’t compare to his 21-year-old rescue horse, Big Red: Riding horses is “medicine.”

Regardless of whether they are just for fun or a nuisance, who is responsible for damage that may occur in the scooter “Wild West”? The Texas Department of Insurance reminds riders: Most home or auto insurance coverage does not include two-wheeled vehicles. Lime “reserves the right to hold you fully responsible for all damage, losses, claims and liability arising from your use of any vehicle …to indemnify and hold harmless Lime from any tickets, citations, fines, penalties and administrative fees incurred as a result of your use of a vehicle.”

Scooter use does create jobs. Shawn Harris earns a second income by loading low-on-charge Birds into his SUV in the evening and recharging them at his home. An app directs him where to pick up and return them: “You can make $200 a night or more” by charging 40 Birds. The scooter company gives Harris a charger that he plugs in at his house. It costs about 15 cents to charge each Bird: “You can make from $5, $10, $16, $19 [per Bird]—it all depends on the battery life.”

Over the din of drills, hammers, and circular saws, construction worker Eric Warden said scooters give him an opportunity both to make and to save money: “If I can make a couple hundred dollars a week, that’s three-quarters of my rent.” Warden takes a scooter to his downtown work: “I can save money by not parking right here on this street. I can park under that bridge down there for free and catch me a scooter up here to this job.” If it rains? He laughs: “That’s when my wife drops me off.”

Danny Saenz sat in his wheelchair near a downtown bus stop facing a brightly painted wall reading “Peace. Love. Austin.” One man ambled down the sidewalk, yelling at someone who wasn’t there. Saenz took out his earbuds, clutched the backpack in his lap, and complained: Riders abandon scooters in the middle of the sidewalk and block the access ramps he needs. At night, riders race toward him on the sidewalk with their headlights shining straight into his eyes, temporarily blinding and disorienting him.

An Austin bus driver, Eddie, said electric scooters have made his job challenging: “I hate ’em. … Messing with buses and cars, it’s kind of chaotic.” He idled at a light and admitted he once tangled with a scooter: “Not this light, but the next light right here.”

Two tattooed, bejeweled, malt-liquor-sipping men on Guadalupe Street vented their hatred of scooters. “They’re in the way. I don’t want them here,” said Waylon Doyle Barnes, 29. He said he lasted for one week picking up the scooters and recharging them: “I want to kick them all down.” Eyeing a row of a dozen scooters, he said, “I want to do like a domino thing.” He compared scooters to cancer and AIDS: “People cut around corners, on sidewalks. We don’t appreciate it, people who walk.”

Standing in front of the bright red façade of Farm to Market Grocery, Officer Andre Porter of the Austin Police Department laughingly refused to answer questions about scooters that zip up and down the streets and sidewalks. Then he gave a meaningful look: “I don’t see why people can’t just walk.”

IN SOME CITIES, people don’t have the option to scoot. Beverly Hills banned the scooters in July, and local police began impounding them. Last November Bird filed a lawsuit against that city for allegedly violating state law and constitutional rights. San Francisco also banned scooters last May, then held an e-scooter sweepstakes in which companies Scoot and Skip won licenses to release scooters in the city—at least through October.

Scooters, though, are already big business. Bird has undergone four rounds of funding, gathering $415 million and 19 investors. One of its five lead investors is Sequoia Capital, the venture capital partner that also invested in LinkedIn, YouTube, Instacart, PayPal, and Google. Bird had a $1.7 billion valuation last June and in November projected 2019 sales of $100 million. 

How do scooter rentals at $1 to start, then 15-20 cents per minute, for an average ride cost of $3.65, add up to $100 million? Last May, Bird claimed a 19 percent gross profit after paying for charging, repairs, credit card processing, regulatory costs, and customer support and insurance. Beyond that, the math is fuzzy, but Bird is rolling out “Bird Platform,” essentially a franchise operation that grants local operators management of a fleet of scooters.

The scooter industry is accelerating. Bird pioneered dockless scooter rentals in September 2017, and companies like Lime and Jump that had previously only offered e-bikes or car services added scooters to their list in 2018. Another company, Skip, launched as a scooter-only company in 2018: It raised $31 million and has a $100 million valuation. 

Government officials have raced to keep up. Robert Spillar, director of the Austin Transportation Department, said about scooters, “There’s clearly a demand for that kind of mobility,” so seven dockless mobility companies, six of which own scooters, now operate in Austin. Two new companies received permits from the city, but have not yet reported release of the scooters. City public information manager Marissa Monroy said the city has now granted 15,300 permits.

In the spring, the city plans to incorporate “dismount zones” designed to keep parked scooters out of the way of pedestrians. Safety remains a concern, but a study last October showed scooters to be safer than bicycles. And the future? Spillar said, “In the few short months that these have been in town we’ve two, three, four generations of technology change, so I’ve quit predicting what’s five years out.”

—with reporting by Carol Blair, Andrew Patrick Coleman, Sharon Dierberger, Collin Garbarino, Victoria Johnson, Joel Maas, Jenny Rough, Laura Singleton, Daniel Van Oudenaren, and Steve West

Alyssa Jackson

Alyssa Jackson

Alyssa is a graduate of the World Journalism Institute.

Comments

  • Xion's picture
    Xion
    Posted: Wed, 02/06/2019 09:48 am

    The Netherlands is a very bike friendly country and they have built two sidewalks, one for pedestrians and one for bicycles.  I presume scooters would stick to the bike path.  It works quite well, but takes some getting used to.  You have to remember that bicycles are whizzing past you only inches away.  One false move and you can cause a serious accident.

  • DS
    Posted: Thu, 02/07/2019 07:39 am

    Who's the photo-bomber in the picture of Shawn Harris? Anyone notice him? For those who didn't, he's in the car. You can only see his (right?) hand.