The Scooter Revolution

Way back in 2001 the Segway was announced by inventor Dean Kamen. A technological offshoot of his iBot—a six-wheeled, robotic wheelchair that could ascend stairs and stand a person upright—it was hyped by many thought leaders at the time as the device that would change the way cities were built. He built it, but no one came. Nobody wanted to spend $6000 to look dorky riding down the beach path (save for a few tourists who rent them) or street. A few businesses started up with rentals, and the U.S. Post Office originally ran a pilot program with them for letter carriers, but that was it. Kamen ultimately sold the business, long before the term “last-mile mobility” had been coined.

Then along came the hoverboard. It looked promising, as kids adopted them quickly, then even septuagenarians started using them. They were easy to master and relatively safe to ride. As prices dropped, so did the quality of the 18650 lithium-ion cells that were used to make them. With sketchy batteries and wiring that was surely not up to code, many of them spontaneously burst into flames. They were banned in 2016 by the U.S. International Trade Commission, ironically not for the fire hazard, but for the infringement of patents owned by, you guessed it, Segway.

BIRTH OF THE BIRD

Travis Vanderzanden, an entrepreneur who had once worked at Lyft as COO after Lyft acquired his startup on-demand car-wash service, then worked as a senior executive for Uber. 

He then moved his family to Santa Monica, California, to start his scooter-share business, Bird. The pilot program put out hundreds of the scooters overnight, shocking and surprising the community. Neighborhood app Nextdoor lit up with complaints and praise in equal numbers as people discussed the launch with polarized responses. About 50 percent were re pro-scooter and 50 were against. 

Here’s a perfect example of everything being wrong. This rider has no helmet and is riding on the sidewalk. There’s no law against wearing flip-flops on scooters, but that’s a safety hazard.

 

There are rules and laws that cover electric scooters. Riders have to be at least 18 with a valid driver’s license, wear a helmet while riding, and ride in the bike lane on the street. Bird has actually shipped riders over 50,000 free helmets to help comply with this.

Helmets are technically the law for electric scooters, at least in California. The trouble is that the scooters are convenient, but not everyone carries a helmet everywhere they go, just in case they might take a scooter. Enforcement is another issue, as law enforcement has to be trained to know what to look for, such as underage riders, no helmets, more than one rider on a scooter, etc. 

There have been complaints about riders on sidewalks especially, as unskilled riders with scooters that can travel at up to 15 mph careen through pedestrian traffic on the edge of their abilities, creating hazardous conditions and many injuries. 

Bird has already expanded to Atlanta, Georgia; Austin, Texas; Charlotte, North Carolina; Denver, Colorado; Nashville, Tennessee, Los Angeles, San Jose, San Francisco and San Diego, California; Miami, Florida, Scottsdale and Tempe Arizona; and Washington, D.C. Other companies have followed suit, including bike-share company Lime and Uber-owned Jump Bikes, expanding into many of the same markets.

COST TO RIDE

Bird and Lime both use a similar model. Riders use the brand’s app to scan a QR code on the scooter, and it charges $1 for each ride, plus $.15 per minute. An account is linked to the app to directly deduct the cost of the ride when it’s over, similar to ride-sharing services like Uber and Lyft. To go a mile, the cost of riding the scooter is less than half that of a ride-share service. This is why Uber and Lyft are both starting their own scooter-share businesses.

 

Enforcing the laws is difficult, as many riders don’t respect the signs placed to keep electric scooters off of bike paths.

 

CONTROVERSY

Many cities have a bike-share program. Those bikes have docking stations, usually no more than a few blocks apart, making it easy to know where they are. Scooters are dockless, meaning you pick them up where they are and drop them off wherever you end up. Users find them via GPS on an app. In cities where they’ve been deployed, there are enough that they’re usually closer than a bike docking station. This can be convenient or annoying, depending on the last user. 

Riders need to learn to park them conveniently out of the way, not simply stopping in the middle of the sidewalk and leaving it there. Parking them near a curb or near a wall is the preferred method. There’s no enforcement, and locals sometimes shame users verbally or via social media into parking them nicely. 

There are some rules and laws that each company shares with new riders via their app, and in some places, companies team up to place advertising on buses and billboards to encourage riders to comply. 

Cities are scrambling to deal with this disruptive technology. Government is used to moving things along at a snail’s pace. Today’s technology is lightning-fast and accelerating. The scooter companies have been operating by the motto “It’s better to beg forgiveness than ask permission,” though they have been working with cities to develop sensible laws. 

“Our goal in supporting CA Assembly Bill No. 2989 continues to be providing riders of shared scooters and e-bikes with more consistent ridership rules so that people can more easily embrace sustainable, shared mobility options. We are pleased that the California State Senate shares this view and helped move this bill one step closer to becoming law. Still, Bird strongly encourages all riders to wear helmets and ride safely. This is why we provide helmet instructions on our vehicles and in-app—and why Bird has given away more than 50,000 free helmets to riders so far this year,” says David Estrada, Chief Legal Officer at Bird.

Santa Monica’s city council held a meeting almost entirely made up of discussion about scooters. The beach bike path, open to everything from pedestrians to bicycles to skates and skateboards, has been flooded with tourists and locals alike on the scooters. They’ve had 13 major injuries caused by scooters, almost entirely solo accidents. The scooters do take some skill to ride, and the slippery, sand-sprinkled concrete surface of the beach bike path can be a sketchy place for a powered scooter. There were 42 incidents between cars and scooters reported from January to August 2018. In that same period, there were 35 incidents between bikes and cars, and 50 between pedestrians and cars. 

The city pushes back against the scooters, but doesn’t want to ban them altogether, as they are both convenient and a good moneymaker for the city, who charges $20,000 per year per operator (e.g., Lime), plus $130 per device. If a company has a fleet of 1000 of these on the streets, that’s $150,000 straightaway, not to mention how many people will be using them to go more places and likely spend more money. 

Backlash from some critics includes purposely damaging scooters or outright trashing them, with some even throwing them into the ocean, dumpsters, up into trees or worse. Social media has taken to them, like Instagram account @ScootersBehavingBadly who posts about the outrage and humor of “the dockless scooter invasion,” with videos of scooters on fire and riders not obeying laws.

Every morning scooters are staged on or near street corners, fully charged and ready to go.

GIG ECONOMY

Bird and Lime have made it easy to be a charger; that is, a person who picks up scooters, charges them, then returns them to the streets. They make between $5 and $20 per scooter charged. It’s usually about $5 per scooter, and the higher numbers go to scooters that are harder to get to.

A neighbor kid charges up to 20 per night. That’s $100 a day! We measured an average one he charged, and it used .13 kWh. In Los Angeles-area rates (average 18.2 cents per kWh), that’s 2.4 cents. So, for around 50 cents per night, he can charge 20 scooters. All he has to do is track them down and get them home. That can be done by car, fitting as many as possible in the trunk of his car or, like many, he can stack several on the deck of one that he’s riding home. That’s the tell-tale sign of a charger—a rider with a stack of other scooters cruising down the street. 

There are also opportunities for those who want to be mechanics. It simply requires some online training and a supply of parts. Lime uses only one particular scooter, so all parts are the same. Bird currently uses the Xiaomi Mi scooter mainly, but they use a couple of other brands, too, so mechanics need to have parts for all of them. 

THE FUTURE

Cities, citizens, legislators and scooter startups are all scrambling to make sense of all of this. It’s here, it’s going to get bigger, and we have to adapt to them being here. Learning to ride and parking them carefully are key, probably no different than when cars first appeared in cities, though cars didn’t start with such huge numbers. Ideas like specific parking areas to corral them are being discussed, but no precedent has been set yet. Geo-fencing can be implemented to enforce this.

The scooters are part of a larger number of mobility solutions that have already cut down traffic in areas where they are deployed, and the way they are charged and maintained offers opportunities for locals to make extra money and keeping the fleet up en masse.

This technology, along with e-bikes and other potential transportation like autonomous ride-share cars, will eventually curb the need for people to own cars themselves. The future could see less garages, parking lots and more. Cities that rely on revenue generated by parking tickets will have to adapt, as lower car ownership combined with cars that know better than to park where they’ll get a ticket will cut heavily into that.

That future may be here faster than we think. Scooter-share programs are only a year old and continue to expand as we write this article. There are growing pains, as with any disruptive technology, but it will deliver the promise that Segway made, just in a slightly different form.

Contacts

Bird: www.bird.com

Jump Bikes: www.jumpbikes.com

Lime: www.li.me


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