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If there’s anything more cringe-inducing than the sight of a grown man in a business suit riding a scooter to the office, it’s the sight of a lot of grown men doing that.
Residents in cities across America will soon get the opportunity to debate the issue with firsthand evidence, as electric scooters, or escooters, are poised to invade much of the US over the next year.
They’ve already conquered much of the West Coast, with the devices — basically Razor-style kids’ scooters with electric motors attached — having become common sights in San Francisco, San Diego and parts of Los Angeles. They’ve even crossed the Pacific and become a nuisance for cops in Hawaii. Proponents and the companies that are rolling them out tout them as the next step in the greening of US cities, a no-fuss way of getting Americans out of their cars and into the outdoors while cutting down on traffic and carbon emissions. For critics, electric scooters are an ankle-twisting menace that’s being dumped into neighborhoods without warning by overeager companies that want to get their cut of the market first, and ask for forgiveness from local communities later.
“I’m a bit of a road warrior,” Euwyn Poon, CEO of Spin, a bikeshare company that currently rents out dockless electric scooters in San Francisco, said by phone. “I’m always running around to meetings, from coffeeshops to launches to meet locations. Oftentimes you want to take away that unpredictability when it’s one mile to another — San Francisco’s traffic’s always pretty bad, and Uber is convenient but also causes congestion. With electric scooters, it doesn’t require you to break a sweat, you can hop on and off with great ease, and it’s ultimately an environmentally friendly mode of transport that goes toward our vision of seeing downtown and urban environments filled with scooters instead of cars.”
The scooters are dockless. Users rent them via an app for a few dollars per trip and leave them either at dedicated spaces or pretty much anywhere they can. At night, they’re collected by so-called “chargers,” who get paid up to $20 per scooter to recharge them for use the next day.
Kenneth Baer, spokesman for Bird Rides, the most well-known of the electric-scooter companies, said the electric-scooter model just makes sense when 40% of all car trips in the US are less than two miles, needlessly causing congestion and pollution. The company, founded by a former executive of Lyft and Uber, has ventured outside of California and now rents out scooters in Austin, Texas, and Washington, DC, and boasts that it’s racked up over a million electric-scooter miles in its seven months of existence.
“We get people out of their cars. When I need to go on short trips, I don’t need to spend $7 and get an Uber or a taxicab. Instead, I can ride a scooter in a bike lane, and it’s great and it’s fun,” Bird spokesman Kenneth Baer said in a telephone interview. “Seven years from now, we’ll see fewer cars and more dedicated bike lanes.”
That is, if the residents survive to see it, according to personal-injury attorney Jordon Harlan, who has an office in San Diego’s Gaslamp Quarter.
“It is only a matter of time before someone gets really hurt,” he said by telephone. “I’ve seen people riding on scooters with their baby in a carrier in front of them, multiple people on one scooter, scooters at night with what amounts to a tiny flashlight on the bottom of scooter by way of lighting. I don’t think I’ve ever seen people with helmets on. I saw a person on a scooter run a red light on a three-lane road. I’m really worried about this.”
In exasperation, he added: “I have on my block alone no less than — just looking out my window here — one, two, three scooters lying on the sidewalk.”
People already have been hurt. In first five weeks or so of this year, Santa Monica — where Bird first launched its electric scooters last fall — saw hundreds of traffic stops, nearly 100 citations and at least eight accidents, including one involving head trauma. All of those incidents involved electric scooters.
It doesn’t help that local officials often feel blindsided when the electric scooters appear, seemingly overnight, leaving them to deal with the consequences of hundreds of people suddenly zipping through streets and over sidewalks at speeds comparable to slow-moving cars. At the University of Texas at Austin, where some 200 Bird and LimeBike scooters began appearing on the hilly 100-acre campus last week, the administration is struggling to catch up as college students take to the trend with enthusiasm, but little sense of what does and doesn’t breach the bounds of the law and common courtesy.
“It came about really quickly, almost overnight from one day to the next,” Blanca Gamez, the assistant director for parking and transportation services and a lecturer at the university, said by phone. “Typically, they’re parking in areas for egress and ingress, blocking pedestrian pathways, parking along the road or even in the middle of the sidewalks, and sometimes even making their way into buildings, where they do more of the same. It’s like they just descended onto campus.”
In California, which has had the most time to adjust to the world of escooters, legislators both supportive and critical of the new businesses are duking it out with competing proposals that would either loosen restrictions on electric scooters or impose more. Other potential markets, notably New York City, already have laws in place outright banning the devices. But in Austin, the novel vehicles seem to have fallen between the legal cracks, and Gamez and the university are waiting to see how city officials decide to treat them.
“Right now we’re educating the campus community, working with the University of Texas Police Department to educate people about what the rules and regulations are, but we’re not at the point where we’re impounding scooters, though it is a possibility,” Gamez said. “The community is still just trying to figure out what to do about it.”
Acutely aware of the backlash, the escooter companies have stressed that they want to work with communities and find a mutually agreeable solution that will ultimately benefit the cities they launch in. Poon said Spin’s strategy is introduce scooters slowly and only in concert with city councils and departments of transportation. Bird announed that it was spearheading a campaign it called “Save Our Sidewalks” to promote bike lanes and less cluttered sidewalks. It also began offering free helmets to users who request them, sending 22,000 of them in the last three months, Baer said. (LimeBike did not respond to requests for comment.)
But Baer also said that Bird wasn’t going to wait around for cities to impose more restrictions before bringing progress to their communities. He said the company expects to be in 15 markets across the country by the end of the calendar year.
“That’s just not sensible [for us to wait for cities to decide on regulations],” he said. “The people in the cities we’re coming to, over time, they’ll see traffic being reduced, less congestion, parking problems being reduced and fewer carbon emissions.”
Featured photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
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