I have recently starting using Birds and Limes – those electric scooters that, seemingly overnight, have begun dotting urban landscapes across the country. I’d seen them in my Washington, D.C. neighborhood since the early summer, and then again during a Labor Day trip to San Diego. But it wasn’t until I was in Detroit last week that I decided to give them a try. The premise is simple enough: You download the app, enter a payment method, use the GPS system in the app to locate a nearby scooter, scan the QR code located on the scooter, and then you ride! I had been nagged all summer by a deep sense of FOMO after seeing so many young hip people whizzing around on the scooters. So, bolstered by my college roommate’s coaching and encouragement, I hopped on a Bird – in five-inch heels…big mistake. After a disastrous initial foray that resulted in a most inelegant sidewalk crash, I changed into flats, got my bearings, and I was good to go. Before too long, I was flying around Detroit’s bustling downtown – I’d spread my wings, if you will. I noticed that there was often a shortage of Birds but a lot of Limes, so I downloaded the Lime app, too. Between the two services, I was able to avoid using Uber and taxis for most of my time in Detroit. My initiation was rapid and intense – about a dozen rides in a few days’ time and my conclusion is positive but tempered; electric scooters are good but they’re not yet great. I believe they’re here to stay and with a few tweaks, they’ll be an invaluable contribution to reaching the shared goal of cleaner and more efficient urban transportation options.
The merits of electric scooters are obvious and hard to overstate. They’re quick – the scooters can go 15-20 mph. They’re economical – the base fare for Bird is a buck to start and fifteen cents per minute. Lime is even less expensive at one dollar for every thirty minutes of ride time. Both companies will pay you to charge up their scooters. The low cost makes them economically accessible to much of the population, though you do need a credit card and a smart phone to use the apps. Most important to many urban dwellers. They’re fun, efficient, easy to use, and ubiquitous. They make easy work of those trips that are a bit too far to walk but not far enough to justify the hassle and expense of driving or using Uber or Lyft. For me, that means most trips that are more than half a mile and fewer than two miles are “Bird-able.” The biggest drawback for users is finding a scooter during peak hours that’s in good repair and has sufficient juice to get you where you’re going.
There are drawbacks – serious ones that need to be addressed in order to maximize the potential of these scooters as a central piece of the modern urban transportation landscape. Some cities -San Diego, San Francisco, and St, Paul, for starters -have expelled Bird – kicked them out of their nests, if you will. This seems extreme and overly punitive, especially given the merits of the scooters, but cities are right to take measures to protect their citizens and help ensure public safety. The worst aspect of Birds and Limes is that they’re without a home. Unlike some of the established bikeshare programs, which have designated docking stations, electronic scooters are dockless. They can be picked up and dropped off anywhere. While this scooter-on-demand business model may be attractive to users, it can be a safety hazard and an eyesore for everyone else. I spent half the spring kvetching to anyone who would listen about the godawful dockless bikes – an unwelcome addition to Washington’s landscape -that were haphazardly strewn in front of my home nearly every morning. One June morning I counted six discarded bikes, each lying on its side, outside of my house. Well, it seems electric scooters have now taken up the mantle; I have seen them littering the entrances of stores and business, hastily stored on the sides of business, and sometimes just discarded in the street. Not only are nestless Birds unsightly, they pose a hazard to pedestrians, especially those who use wheelchairs and walking aids to get around. The dockless scooters and bikes can impede ingress and egress and create an active nuisance for all who have to share the sidewalk. We need to develop a culture of courtesy around how the scooters are stored. Better yet, cities could require docking stations for them. Right now, there is a sense of entitlement in some users and they behave as though everyone should be willing to live with the clutter and hazards improperly stored scooters create – unsightly, unsafe for those who used wheelchairs and seeing eye dogs, disrespectful to property owners and neighborhood residents who have to live with visual clutter when they’re haphazardly discarded.
Many cities are not yet equipped with designated bike lanes where scooter users could safely ride. As a result, you’ll often see scooter users weaving in and out of traffic or barreling down the sidewalks. The scooters are fast, and it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that scooter v car v pedestrian crashes are going to result. Also, the scooters don’t have shock absorption, so if the rider hits a pothole, they will feel it and they may even fall as a result of it. The companies encourage the use of helmets, but that advice isn’t widely heeded. There have been numerous news reports about an uptick in ER visits due to scooter-related injuries. Perhaps most concerning is the age of some of the riders. You’re supposed to be 18 to operate a motorized scooter. However, I have seen young children flying around my neighborhood riding them. There is no age verification mechanism in the app after the initial registration and crafty children have, of course, exploited that weakness in the system. We are clearly in the wild early days of electric scooters and improvements must be made to how they’re stored and use. I believe with some pressure from municipal leaders, common sense behavioral reforms by users, and a more thoughtful approach by Bird, Lime, and their peers, these scooters will be embraced by the masses.