Are Scooters Destroying Cities—or Saving Them?
Bike Snob NYC spent three days scootering around Portland, Oregon, to determine, once and for all, whether the now infamous tiny wheeled contraptions are a scourge on our cities—or whether they’re damned convenient and laughably benign
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Scooters. Tiny electric scooters.
No doubt you’ve heard how dockless, shareable scooters have been destroying cities like a swarm of mechanical locusts. They first started making national news in spring 2018 after a backlash in San Francisco, where residents claimed that people on scooters were commandeering the bike lanes, littering the sidewalks with abandoned steeds, and menacing children and old people with their scofflaw behavior. San Francisco subsequently banned the scooters pending the implementation of a new permitting process; one critic even called them “a plot of the young people to kill off all us old farts so they can have our rent-controlled apartments.”
As a cyclist and car skeptic, I found myself scoffing: to me, whining about people on electric scooters in a country that sees 40,000 road deaths per year seemed like complaining about in-flight entertainment while the cockpit’s on fire. At the same time, as a New Yorker, I had no firsthand experience with shared scooters (our City Council is currently drafting a bill to allow them but who knows if or when they’ll actually arrive), so I couldn’t discount the possibility that maybe I had no idea what I was talking about. Maybe they really were a menace.
Then I saw the following tweet from the Willamette Week in Portland, Oregon, where the Portland Bureau of Transportation (PBOT) had just launched its own scooter share pilot program:
Wait, Portland was freaking out about scooters? The kvetching out of San Francisco was one thing (the Summer of Love was over half a century ago and the city has long had a national reputation for extreme NIMBYism), but this was Portland: land of the bike and home of the weird. Were their sphincters really this tight now? Or were the scooters really that bad? Eight years ago, I’d gone to Portland and plumbed the depths of the bike culture for this very magazine. I knew now that I had to go back—only this time, instead of immersing myself in bike culture, I’d binge on scooters.
By the time I arrived in Portland on August 16, the scooter pilot was in full swing, with the three main e-scooter companies—Bird, Skip, and Lime—running a combined 2,363 scooters, according to PBOT’s most recent stats. (The program is capped at 2,500). Based on the sensational news stories I’d read, I expected to find the machines hanging from trees and the cityscape transformed into some kind of Children of Men-esque dystopia. A scooter-shaming Instagram account depicted them ending up in places like Porta-Potties, and two brothers even reported that a driver ran them down on the sidewalk just for looking at scooters.
But upon stepping off the MAX light-rail at Lloyd Center at about 10:30 p.m. on Thursday, with a backpack full of clothes and a phone full of scooter apps, I found only calm. I certainly didn’t find any scooters, which is a shame because that’s how I’d been planning to cover the final mile from the station to my hotel. Instead I walked, down NE 12th Avenue and past the Franz bakery churning out tomorrow’s bread. Then I had my first sighting: one woman scooting along with another riding a bicycle. The scooter’s headlight was aglow, and along with her companion, she glided into the night with preternatural ease, like Rosie from the Jetsons. I envied her as I schlepped my heavy backpack.
The next morning, I awoke early in order to familiarize myself with the rigs before joining the morning rush. This time, it was easy to find a scooter, as there was a nest of Birds right outside my hotel. Anybody can get paid to collect and charge scooters, so by morning they tend to be fully juiced and neatly parked. Bird, responding to criticism about abrupt rollouts and inconsiderate riders, has also pledged to help pay for bike lane projects in the cities where it operates so that their users are safe from drivers and don’t feel compelled to ride on the sidewalk and inconvenience pedestrians.
I scanned the QR code on the scooter’s handlebars with my phone, but before unlocking it, the app prompted me to scan my drivers’ license. It also reminded me to use bike lanes when possible, stay off the sidewalks, park responsibly, and wear a helmet. (I did not wear a helmet at any point during any of my scootering, nor does anybody else.) I felt deeply self-conscious as I mounted the scooter, but the sensation of being whisked away with the mere flick of the throttle was, well, not exactly exhilarating, but certainly very pleasant. Minutes later I was at Delicious Donuts, and after fortifying myself with a non-artisanal sausage and egg breakfast, I was ready for rush hour.
I still felt acutely self-aware on my Bird as I headed toward downtown. One reason was my inherent bias against the scootering posture: I feel like a meerkat standing on a conveyor belt. Attempting to counter this, I let one foot dangle off the platform in an unconvincing whatevs gesture, like the guy in cargo shorts who holds his wife’s purse at arm’s length while she uses the bathroom. Then there was all the anti-scooter propaganda I’d been reading. As a cyclist, I’m used to scorn, but on the scooter I couldn’t help worrying that everyone I passed wanted to egg me. Finally, like many cyclists, when I’m not on a bike and I see others riding, I want to shout, “Hey, I’m one of you!” The desire was even stronger as I glided along on my motorized dolly.
My own hangups aside, I quickly grew fond of the scooter. The offerings from all three companies top out at 15 miles per hour, which is brisk enough to keep pace in the bike lane and not quite fast enough to get you into any real trouble. Also, as much as I love riding bikes, there’s no denying the convenience of a tiny runabout that you don’t have to straddle or pedal, which is why some bike advocates worry that scooters will cannibalize Portland’s Biketown bikeshare system.
Pedaling a bicycle has always seemed dignified to me, whereas on a scooter, I feel like a meerkat standing on a conveyor belt.
At the same time, it was immediately obvious that scooters are never going to replace the bicycle. For example, while limiting the speed to 15 miles per hour is certainly prudent, it also means that when you do have to contend with motor-vehicle traffic, you can’t accelerate out of a dicey situation the way you can on a bike. And despite the motor, they’re really only suited to flat terrain. Mild uphills aren’t a problem for a scooter with an average-size unladen adult, but it doesn’t take much of a downhill to undermine its stability and traction. At one point, I rode down the gentle slope of SE Sandy Boulevard in the bike lane when a driver crossed my path. On a bike, I would have feathered the brakes and thought little of it, but on the scooter I immediately locked up the wheel, causing it to fishtail. I put a foot down and recovered quickly because I’m awesome, but it was a good lesson in how much faster you’ll hit the limits of a scooter than those of a bicycle. There’s also the fact that a bike is better suited to carrying heavy loads—you’d have a much easier time making a grocery run on a bike than on a scooter. And perhaps most crucially, due to the geometry of the scooters, it’s very difficult to ride them one-handed. Forget glancing at your phone or adjusting your bag; even hand signals are pretty much out of the question.
Still, for covering a mile or two quickly, they’re absolutely ideal. Crossing over the Willamette River and into downtown, I soon found myself amid a group of bike commuters. Portland cyclists are an orderly bunch, so as a scooting interloper I was careful to comport myself extra-conscientiously. At one point a homeless person pushing a full cart crossed in front of us mid-block; one rider flashed a hand signal and we all behind duly slowed. (This is not how it works in New York, where, when someone steps out into traffic everyone just picks a direction and guns it like the Tour de France peloton negotiating a roundabout.) At red lights I’d glance at my fellow commuters and try to discern any signs of contempt; if they were feeling any toward me I couldn’t sense it.
I was far from the only scooterist out there plying the streets of downtown. Some looked like commuters, others looked like tourists, but none were doing anything even remotely untoward—well, okay, I might have seen one person scooting on an empty sidewalk, though he appeared to be in the process of riding it into the street. The scooters themselves were widely distributed yet unobtrusive: from all the bad press I’d expected them to be piled up against buildings like snowdrifts, but they mostly just stood at attention by the curbside waiting for riders. Indeed, as the morning rush tapered off I had to come to terms with the fact that I’d encountered no egregious scootering whatsoever, nor had I received any derision for operating one.
In a last-ditch attempt to find some outrageous behavior before calling it quits for the morning, I headed down to the Waterfront Park Trail, where I figured I was sure to find tourists behaving stupidly. There, I exchanged my Bird scooter for a Lime, which unlocked with a chime. (The Lime app did not require my driver’s license.) Then I took to the trail. There was indeed plenty of stupidity on display, but none of it involved scooters. Finally, I headed back to my hotel. The Lime app prompted me to submit a photograph proving I’d parked the scooter properly, then it told me how many grams of carbon I’d saved on my trip. So far my assessment of the tiny wheeled menace was that it was both highly convenient and laughably benign.
In addition to scooting in Portland I also engaged in plenty of informal conversation with Portlanders on the subject of scooters. It was clearly a hot issue. Everybody I spoke to had a considered opinion about them, if not an anecdote to go along with it. (Kids using them to get rad off curbs, passers-by harassing scooter users, that sort of thing.) Some people I spoke to were enthusiastic and had a “Bring ‘em on!” attitude, others had their reservations, and a few thought they were just dorky and annoying. One person I spoke to was cool with scooters and took a certain amount of delight in how they were raising people’s hackles: “They’re like vape pens,” he observed wryly. Another remarked that, “If I find any scooters in front of my house…,” implying that he might do something untoward to them in such a scenario. (This same critic has made a name for himself for tearing through traffic in brakeless fixed-gear bike videos, so go figure.)
It surprised me that many of the people I spoke to had not actually tried a scooter. And in the end, I found that even the most skeptical people were fine with the idea of the scooters as long as they helped cut down on the number of people driving.
Any concerns about the adverse effects of corporate scooter share on Portland’s homegrown character may be unfounded. On Friday evening I partook in the evening rush hour, and once again I was unable to elicit any ire or find anybody doing anything truly moronic or antisocial on a scooter. What I did find is that the system itself seems to deteriorate as the day goes on—in particular, it gets harder and harder to find a scooter with a charged battery. At one point I found myself wandering amid the homeless encampments of downtown, scanning scooter after scooter only to find them all to be unrideable. Was this really the future of cities and transport? “Maybe this is a Children Of Man-esqye dystopia,” I thought to myself.
The situation was more dire later that night at a Whole Foods near downtown. I’d scooted over there okay, but now I had a backpack full of food items and couldn’t find another ride for the return trip. Like a junkie looking to score I found myself jockying the scooter apps looking for the nearest ride, and I finally tracked a pair of Skips to the darkened parking lot of a Plaid Pantry convenience store.
As I approached the two scooters, already anticipating being swept away on that intoxicating electric wave, I noticed that there was a group of leather-clad people standing around them. I hesitated. Were these bait scooters? Could this be some kind of gang using them to lure unsuspecting scooter bros? Was I about to find myself on the receiving end of a Portland-style beatdown?
Steeling myself, I drew closer, clutching my phone and fingering the Skip app. The figure closest to the scooters took a drag from his Parliament and grabbed the handgrips.
“Yeah, we’re kind of holding these.”
It was now clear to me that these were simply young people—kids, really—and that they were harmless. (Dangerous people don’t smoke Parliaments.) In fact they could have been me a few decades ago, right down to the Doc Martens.
“Holding them?” I suppressed the urge to add “Hey, no fair!” and make a grab for it.
He then explained that they were collecting as many scooters as possible to do some sort of group night scooter ride; indeed, as we spoke, one of his companions was busy coordinating on the phone with other unseen companions who had supposedly found more somewhere. Intrigued, I asked if this was something they did regularly, but it turned out to be the first time they were trying it, and like me they were having a hard time finding scooters. At this point insisting they relinquish one of the rides so I could carry my gourmet groceries back to my hipster hotel seemed hopelessly NARCy, so instead I exchanged numbers with the ringleader so I could follow up on how their outing went. (“Scooter Joe,” as he identified himself, had not replied as of press time.) After that, I walked the rest of the way.
I scooted extensively on Saturday in the hope that the weekend would bring with it some scooter shenanigans. While doing a lap up and down the Willamette via the Waterfront Park Trail and the Eastbank Esplanade I saw someone trying to do donuts on a Lyme, people riding two-on-a-scooter, riders clearly under the age of 18, and other flagrant violations of the user agreement. However, none of these caused me even the slightest bit of concern or impeded my progress. If anything, it made me happy to see other people having fun, which was a clear sign that I’d been in Portland too long.
Before heading out to Portland I’d found all the scooter outrage ridiculous; now I found it doubly so. In particular, a fair amount of this outrage has come from people in the cycling community, who with a stunning lack of self-awareness have decried people on scooters as reckless and accused them of the same sort of behavior people have been accusing cyclists of all these years in order to deny them infrastructure. Even some bike advocates have a proprietary view of the infrastructure they helped create and have expressed misgivings about allowing people on scooters in the bike lane.
Of course there are reasons that scooters may be working better in Portland than they have elsewhere: specifically, the pilot program was a controlled rollout rather than a dead-of-night dump, as was the case in Cleveland. (Bird has since suspended operations in the Ohio city after a woman was killed on a scooter by an intoxicated driver, even though the woman was riding a scooter she had rented from a local business and not a Bird or other scooter-share company.) And of course Portland’s system itself isn’t perfect, particularly when it comes to finding a working scooter. Yet having now experienced shared electric scooters I can’t imagine not being thrilled by the potential inherent in a swift, cheap, and efficient form of transport that’s compatible with any wardrobe. They seem about as controversial to me now as escalators.
It’s hard not to believe that most of our objections to scooters come down to aesthetics: we all like to identify with certain lifestyle attributes of the rides we employ. Bikes are cool, skateboards are cool, and surfboards are cool, but nobody’s gonna wear a t-shirt with an electric scooter on it.
Then again, who knows? Walking back to my hotel on Saturday night around sunset (I was once again unable to find either Bird, Skip, nor Lime) a couple on a scooter went by. The weather was California perfect. He was piloting, and she was standing behind him, one arm draped across his chest and the other holding a phone to capture the moment. It wasn’t the selfish disregard of the scofflaw or the vapid self-absorption of the selfie-taking tourist: it was just two people headed out for a fun night together with the wind in their hair, and they gave off the same air of casual elegance as those couples you see in Amsterdam sharing a bike.
Really, if this is the future, what’s not to like?