Electric scooters have arrived in cities all over the country, but they’re wending their way more slowly to New York, where transit innovations, like actors and food trends, come to be honed or fade away. Unwilling to wait, I go hunting for one in downtown Greensboro, North Carolina, and, following the dot on my phone, find a Bird propped against a lamppost. I step on, kick off, thumb the throttle, and steer, and in seconds I feel like I’ve been doing it for years.
How can anyone detest these things? Simple, efficient, cheap, and slightly goofy, they are the 21st-century version of the Vespa. You can ride one in a dress or in a suit, or if your knees hurt too much to walk a mile or your legs are too weak to pedal. You can chug up hills and over bridges without arriving at your destination shellacked in sweat. Suddenly, a platform with two battery-powered wheels and a vertical handlebar seems like the most obvious way to get around.
Fitted out with a battery-powered motor and a top speed of 15 miles per hour, this steerable skateboard has confounded transportation experts and politicians: is it a vehicle or a bike-like toy, a solution or a sidewalk scourge? In their short existence, e-scooters have triggered a cascade of complaints: they’re too fast, slow, lame, or popular, too vulnerable to breakdowns, cracked sidewalks, vandalism, and hacking; they have no place on sidewalks, in bike lanes, or in traffic.
Rather than puzzle over this machine as if it were a piece of possibly radioactive alien detritus, cities would be better off helping scooter-share companies and manufacturers make them compatible with urban life. Ideally, they’d be fitted out with grocery baskets, more rugged wheels, and an indicator making it clear how many miles a semi-depleted battery has left in it. But already, these microvehicles assert the principle that people should be able to move around freely, without requiring any more public real estate than their own shoulder width. Although the coverage and marketing has centered on the young and the fit, a slightly more stable three-wheeled version could liberate some older people from their effective house arrest.
Before unlocking the gates to the city to companies like Bird and Lime, New York will need to make changes and set some rules. In congested neighborhoods and near subway stations, scooters should be steered to designated parking areas so they don’t clutter the sidewalks. Initially, they should be launched not in midtown but in neighborhoods like Maspeth, in Queens, or Soundview, in the Bronx, where the nearest subway stop can be a 25-minute trudge or an erratic bus ride away. Electric scooters should be treated like bicycles: forbidden from sidewalks, pedestrian park paths, and playgrounds, encouraged to use bike lanes, and permitted on streets. But wait: What if they grow so popular that, like Ubers, they clog the streets of Manhattan and slow down traffic even more? Great! I’d like nothing better than to see flocks of Birds swarm Fifth Avenue, making it inhospitable for cars. Every black Escalade or Suburban that veers off a congested block in frustration makes room for half a dozen people on non-polluting, low-impact wheels. In the meantime, the more workers commute by scooter, the more pressure they will put on the city to provide protected lanes that are continuous, maintained, and free of police cars and delivery trucks.
It’s not surprising that the latest commuter gizmo began as a toy. Like many parents, I recall walking alongside my toddler as he pushed off on his Razor and coasted a few yards between kicks. When he got tired, or reached his destination, I raised the handlebar and stepped on the floorboard myself. Now, 15 years later, my son and the scooter have both grown up and are ready for the commuting life.
The latest transportation options, like hoverboards and aerial bikeways, seem to have sprung from the doodle pad of a nerdy fifth-grader ca. 1962. E-bikes, which have been around for well over a century and already seemed quaintly radical in the 1930s, have become semi-ubiquitous. Even rocket skates are reality (sort of) now. If retro futurism is suddenly in vogue again, it’s not just because battery life, apps, and the sharing ethos have finally caught up to the imagination. It’s because new needs have reinvigorated old ideas. City streets are in crisis, nowhere more than in New York, where failing subways, sloth-paced buses, and sclerotic roads have made moving an existential challenge. The scooter can help, if we let it.
The status quo has a touch of the Wild West. A handful of private companies have deployed the things on the streets of unsuspecting cities, and challenged politicians and planners to accommodate their sudden popularity. Unfamiliar, unregulated, erratically maintained, electric scooters are welcome in some cities but illegal in others. A bill to allow them (and other e-wheelers) on New York’s streets is wending its way through City Council, and City Hall may soon start up pilot programs in the outer boroughs, which is where scooters are needed most. Bird, one of the biggest e-scooter companies along with Lime, has lured the bike and pedestrian activist Paul Steely White away from his perch at Transportation Alternatives. The hire suggests that the techies at Bird feel the need for a colleague who understands street safety. It’s a smart move, because if I were an e-scooter magnate, I’d be worried less about battery life and a seamless in-app experience than about a potential rash of crashes.
Like any new people-moving technology, scooters have their dangers. Anecdotal evidence suggests that new users are falling off and getting injured in worrisome numbers. The same was true of skateboards in the ’70s, roller skates in the ’80s, in-line skates in the ’90s, and cycling in the 1890s. (“Young growing tissues are easily distorted,” the Times warned in 1893, “and a saddle too far back and handles too far forward [on a bike or tricycle] would certainly cause a curved spine and a permanent camel’s hump.”) If it’s got wheels, someone will crash it.
And yet, if the e-scooter seems to you like a dumb, dangerous interloper in city streets, try scrolling back to the 1890s and asking yourself how you would have reacted if an enthusiast had honestly explained the future of urban surface transportation: The streets are chaotic, dusty, and filled with manure, horses go lame, get tired, and start at sudden noises. Now here comes a machine that will get you wherever you want to go with astounding speed and at virtually no danger to yourself. True, automobiles will wind up killing millions and permanently befouling the air. At certain times of day, they will be able to move no faster than a tired burro. And the need to store them when they’re not in motion (i.e., almost all the time) will consume entire downtowns and thousands of suburban square miles. But hey, no big deal, right?
The novelty of scooters — and the risks — highlights just how completely we’ve let cars monopolize our streets, and how fiercely the culture fends off any incursions. Last month, a 20-year-old scooter rider, Carlos Sanchez-Martin, died in Washington, D.C., when a driver in an SUV hit him and dragged him more than 50 feet across Dupont Circle. Cars mangle and kill people all the time, but news reports focused on the scooter, simply because it was there. In that sense, Sanchez-Martin’s death is no different from thousands of other horrors that we tolerate as the cost of driving. A pedestrian who lingers too long in a crosswalk — as an act of civil disobedience, say — can be arrested for blocking traffic. But unless a driver is drunk or high or flees the scene, you can usually crush a pedestrian beneath the wheels of your SUV and not have to suffer so much as a summons. (A bus driver who tried to squeeze past a man on a Citi Bike in Chelsea and wound up killing him was handed a rare misdemeanor conviction this month.) So ask not whether scooters are safe enough for your city, but whether your city is safe enough for people to get around in without the need for armor.