How Electric Scooters Are Transforming Cities

DETROIT — On June 17, David Petersen, a 62-year-old accountant turned street performer, arrived at Santa Monica Pier in late morning, ready for another day’s work. Petersen, who performs under the stage name Davy.Rocks, earns his living by singing bold renditions of a variety of popular songs — Britney Spears’ “Baby One More Time,” Dr. Dre’s “The Next Episode” — accompanied by flamboyant, high-energy dance moves.

By 2:30 that afternoon, after winning a prime lottery spot on the boardwalk across from the trapeze school, Petersen was shirtless, wearing his customary headset and Muay Thai shorts, dazzling a crowd of several dozen onlookers. He was mid-song when he turned around, toward the water, to acknowledge a group of particularly enthusiastic fans. The next thing he knew he was lying flat, staring up at an unshaven 20-something barely hanging on to his Bird electric scooter. “What the f— dude?” he remembers the rider saying. “And then he took off.”

Petersen suffered a broken radius and a detached bicep that required surgery, sidelining him for eight weeks. Against his doctor’s orders, he’s since returned to performing, but he feels more cautious and worries his “robocop” arm brace detracts from his usual appeal. “It’s kind of funny, like, an old guy that’s in really good shape dancing around,” he says. “Now there’s an element of sorrow….’Why is he screwed up like that?'” After initially viewing electric scooters as a cool trend, Peterson has joined a growing crowd of Santa Monica, California residents who consider them a serious threat to the urban landscape. “It kind of went from this peaceful, laid-back environment to really tense,” he says of his beachside city. “I like to describe it as like a plague of locusts, swarming over the land, devouring everything in its path.”

Electric scooters, indeed, are suddenly everywhere. After debuting in Southern California last fall, the stand-up scooters, which are rented by smartphone app and can be picked up and dropped off anywhere in a given city, quickly emerged as America’s newest transportation craze, winning converts at “an unprecedented pace” in recent history and conquering dozens of cities, from Austin to Washington, virtually overnight. But while proponents praise the slim, agile scooters as a fun, convenient new transit option for congested metro areas, their rise has also set off a frenzied backlash, inspiring a fierce debate over a hot new technology’s appropriate place in urban life.

“I think the bigger battle is over how we collectively use public space,” says Brooks Rainwater, a senior executive with the National League of Cities. “That’s what the larger conversation is.”

Bird, the first company to launch shared electric scooters in the United States, unrolled its first fleet — or flock — in Santa Monica last September. Their scooters have since appeared in some 70 municipalities across the country, including 17 in California, as well as Paris and Tel Aviv and dozens of college campuses. Lime, the biggest of a dozen or more competitors, has landed in more than 80 American municipalities. The industry’s explosive growth has been driven by hundreds of millions in venture capital funding, and largely followed the cutthroat expansion ethos that characterized the growth of ride sharing apps.

“We’re not going to be happy till there are more Birds than cars,” Travis VanderZanden, the company’s 39-year-old founder and CEO — a former executive at both Lyft and Uber — told the New York Times earlier this year.

According to a recent study by the research group Populus, a majority of Americans familiar with the technology are pro-scooter — 70 percent of respondents in 11 major cities viewed them favorably — and its rapid adoption rate suggests the electric scooter market could potentially rival even the massive ridesharing industry.

For riders, the benefits are clear: Most rentals cost $1 plus $.15 per minute, a price that means short trips likely end up cheaper than an Uber ride or bike share rental. For commuters, electric scooters mean a quicker trip to a train station or bus stop. They’re attractive to professionals who don’t want to sweat striding across town to a meeting and to women whose clothing precludes a bike ride. There’s even preliminary evidence that electric scooters, for many more accessible than bikes, can help reduce the persistent gender and income gaps found in human-powered transportation.

“Not every person in cities learns how to ride a bike, especially lower income residents,” says Sarah Kaufman, an urban planning professor at New York University. “It’s yet another option.”

And the rise of a new electric technology, naturally, also means less pollution. Lime, in a report released this summer, after the company had provided more than 6 million electric scooter and dockless bike-share rides, claimed it had saved more than 5 million pounds of carbon emissions — an amount equivalent to 140 times the annual per capita carbon output in the United States. In San Francisco, more than half of Lime’s survey respondents said they might have taken a car on their latest trip if they hadn’t used an electric scooter — evidence, if preliminary, that the technology is in fact reducing car traffic.

“These are a little faster than the Birds,” said Ben Mothershead, standing over a Lime electric scooter propped against a parking lot fence in downtown Detroit on a recent evening. Earlier this summer, Mothershead, a 24-year-old who works for an energy waste reduction company, decided to go carless — a rare move in transit-starved Detroit. The electric scooters have helped, especially after his bike tire was stolen. “Can I really do this?” he remembers thinking. “So far it’s working great.”

Lime and Bird both arrived in Detroit in late summer, and, unsurprisingly, quickly proved popular: A few blocks from Mothershead, two women standing on electric scooters were chatting outside a Hard Rock Cafe; a father and daughter, apparently riding for fun, scooted a few laps around Campus Martius Park, the city’s main downtown plaza, before heading toward the river. As workers flooded out of office buildings, other riders — young professionals in suits, students wearing backpacks — occasionally whizzed by on the sidewalk or in the street, and several unattended machines cluttered street corners. But in relatively spacious Detroit, the scooters seemed to mostly blend with the existing urban landscape.

Elsewhere, many believe scooters have ruined it. While local laws often dictate scooters can only be used in the street or bike lanes, many riders don’t know or ignore the rules, prompting a physical competition for pedestrian space. Business owners cite blocked front doors. Walkers complain of ugly sidewalk hazards. Helmet requirements are mostly ignored. While no comprehensive scooter-related injury data is yet available, emergency room doctors across the country are reporting spikes in scooter-caused injuries like broken wrists, facial lacerations and blunt head trauma. In Dallas a 24-year-old rider died from head injuries after falling off his electric scooter; in Washington, a 20-year-old rider was killed after colliding with an SUV. In Southern California, collisions have become so frequent that lawyers are advertising scooter-specific personal injury practices.

“It’s an epidemic,” says Catherine Lerer, who has practices in Los Angeles and Santa Monica. In just the past few months, Lerer says, she’s received more than 200 scooter-related injury calls from pedestrians who were hit or, more commonly, from riders hurt when their scooters malfunctioned, usually when the brakes gave out. Lerer is pursuing dozens of personal injury cases against the companies, which she says have dodged accountability. In just a few months, she says, electric scooter injuries — a category that didn’t exist a year ago — has become her most common inquiry, and Santa Monica has become a danger zone.

“[Residents] don’t feel safe anymore,” Lerer says. “When they’re walking the city they don’t feel safe — they feel like they constantly have to be on guard.”

Both Bird and Lime have repeatedly defended their commitment to safety, emphasizing that riders must comply with local laws and often partnering with cities in public service campaigns. While both companies provide free helmets and tell riders to wear them, Bird also sponsored a bill, passed in late September, that removes California’s helmet requirement. The company did not directly address an inquiry from U.S. News regarding the apparent hypocrisy. “The outcome of this legislative process will not change Bird’s ongoing efforts to promote the safe riding of our vehicles,” a spokesperson said in a statement. “We strongly encourage all riders to wear helmets.”

In Los Angeles and elsewhere, electric scooters have also struck a deeper nerve. To many, the newly ubiquitous technology represents the latest cultural assault by a notoriously aggressive tech industry, and the intrusion has only been amplified by bad behavior: Riders, usually young, zigzag through crowds or haphazardly scatter the machines.

Companies, upon debuting in new cities, often drop hundreds of scooters overnight, blindsiding authorities and instantly disrupting lifestyles. In response, enraged citizens have begun a remarkably zealous anti-scooter campaign: Bird Graveyard, an Instagram account dedicated to celebrating the destruction of electric scooters, has more than 40,000 followers and is deluged by submissions. Popular videos include scooters being incinerated, drowned at sea and defecated on by dogs.

“I hate Birds more than anyone,” Hassan Galedary, a 32-year-old filmmaker and anti-scooter “insurgent,” told the Los Angeles Times. “They suck. People who ride them suck.”

Yet the scooters’ immense popularity, experts say, also reveals a need for them: In urban areas across the country, people increasingly want to move away from car travel but are often limited by existing infrastructure. The introduction of electric scooters has caused tremendous friction and real problems, especially safety, but it’s also filled a void.

“What cities need to be doing is planning for whatever comes next, or planning for this clear desire for residents to use active transport,” says NYU’s Kaufman. The technology needs to be better integrated, she argues, but the upside is huge.

“If it can get people out of cars and on their two feet, it’s a net benefit.”

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How Electric Scooters Are Transforming Cities originally appeared on usnews.com