Electric scooters’ sudden invasion of American cities, explained

Hundreds of motorized electric scooters quietly descended upon San Francisco seemingly overnight in March.

And then one day in June, they were gone.

In the months before their rapture, the scooters puzzled, infatuated, and infuriated residents. Those who dared to try them discovered a whimsical and cheap way to get around. Non-riders saw a swarm of locusts devouring precious inches of sidewalk and street, backed by companies that were the epitome of tech-bro arrogance. The city panicked, ordering that all scooters be removed.

In late August, San Francisco announced that it will give just two companies, Scoot and Skip, permits to test 625 scooters each in the city for one year. And it has become a microcosm of the promise and perils of the scooter stampede. Already, scooter companies operate in 65 cities and are vying for the top prize, New York City. Some city officials, however, are desperately trying to rein in and regulate scooters, which often appear without warning and without local input.

Without docks, scooters are cluttering sidewalks and blocking wheelchair ramps. Riders weaving through crowds or ignoring traffic rules have caused bruises and broken bones. In Santa Monica, California, it’s apparently hard to walk without tripping over a scooter:

The companies behind the scooters haven’t done themselves any favors either. Following in the tracks of aggressive ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft, some scooter companies have adopted the notorious “ask forgiveness rather than permission” approach when setting up shop. As in San Francisco, officials in cities like St. Louis were surprised to see hundreds of scooters suddenly perched on curbs without any forewarning.

Other cities, like Seattle, are trying to keep them out until they can write rules of the road to manage them. And this being 2018, scooter companies have attempted to seed a social media backlash to the backlash.

Amid the feverish passion for and against scooters, there’s a larger reckoning taking place about rapid changes to our cities and public spaces. The scooters are forcing conversations about who is entitled to use sidewalks, streets, and curbs, and who should pay for their upkeep.

They’re also exposing transit deserts, showing who is and isn’t adequately served by the status quo, and even by newer options like bike share. That people have taken so readily to scooters shows just how much latent demand there is for a quick and cheap way to get around cities.

Electric scooters are also challenging the king of American transit, the car. Most car trips are short, and if electric scooters do end up replacing some of them, they could alleviate congestion and help the environment. But that’s a big “if.”

So whether scooters are already rolling into your city or an infestation is looming, you might be wondering how they work, how they get charged, whether they’re safe, and if they are, in fact, good. Here are some answers. Grab the handlebars and hop on.

What are scooters, and where did they come from?

The electric scooters we’re talking about here are pretty simple. Imagine an ordinary two-wheeled kick scooter, like a Razor. Now imagine that it has an electric motor. That’s pretty much it.

The key innovation with the latest batch of scooters is the rental business model: Download the app on your smartphone for a scooter company — Bird, Lime, Skip, Scoot, or Spin — and use the map to find a nearby scooter. Enter a credit card and scan a barcode to unlock the scooter. Go for a ride. Park the scooter and end the ride on the app.

The design of the electric scooter itself has been around for years, but it was often marketed as a toy. You may also recall another grown-up, two-wheeled “personal transporter”:

Launched in 2002, the Segway rode a wave of hope and hype into the market, promising to revolutionize transportation. The device used gyroscopes to almost magically balance on two wheels, sipped electricity, steered intuitively with body movements, and whisked riders along silently at 12 miles per hour.

But it launched with a price of $4,950, making it more a luxury bauble than a commuting workhorse. It was too heavy to carry easily when the batteries ran low. It was too fast for sidewalks, too slow and vulnerable for roads. Riders towered awkwardly over pedestrians, standing stiffly with their feet together as they whirred along. It soon became associated with tech bros and elitism, and thereafter was a punchline.

Segways are still around, but the riders are tour groups, mall security, and parking enforcement. They never became cool. As Jordan Golson wrote at Wired, “the problems that sank the Segway weren’t technological. They were social.”

So it’s these problems of Segways, plus the cost, that scooter rental companies are trying to solve.

For one thing, the rental scooters insulate the rider from most of the cost of the device. At retail, they cost between $100 and $500. But you can start riding many electric scooters for $1 and then 15 cents a minute thereafter. A 2-mile ride takes about 10 minutes and costs less than $3. When you’re done, you don’t have to take it inside or even plug it in; just leave it in a public space where it doesn’t block traffic.

This business model has drastically lowered the barrier to entry for scooter riders, allowing scooter skeptics to cheaply satiate their curiosity, turning some into loyal riders. Though the hardware is more akin to a Segway, the software makes using an electric scooter just like using a dockless bike.

Most of the scooter companies are using rebadged versions of existing electric scooter models that are already for sale. But they want their own custom devices that can handle the rigors of rental. In May, Lime announced it was partnering with Segway to design its next-generation scooter. Bird also rents out Segway-designed scooters.

The proliferation of rental scooters also draws on advances in telecommunications. The scooters have GPS units and 4G data connections to track riders’ every move. And the riders all have smartphones that locate and unlock the scooters while automatically paying the fare.

Batteries are another key advance. Since the early 2000s, energy storage systems have become more powerful and less expensive. Vehicle battery prices have dropped 86 percent between 2010 and 2016. Electric scooters now travel 20 to 30 miles between charges. These batteries have also benefited other electric transportation devices like motorized skateboards and unicycles.

Investors right now are also hungry for transportation startups, which partly explains the scooter boom. From ride-hailing to self-driving cars to electric cars, billions of dollars are pouring into companies that move people around. But short trips between apartments and metro stops or leisurely rides across parks remained a vacuum until recently.

So dockless bikes and, later, electric scooters rushed in to fill the void, securing millions if not billions in financing while clawing for market share.

On the customer side, there is a cadre of riders primed to adopt electric scooters. The generation that grew up rolling around culs-de-sac on Razor scooters is now commuting in urban centers. Balancing on two wheels is already familiar to them, so an app-enabled scooter rental service that can get you to work without breaking a sweat is an appealing throwback and a flash-forward.

In sum, the combination of entrepreneurs, technology, funding, and a race to grab a toehold in major urban centers all converged earlier this year, leading to a sudden crop of scooters starting on the West Coast in March and rippling throughout the country.

Here in Washington, DC, where four scooter companies have launched, I’ve found that the scooter has many charms. A scooter can whisk me to work past stopped traffic at 15 miles per hour. It’s very convenient to park it just about anywhere.

Some scooter firms are already “unicorns” — privately held companies valued at more than $1 billion. Bird, based in Santa Monica, doubled its valuation to $2 billion in just four months. Lime, which also rents bikes, crossed the $1.1 billion valuation mark just 18 months after it launched. Skip Scooters is valued at $100 million.

Meanwhile, Uber and Lyft are themselves getting into the electric scooter game. In early September, Lyft launched 250 scooters in Denver. Uber bought Jump Bikes, an electric bike rental service, for $200 million in April.

But could there be a crash on the horizon? We’re already seeing dockless bikes piling up in scrap yards as companies fold. In China, abandoned bike-share bikes now fill vast fields outside major cities. As scooter-share companies jostle for dominance, weaker players will inevitably fold or be acquired, but it’s too early to say whether the concept as a whole will have staying power.


Who charges scooters, and how much are they paid?

Behind every scooter parked on a sidewalk, leaning on a kickstand, is a vast, invisible infrastructure network that keeps the scooters maintained, charged, and accessible.

Engineers track where the scooters are going. Support staff answer questions on the phone. Technicians whisk off damaged scooters to hidden warehouses for repair.

And as the sun sets and power meters run low, chargers for hire roam the streets, scavenging depleted scooters, plugging them in at home, and placing them back on sidewalks early the next morning. Bird scooters return to their “nest.” Lime scooters are charged by “juicers.”

“For many people, it’s a fun way to make extra money,” said Colin McMahon, who leads Lime’s juicer program.

The way it works: Potential juicers apply for the job with Lime. When approved, they get special access through the app that highlights scooters that need charging. Charging one nets a juicer between $9 and $12, depending on how low the battery is, so a juicer’s take is a function of how many scooters she picks up and how much power those scooters need. Charging the scooter requires about half a kilowatt-hour of electricity, about 5 cents’ worth of power on average.

McMahon said most juicers spend an hour or two in the evening walking or driving around making pickups and then redeploy the scooters in specific locations marked on the app. “We leverage our data to say where are the best spots for people to begin their day for commuting,” he said. He declined to share the number of juicers Lime has on its roster or the typical number of scooters charged per juicer.

Bird follows a similar model. A diverse array of people have signed up as Lime juicers and Bird hunters, but unlike driving for Uber or Lyft, there is no background check. Technically, you have to be over 18, but many high schoolers are getting into the charging game, as the Atlantic reported.

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