Scooters get Jessi McFarland where she needs to go. But for the University of Minnesota student, the electric two-wheelers are more than just a source of transportation.
“It makes me happy riding them,” she said. “I love the way the breeze feels in my hair when I’m on my way.”
The incoming college senior, who lives near campus and doesn’t own a car, used to walk or grab a bus when heading out to meet friends, run errands or get to her job. Now she uses an app to locate a scooter, scans its QR code with her phone to unlock and pay for it, and off she goes.
“A 20-minute walk takes less than five minutes on a scooter, and I don’t get sweaty,” she said.
This is the second year that several for-profit companies have dropped thousands of scooters on the streets of the Twin Cities.
In addition to being fun, the zero-emission scooters have lured riders by being cheap, accessible and eco-friendly alternatives to cars. They’ve spawned a new side hustle for “juicers” who pick up the dockless scooters and recharge them. (See sidebar.) And advocates say they’ve reduced the number of vehicles crowding our construction-congested roads.
But this fast-moving addition to the streets — and sidewalks — of cities has found plenty of foes.
“It’s not the scooters, it’s the riders,” complained Minneapolis resident Erich Wunderlich, who would like to see aggressive citations for riders who ignore the rules of the road, ride against traffic, don’t wear helmets or shoot down sidewalks, where they are prohibited.
“I was standing on the sidewalk with friends when a couple came by at full tilt. The woman went off on us, how rude we were for blocking her,” he said. “We were astounded, but she thought she was in the right.”
(In some areas of Minneapolis, signs are going up to warn riders not to use scooters on the sidewalk. The city also is establishing parking zones for scooters on streets. )
The GPS-enabled scooters present a hazard to Melinda Weir, who uses a wheelchair and travels with a service dog. She’s frustrated by riders who let their scooters drop wherever they dismount instead of placing them on a public right of way or on the city-owned strip of property between the curb and sidewalk.
When “they’re left in the sidewalk or crosswalk path, I’m unable to move the scooters,” said Weir, “so I have to put myself in danger by going on the street or grass so that I can get around them or find someone that can move them for me.”
Another danger for Weir? “Scooters whizzing by from behind can startle my dog, which takes her focus off doing her job,” she said.
From dislike to destruction
For Dave Peters, scooters have replaced unscooped dog droppings on his list of pet peeves.
A regular walker on Minneapolis’ Stone Arch Bridge, Peters particularly dislikes scooter riders who veer too close to pedestrians as well as those who abandon their rented rides in the middle of a walkway.
“I don’t want to be that cranky guy, but what’s the right thing to do with one in my way? Ignore it? Walk around it? Tip it over?” he said. “I sent a message to Lime asking what a conscientious pedestrian should do, but didn’t get an answer. I could throw it in the river, but that’s not appropriate.”
Some scooter loathers have exercised less restraint.
Vandals have defaced or destroyed scooters in a number of cities across the country. More than 60 were pulled out of a lake in Oakland, Calif., and divers retrieved 57 from a Portland, Ore., river. There’s even an Instagram account with pictures of scooters that have been set on fire, tossed in dumpsters and crushed beneath the wheels of vehicles.
Earlier this summer, St. Paul police investigated reports of 49 scooters that appeared to have been intentionally damaged, with bent handlebars, mangled frames and severed brake lines.
Measuring the pro- and anti-scooter sentiment in the Twin Cities isn’t easy.
Since the scooters returned this spring, Minneapolis’ 311 comment line has averaged two complaints a day about them. Minneapolis police spokesman John Elder said that while officers do issue scooter citations, the department doesn’t break down moving violation infractions based on type of vehicle, whether car, bike or scooter.
It’s clear, however, that lots of people are riding them. Between July and November last year, 225,543 scooter rides were taken in Minneapolis by 74,877 riders. In St. Paul, riders made just over 64,000 trips. With more scooters on the streets this year, that number is certain to rise.
A taste of the future
For those who wish scooters from companies like Lime, Bird and Spin would disappear as quickly as they appeared, Bill Lindeke has some bad news.
“They’re not a flash in the pan. I think they’ll stick around even though they can only be used half the year,” said Lindeke, an urban geographer who teaches at the University of Minnesota and Metro State and writes, blogs and podcasts about Twin Cities transportation.
Just as bike sharing has become popular for short hops around the Twin Cities, scooters are likely to be more than a novelty.
“With the app/smartphone revolution, the financial transaction is simple and convenient,” he said. “You can get started the first time in less than a minute and then get connected in seconds.”
Nearly 150 cities around the world have the rentable electric scooters, and many are still grappling with how to incorporate them safely onto their streets. But transportation experts say they are just the beginning of a wave of shared “micro-mobility” devices.
“As the scooter market gets saturated, we’ll see different devices with this business model,” said Juan Matute, deputy director at the UCLA Institute of Transportation Studies.
“Companies are working on new and niche products like electric tricycles and three-wheeled scooters,” Matute said. “They will be more accessible and appealing to people who are over 30 and want more stability than a scooter.”
There’s a two-passenger electric bike in the works, according to Matute. And, in Los Angeles, riders are currently testing 6,000 non-pedal e-bikes, a sort of bike-and-scooter hybrid that has a seat and a throttle.
Whether it’s a bike, a scooter or something in between, shareable devices help close what’s called the “first mile/last mile” gap. The idea is that more commuters might trade their cars for the bus or light rail if they have an easy, quick and accessible way to get from home and work to the nearest transit stop.
But that brings up another complaint about scooters.
“Now instead of walking or biking short distances, there’s one more piece of technology to replace physical activity,” said Shawn Anne Buttschau, who lives in the North Loop. “Sure, scooters are convenient but should we replace regular exercise opportunities with a less active option? I’m not a fan.”
Kevyn Burger is a Minneapolis-based freelance broadcaster and writer.