Research into the electric scooter business quickly turned up a piece by technology columnist Troy Dreier, writing for the Jersey Journal newspaper in New Jersey. He wrote how surprised he was to see “litter on the street” over the Thanksgiving weekend when he visited his Midwestern hometown, which he remembered as “a pretty tidy town.”
He was writing about all the electric scooters he saw littering downtown St. Paul.
Yes, even unfashionable St. Paul had a scooter blight problem. “Nobody washes a rental car” is an old truism you have maybe heard, and it’s apparently true that there’s also not enough incentive to see to it that a rental scooter gets parked out of the way.
Scooters just left the region at the end of the scootering season, but they are clearly coming back in the spring, maybe just weeks before another nuisance, the mosquitoes, make their reappearance.
Maybe it’s time to make our peace with scooters. We don’t have to become enthusiastic users, as some of us simply can’t, but we have to accept them. And we have to accept the blame, too, for the clutter of privately owned scooters in our public spaces.
They are just another cost of our unwillingness to pay for a better conventional transportation system.
Scooters appeared overnight last summer when Bird Rides Inc. put them on the street. As a matter of corporate policy, the company then refused to specify how many Bird scooters it had actually unleashed. Of course, this was before any regulatory agreement had been worked out.
This invade and then work it out with regulators approach had been famously popularized by the ride-sharing service Uber. Sometimes called “too big to ban,” this meant grabbing enough users quickly that the slow-footed municipal officials had no choice but to grudgingly give in.
This aggressive tactic got Bird sued by the city of Milwaukee.
The scooters are battery-powered and operate through a smart phone-based rental system, but the key is that they are dockless. No one needs to go to a locker to check one out. Riders find one on the sidewalk and use a phone to wake it up.
Dockless also means there’s no need to return them to a designated parking place or a dock. Even a how-to video on a scooter company website shows the scooters simply left on a public sidewalk, although not right in the path of pedestrians.
As the city of Milwaukee noted in its lawsuit, leaving them scattered all over isn’t a bug of the service. It’s a feature, a fundamental part of the appeal.
Left on their own, the scooter companies are happy to let a free-for-all develop, too, such as what happened this year in San Francisco. The city eventually put its foot down, and on the first day the scooters were allowed back on the streets in October the San Francisco Chronicle noted that “already people are behaving badly.”
As the reporter stood with a senior marketing and events manager from scooter company Scoot, a delighted scooter user happily accelerated away from them — right up the sidewalk. The writer also noted scooters parked in a bus stop and a florist complaining of a pileup in front of his shop. A pedestrian passing by had calmly knocked over nine of them before going on his way.
After some initial crabbiness with Bird, agreements were soon reached in Minneapolis and St. Paul this year for trial runs. The goal was to not be heavy-handed with the scooter companies and see how users responded to a generally open system, said Josh Johnson, mobility manager for public works for the city of Minneapolis.
Scooters turned out to be a “meaningful transportation option,” as Johnson put it, and not just for a fun joy ride for any millennial with a driver’s license and Visa card. They were used for running to meetings, commuting to work and getting to soccer games and other events.
The companies, Bird and Lime, had agreed to respond within two hours to complaints of scooters in inappropriate spots. Johnson described complaint rates as low as one or two a week.
That means I could have single-handedly doubled the complaint rate, had I only been aware of the city’s complaint hotline.
The low point came when I was out running and came across a couple of scooters blocking the pedestrian lane of the Stone Arch Bridge over the Mississippi River. I had the choice of hurdling over them, running in the adjacent bike lane or tossing them into the river.
Bird’s Chinese-made scooters don’t even weigh 30 pounds, so the only thing that kept me from Option 3 was the realization that the poor Mississippi already has more than 150 years of junk lying on its bottom. A couple of battery-powered scooters are the last thing the river needs.
There’s support for these things in both central cities, though, because pretty much anything is welcomed if it reduces the number of single-occupant vehicles, which use up far more space on tight streets than scooters and are potentially deadly for pedestrians, cyclists and scooter riders.
Yet scooters cluttering up the sidewalks and users blithely ignoring the rule not to drive on sidewalks aren’t the only reasons to see the dawn of the scooter age as a setback. For one thing, not only won’t they work for the disabled, the published weight limit of 200 pounds eliminates all the men in my family.
They are not, in any sense, public transit. These are rented by privately held, for-profit businesses happily cherry-picking the profitable customers from the able-bodied public, and then using the public’s sidewalks for storage, either free or for a nominal fee.
The best option now would be for the scooter companies to work with property owners to create parking spaces, even as the companies remind customers to leave the scooters on the safest part of the sidewalk — the space between the street and pedestrian pathway, which might include some landscaping features.
Come next spring, there will be users ignoring these common-sense rules, of course. And if Bird and Lime find that a few machines have gone missing, they might want to look for them in the Mississippi River.