Active Transportation

Scooter Wars

Call it the invasion of the electric scooters.  Officials in city after city are wrestling with the lightweight, alternative transportation devices, most of which have been dumped on their streets in the last couple of weeks by companies with names like “Bird” and “Lime.”

BIrd scooters in SF. Photo by Jerold Chinn, SFBay

I have to hand it to these companies.  They didn’t go through the normal channels.   They didn’t bother with permits or licenses or any of that sort of thing.  They cut out the middleman, or the toll taker or whatever you want to call him or her and went straight to the consumer.  That takes some real chutzpah, even if it isn’t their money lying around on the street.  This is what my Economics 101 professor was talking about when he introduced the concept of Laissez-faire capitalism into my young and impressionable Hoosier mind.   I’ve been looking for it ever since and all of the sudden, some 40 years later, here it is.

There are two schools of thought when it comes to rules.  One is that we have them for a reason and that people and companies should respect them.  The other is that they were made to be broken.   I’m not taking sides, here, but it’s hard not to notice that the approach these companies have taken has forced the issue and compelled cities to deal with active transportation in a way most have been unwilling to do so up to this point in time.   That’s good.

What’s not so good is how the cities are responding.   Denver rounded them all up under lock and key until the scooter companies agreed to play by their newly established rules.  Indianapolis was more mercenary.  They announced an arbitrary licensing fee of $15,000 plus $1 per scooter per day.  This may effectively kill them off in the Circle City…I don’t know.

Most people seem to like the scooters.  I’ve read lots of reports that suggest they’re wildly popular.   There are lots of reasons this might be.  Novelty is one.  They’re new and different and that makes them kind of cool.  Cost is another.  Most are dirt cheap…$1 to unlock and 15 cents per minute.   They’re super convenient.  You can leave them anywhere.

Most people do and that’s a problem.  There are scooters blocking sidewalks and doorways and this has enraged some otherwise nice folks.  I guess it shouldn’t be all that surprising given the penchant in some quarters for demanding respect while giving none back.  That complaint isn’t really about the scooters, per se, but something much larger and harder to fix.

So what happens next?   I’m not sure yet.  If I had to guess, I suspect that Lime and Bird will play by the rules, prices will rise, the novelty will wear off and things will pretty much go back to the way they were before the scooters arrived.  That doesn’t have to mean another lost opportunity, though.  I hope cities recognize that more and more people seem ready and willing and even eager to embrace shared active transportation solutions.   If you need a first and last mile answer to get from your home to the office via the train or bus, it has to be convenient and it’s really, really convenient not to have to deal with locking or docking a device.   Use it and lose it just makes sense to me.

I think it’s also going to reveal which cities are really committed to active transportation solutions versus those cities that don’t really believe any of it and are just using active transportation as a way to boost their overall image.  Either way, it will be interesting to see how it all shakes out.


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