It's time to talk about the eScooters

Bradley Walker

Will electric scooters be the downfall of our cities? Or can we all come together to make micromobility work?

On a recent working trip to Berlin, I made arrangements to stay an extra day so I could take in the city sights and culture. Ahead of that day, I had a rough idea of the points of interest I wanted to see, but I hadn’t researched how I would get from place to place. This being my first visit, I made no firm decisions on whether I would walk, hop buses, hail cabs, or take the subway.

As a frequent come-what-may traveler, I figured the best plan would present itself when I got there—and I wasn’t wrong. After a few days of working, the most convenient means of moving quickly and cheaply around the downtown area presented itself front and center:

The dockless shared electric scooter

Electric scooters are a polarizing subject. Everyone seems to have a strong opinion about these two-wheeled conveyances. Some have learned to love them; others quite vocally detest them. I admit that I completely understand both. That said, I cannot add to any single-sided argument because—and I believe this firmly—no single side can solve the mobility problem on their own. To that end, let’s have a think about the parties involved.

The cosmos of (wreckless) e-scooter providers

They say it’s sometimes easier to get forgiveness than permission, and they’re right. Uber, the eponymous mobility service, used that rationale to become the most instantly recognizable ride-hailing company on the road. By rapidly setting up operations in cities and making themselves highly accessible (if not indispensable), they were able to leverage consumer advocacy to combat regulatory pushback. 

The e-scooter companies: Bird, Lime, TIER, VOI, Wind, Circ, UFO, Ofo, Eskay, Movo, Bolt, Spin, Sherpa, HOPR, Ridecell, Razor, VeoRide, ¡Muévete!, Gruv, Lyft, JUMP, and Wheels to name a few*; employed a similar strategy as Uber, showing up in cities unannounced, pushing campaigns for rapid adoption, and notifying local officials after the fact, sometimes via social media.

*Ok, I made up “Muévete.”

These Blitzscaling strategies aroused suspicion that the companies cared more about getting their e-scooters on the streets than the impact of their presence on communities. Now, with a heap of competitors, those companies are fighting hard to get scooters legalized so that they can distribute as many as possible. But cities are rightfully stopping short of giving them the green light.

City legislators in charge of urban mobility

Cities weren’t ready with needed regulatory standards for a deluge of shared micromobility services. Many city governments were taken entirely off guard when companies began dropping scooters on the streets, and those governments needed to respond quickly. Let’s not forget; these things are dangerous.

It’s a functional necessity that legislators step in and make decisions to ensure third-party mobility solutions are safe for citizens to use. They have to limit deployment so that city sidewalks and streets don’t become a battleground over which company can make more scooters available to the public. And most importantly, planners have to make sure these innovative solutions improve urban mobility for everyone, rather than a few. 

City responses have varied. After getting blitzed, San Francisco famously kicked most of the companies out for failing to meet standards in safety, equitable access, sustainability, and several other factors. Meanwhile, New York was ahead of the game by declaring that e-scooters are illegal, full stop. 

Residents and riders 

While mobility companies require riders to accept extensive terms and conditions, these contracts are mainly in place to protect their businesses from our ineptitude. Local traffic laws cover what’s legal and what isn’t. In between, the scooter rider is left to their own unpredictable designs. 

Murkiness in regard to who is responsible for what results in riders skirting laws. They can decide it’s excusable to ride vehicles on sidewalks or in bus lanes. They can zip in and out of congestion, or ride at dangerous speeds in crowded situations. They can park their scooters in bike lanes, or the middle of busy sidewalks. In short, they can make a real nuisance of themselves. 

Then there are the average citizens who hold the companies, the city legislators, and the riders all equally accountable for littering their already congested streets with more junk. In response, they often do what one does with a dockless rental device: they relocate them. E-Scooters have been found in trash cans, hung in trees, and dumped in waterways so often that some companies have ongoing systems in place for retrieving wayward scooters. 

The time and efficiency benefit

Ok, yes, I agree, there are a lot of reasons to dislike scooters from multiple angles. However, before we kill them off entirely in a fit of denial, we should look at some of the real positives. 

To start: they’re enjoyable! Riding through the streets of Berlin with a top speed of 18khm, I felt neither like a slowpoke nor a speed menace. Of note (my fellow New Yorkers), car traffic stayed clear of the bike lane, pedestrian traffic stayed clear of the streets, and I kept off the sidewalks. It was, I dare say, harmonious. 

But beyond the perks of enjoyable transit, there is an indisputable mobility benefit. If e-scooters (or shared bikes) had not been available, I would have had to take a bus or a cab to the closest subway station, wait for the Untergrundbahn, ride five stops, then walk a few blocks to get to the first place I wanted to go. In the broader framework of my day, taking a scooter easily cut two hours of transit, creating more time for enjoying the sights. 

This newly-gained time and efficiency can benefit an entire city. Instead of all residents crowding into the same few modes of transport, they can use micro-mobility services to connect between spread-out places, like taking a scooter to a slightly farther train line that, in turn, conveys you directly to where you’re going. In this example, commuters spread out over more trains, get to their destinations more directly, and spend less time in the transit system overall. 

So what’s the answer?

To make this work, we have to get collaborative.

Shared scooter companies, for one, need to self-regulate in the arena of responsibility for badly behaved riders and poorly parked scooters—not a small undertaking. By comparison, most shared bike systems have docking stations that strictly dictate where bikes can be checked back in. There exists no broadly accepted etiquette for parking a shared vehicle that can literally be parked anywhere, and common sense doesn’t seem to be having a deep enough impact. 

Likewise, cities can take more strides to designate what’s legal and what’s illegal, then enforce those laws to lower abuse. One solution for cities could be to identify the highest traffic areas, then reclaim vehicle parking zones, replacing them with dockless mobility parking zones. With that approach, pedestrian-filled sidewalks stay clearer, and riders get better indications of the best places to park. 

Gaining a balance requires a highly detailed understanding of how and why people move. Bringing together the data from vehicles, traffic sensors, and mobile devices all contribute to a living, breathing view of a city’s ecosystem of movement. That view is necessary for rendering better decisions, happier residents, and efficient transit. 

The state of transit in cities is transforming rapidly, and the best way forward is the path that benefits everyone involved. As we empower mobility solutions on our streets, we’ll see cars, bikes, and pedestrians work in increased harmony. While we get there, if you get the chance, I recommend giving a scooter a spin for yourself.

For nearly three years, I was the agency Editorial Director for a global B2B technology firm. During that time, I oversaw the creation, publication, and social promotion of more than 500 stories.