Thursday, June 7, 2018

Let's All Stop Being Stupid About Scooters (Especially you, San Francisco)

My Spartan Sports FS-101 Electric Scooter (bought Summer 2004)

This is a bike blog but I'm going to deviate from my brand a little bit and talk about scooters. I figure IHOP is changing its name to...IHOB, which can only mean it is branching out from Pancakes to Bed, Bath or Beyond, so I can veer off the cycle path slightly.

Something you may not know about me: I am an urban electric scooter expert. Really. I had an electric scooter and used it frequently in the city of Stamford, Connecticut fourteen years ago.

You heard that right: my expertise in this "new" and "bizarre" form of urban mobility predates Twitter, Tesla, and Bitcoin.

Here's what happened: In June of 2004 I moved from rural New Hampshire to Stamford, Connecticut. It was a big adjustment going from a 800 square foot house 20 miles from the nearest movie theater - and an acre away from the nearest neighbor - to a 400 square foot apartment on the 5th floor of a crowded building on 700 Summer Street.

Part of this adjustment came in the form of me realizing cars were a pain in the butt. In the beginning my job was less than two miles away and the 3,000 pound glass and metal box that had served me so well in New Hampshire felt cumbersome, slow, and unnecessary most of the time.

So in the summer of 2004 I bought an electric scooter: A Spartan Sports FS-101 from Amazon for $199. Two lead acid batteries, small pneumatic tires, and all-steel construction It weighed as much as the Chrysler Building but it folded and was perfect for city life. I'd charge it overnight and scoot to work. Then, as I did most nights back then, I'd scoot to the Metro North station, go to Manhattan, and zip from 42nd' street to my girlfriend's apartment on 32nd between 1st and 2nd. I'd spend the night, then early the next morning I could scoot to Grand Central and, after the 45 minute train trip, could scoot back to my tiny apartment so I could shower and change before returning to work.

The top speed was an advertised 15 miles per hour. Most of the time it felt faster. The range was about ten miles or so - I never really figured it out but discovered one night that running 40 city blocks to get Thai food and bring it back to my girlfriend's apartment killed the battery. 

The scooter beat having to pay cab fare, allowed me to move quickly without dirtying my clothes, and, since it wasn't a bicycle it was permitted on Metro North (which, as you've heard me complain about many times, doesn't allow bikes on trains during peak hours). But when my girlfriend and I finally moved in together in Stamford I didn't need that part of the value-add as much, and about a year later the motor started to fail. Soon it was mothballed and was shoved in my basement for years until I gave it away before driving (with a bike) across the country to California in 2015.

So I am a scooter expert. You'll probably see me one day on CNBC or Bloomberg News talking about something happening in the urban scooter universe and you'll see my name followed by the words "Scooter Expert."

Naturally I was a little amused when, a few months ago in San Jose, electric scooters suddenly began to appear on the sidewalks. I wasn't sure what they were but saw the "$1 to start" signs on them. Then they multiplied. Then they became things that every street has that you almost don't pay attention to like plastic alt weekly newspaper boxes or pay phones that no longer have any phones in them. 

And something happened. People became stupid.  

I am referring to everybody. The scooter users too stupid to not block wheelchair access. The ones too lazy to use the kickstands. The ones who zipped too close to pedestrians for fun. The ones who threw them into San Francisco Bay. 

Lime Bike discarded by some nincompoop in San Francisco
 Not just the customers: the scooter companies who followed the man-this-is-getting-old! Silicon Valley ethos of asking for forgiveness before asking for permission and trading manners for free press. The San Francisco - and other city - government officials who moved quickly to make sure the nightmare of clean, reliable transport would end before anyone had the nerve to question car culture. 


On a dockless Lime scooter in San Francisco. Note the dockless motor vehicles trudging along beside me.
I could hardly log onto Twitter without seeing some stupid person complaining about scooters in some way, shape or form. Yuk-yuk-yuks! of dockless scooters in trees or underwater were frequent. #Scootergate began to trend. What was going on? 


Base of the Bay Bridge in San Francisco, May 2018. Note the five empty cars get more safe and secure housing than the guy living in the tent. 

I felt people were losing their minds over the wrong things - as usual (I've talked about the 'disproportionality of fear' all the time). I was finally pushed past my limit last week at the news of a rally in San Francisco where Google's buses were being protested by having several dockless scooters tossed in front of them

I understand the anger and helplessness that comes with being displaced (or having to worry about being displaced) but that was just stupid. What exactly did they want the Google workers in San Francisco to do? Have them all buy cars so they'd have to lobby the city to tear entire city blocks down to build the garages they'd inevitably need to store them all?

I tweeted out the picture above trying to lend sense to the madness - which is something one should never try to do on Twitter.





The reply I got was just something else - and it was delivered by a "group" that seems very common in these parts: NIMBY meanness disguised as compassionate social justice.



My reply to their assertion that density "causes harm" and that "scooters kill" was made several days ago and never returned. And the this I am referring to is the it-would-be-funny-if-it-wasn't-true story of a Tesla crashing into a Starbucks on bike to work day. I reasoned that if that driver had a scooter that day - heck, if more drivers had scooters every day - this kind of crash wouldn't happen. 

You know, car crashes - those filler news stories describing the cars, SUVs and such things that kill over 40,000 of us every year? Those crashes that are a lot less interesting to talk about than a boomer who got scared when a scooter zipped close to him or her while enjoying some free parking.



And as you've probably figured out by now, I have the LimeBike app and have used it a few times (mostly trips in San Francisco where I didn't bring my own bicycle and FordGoBike - for which I have a membership - didn't have a convenient station) but I want to tell you about one trip in particular: that girlfriend I had in New York City that I visited on that Spartan Sports FS-101? She's my wife now and that ridiculous, 14 year-old scooter with a hamster lifespan is part of why we've only owned one car between us for the more than 12 years we've been married. 

A couple of weeks ago I needed to meet her in San Francisco, far from the Caltrain Station, after work one evening. It was an actual, grown-up event that had a start time and everything so I needed to figure out a way to get across the city quickly. 

OH NO! It's a dockless scooter on the move! Hide your children! Warn your neighbors!

So I took a FordGoBike to Diridon, took the Caltrain to San Francisco, unlocked a scooter at 4th and King with the app and hummed the final four miles to my destination. I passed every car on the Embarcadero like it was standing still because most of them were. 



When I got to where I wanted to go I found that my $1 start-up fee and $0.15 per minute was well spent - and it was cheaper, faster and better for the environment than a car would have been. I found a place on the sidewalk that wasn't in anyone's way and deployed the kickstand. SEE HOW HARD THAT WAS?

That's the first antidote to scooter stupidity. Behavior of the end user matters - and this is something that'll be a rude awakening as tech moves further into the Internet of Things. Silicon Valley is long used to federal rules that shield them on the Internet when people who are stupid and mean do things like create mysogynistic chat groups, or a racist Twitter account. But with app-based transportation, you're now in a place where the dolt who leaves a Bird scooter blocking a sidewalk is not protected by free speech. 

The second is to realize that car share - which was the only real alternative for me to get to that part of San Francisco by such-and-such a time - is contributing to car blindness. Ride share services like Lyft and Uber make traffic worse and the same can be said about pollution. Self-driving cars have already killed people and aren't solving the street safety or obesity or suburbia problem either. 

The third antidote to scooter stupidity is to start realizing how much valuable space is given to cars - not just in our cities but in our minds. Start erasing the need for owning your own car - and even the need for riding in others - and nothing but good things can happen in cities. Yes, LimeBike, Bird and others followed the same, tired, Always-Be-Obnoxious playbook when launching these things but if they and we stop being stupid maybe cities will let a few inches of storage space here so scooter users don't have to fight pedestrians on the sidewalk (like cyclists do with pedestrians in Tokyo). If these things were set up to take space away from cars to begin with it would be a much more welcome disruption.

Also please consider parking docks - on the street that take space away from cars! - with solar panels and windmills to give the 'gig workforce' angle a rest and to annoy the Prius Worshippers in San Francisco even further. Hey, I predicted Barnes & Noble would regret trying to split Nook from the rest of the company (correctly) and four years ago I said bike share would eventually create incentives to self-balance fleets (correctly) so maybe I'll be ahead of the curve once again. I may be. I'm a scooter expert. 

So everyone, please: stop being stupid about scooters. Blame on the rollout and aftermath is everywhere but that is no reason we shouldn't figure out a way to work this into transportation and take more space away from cars. If you're in San Jose go to the DOT meeting on June 21st and provide input (read: drown out the voices of any 'Footloose' town elders who want to use cities as car storage facilities. 

That's all I've got.  I'm going back to writing about bikes. Thanks for reading and thanks for riding.  


The summary of all of the arguments I've ever hears against electric scooters.







2 comments:

  1. We've got the dockless bike phenomenon here in DC (along with all the controversy that comes with them). A few weeks back, I saw a scooter randomly parked on the sidewalk. And then last night, I saw another one and took a closer look. Sure enough, it promised $1 to start...

    It was an odd feeling to discover that we've got dockless electric scooters:

    On one hand, this is awesome! What a fun way to zip from point at to point B. We've got the docked bike system here, so it's hard to get excited about dockless bikes. But a scooter? That's different, that's cool.

    On the other hand, I can sympethize with the frustration of those who find their areas littered with dockless bikes. I had this wave of self-righteousness come over me: sure, this may seem cool, but ultimately this trend is bad for the city. So strange, I'm not sure where that came from.

    Ultimately, I appreciate your thoughts on the topic (especially with you being an actual expert and all). I suppose the right thing to do is for me to actually try one of these scooters out. If they're useful, then actually being responsible about using them may be a smarter move than just turning up my nose at them and walking by.

    Thanks for the perfectly timed piece.

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  2. Thanks! If you strip away everyone's stupidity it's a good concept - hopefully the discussion at the San Jose meeting on the 21st (I just updated the post w/ the link for details) will become a model for other cities to follow.

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