The good: a new breed of electric scooter is easy to obtain, via an app, and can be dropped anywhere. The bad: streets are littered with stray scooters and pedestrians are upset. Jefferson Graham reports from Santa Monica
In the rush to demonize electric scooters as dangerous nuisances, we might be missing an opportunity.
Transportation experts say scooters could be part of a solution to relieve urban congestion and address global warming. Scooters could also help riders save money and arrive at the office without needing to hit the showers.
For example, say you have an important meeting 3 miles away, but city streets are jammed with motionless cars. Uber or Lyft would also sit in traffic and could easily cost $15. Instead, you rent a nearby electric scooter for $1 to start and 15 cents a minute. You cruise past cars and arrive in time for your meeting.
Total cost: $3. Environmental impact: infinitesimal.
A user rides a Bird scooter on April 17, 2018 in San Francisco. (Photo11: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
Bumpy ride so far
Dockless electric scooters, so-called because riders can leave them wherever their trip ends, began popping up in cities nationwide in 2018. With a smartphone app, riders locate and unlock rental scooters (offered by companies with zippy names like Bird, Lime, Scoot, Jump and Razor) making for a great solution for a gridlocked city. Right?
Wrong. With fellow urbanites annoyed by scooter riders dive bombing pedestrians and leaving scooters strewn across sidewalks, an internet sensation emerged: Scooter haters finding new ways – including set to music on YouTube – to destroy them.
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“But any time you see someone on a scooter, they aren’t in a car and we should be hugging and kissing them for that,” says Jim McPherson, a San Francisco Bay area lawyer specializing in transportation technology. He says both human-propelled and motorized scooters were popular a century ago, while the current electric scooter rental boom is thanks to powerful lithium-ion batteries and GPS connectivity.
An affordable answer to congestion?
Scooters are an attractive addition to the transportation matrix since they travel the same speed as cyclists and in many cities can use the bike lanes already built, Heather Hamilton, an elected official in Brookline, Massachusetts, and a transportation-focused project manager with engineering firm BSC Group, tells NerdWallet. Scooters “could be one puzzle piece” in efforts to attain carbon neutrality, Hamilton wrote in a recent Boston Globe opinion piece.
On the topic of inner city congestion, “it’s clear we can’t drive our way out of this problem,” says Alissa Walker, urbanism editor for real estate site Curbed. Instead, she says we need “micro-mobility,” a variety of small, lightweight transportation devices, like electric scooters and bikes.
Scooter sharing services also could save riders money. A recent study estimated that a 3-mile journey in Chicago’s traffic would cost $6 in a car versus $5.07 by scooter. The study by DePaul University was partially funded by scooter company Bird.
Road to acceptance
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Walker believes scooters are really just a “part of a suite of options for helping people get around,” she says. For example, Uber’s app now also connects you with bikes and scooters through partnerships with Jump and Lime.
“You open up your phone and you see that this method (of transportation) will take this long and cost this much and be zero emissions,” Walker says. “You can gauge your decision based on the information in front of you.”
Although electric scooters, which cost $350-$500, are cheaper than cars, they fill a different need and likely won’t replace cars for most people. However, easy access to scooters could mean driving less. Over time, that could help reduce one’s total car ownership costs, which include gas, parking, maintenance and insurance.
And whether scooter haters like it or not, the urban transportation market is exploding. Bird scooters are available in over 100 cities, including Paris and Tel Aviv, Israel. Meanwhile, Lyft introduced scooters in a test program in Denver and bought the country’s biggest bike-share operator, Motivate.
Scoot, bike or drive?
Experts say electric scooters offer a number of advantages over other forms of transportation:
• Cheaper. With rides starting at about $1, electric scooters are much less expensive than driving, paying for gas and parking.
• User-friendly. They’re easier to get on and off compared with a bike.
• Effortless. You don’t work up a sweat.
• Less hassle. You can park almost anywhere (but don’t block sidewalks).
But there are drawbacks:
• More risks. Electric scooter sharing has a higher rate of fatal injuries compared with bike sharing.
• Best for short jaunts. They’re less efficient for trips over 3 miles.
• Costs can rise. All-day rentals get pricey.
• You have to go to it. You have to walk to a scooter rather than being picked up (but soon, scooters might be delivered to you).
In the rapidly evolving world of mobility, the electric scooter, used responsibly, seems to have a place. But as Walker says, “Next year they’ll have some other new device that everyone is talking about.”
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Philip Reed is a staff writer at NerdWallet, a personal finance website. Email: email@example.com.
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