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How I learned to stop griping and love electric scooters

Some riders are obnoxious, but electric scooters can be part of the solution to crippling congestion.

How I learned to stop griping and love electric scooters
[Photo: lcva2/iStock]

I find nothing more aggravating than inconsiderate people. Since electric scooters hit San Francisco streets in early 2018, I’ve had plenty of opportunity to get annoyed at tech bros riding and discarding them in the middle of sidewalks. As a decades-long San Francisco resident, I began to see the scooters as a metaphor for how new tech is changing the entire city—with an invasion of jerks who threaten to run you over.

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As a sometime cyclist, I’ve also felt a sense of superiority over those fellow bike-lane travelers who rely on batteries instead of hard work to get around—and kick up more pollution in the process. A North Carolina State University study found that electric scooters are better for the environment than taking a car, but worse than any other way of getting around, such as public transit or walking.

And now we’ll be seeing a whole lot more of those obnoxious two-wheeled polluters. This week, San Francisco graduated from an e-scooter pilot program to a full permit system that allows 2,500 scooters on the streets—a number that could grow to 4,000 by February and 10,000 someday.

Yet after more than a year of hating e-scooters, I’ve recently come over to the dark side.

My epiphany came in August during one of the many breakdowns of the San Francisco Muni metro system. It was so bad, a Muni attendant gave me a voucher for a future ride when things were working again. I emerged from the station and signed up for every tech-bro disruptive transit alternative I could think of—including Skip electric scooters (which were part of the city’s pilot program along with vehicles from Scoot).

There are greener alternatives. I could have walked, if I had an hour to spare. I could have taken my bike, if I trudged back home to get it and was up for sweating on the city’s infamous hills. But electric scooters—and their cousin, electric bikes—have fast become a very quick, convenient way to get around cities choked by congestion and crumbling infrastructure.

San Francisco fits that description. Its population grew by nearly 80,000 people from 2010 to 2018. And Muni has failed to keep up. (A new three-station subway line is about three years behind schedule, so far.)

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I live a 10-minute subway ride away from Fast Company‘s downtown outpost—when everything works. It can take 40 minutes as overfull trains pass by with no room for more passengers, or the train I finally get on sits in the tunnel due to congestion. And I have one of the shorter commutes. At certain times of day, it’s folly to take a train, and Muni buses crawl through congestion no matter the time.

A lot has changed since the douchey days of discarded scooters sprawled across sidewalks, tossed into bodies of water, and hanging from trees. The city requires scooters to be locked up between rides (not left blocking sidewalks). It’s building more bike racks to accommodate these new rules and is charging companies $75 per scooter to help cover the costs. The companies must maintain a system to collect and resolve complaints about bad scooter behavior. They’re also required to fine or suspend customers who ride on sidewalks.

Will everyone follow the rules? Of course not. But I also encounter plenty of jerks on subways, buses, sidewalks, and bike lanes.

As for the tech-bro element: Companies have to distribute scooters throughout the city, beyond the yuppy neighborhoods like the Mission, with no more than 40% downtown. And they must have at least one low-income-priced membership plan for every two permitted scooters (with much lower unlock and per-minute fees). During its pilot program, Scoot showed a big boost in its low-income discount program, from 68 enrollees in April to 661 by August.

The environmental downsides can be addressed, too. The biggest impact comes from the materials that go into the short-lived scooters and the fuel burned when companies round up scooters at the end of the day to recharge and reposition them, says professor Jeremiah Johnson, who conducted the environmental study. The actual charging has minimal impact.

“If companies are able to extend the life [of scooters] or increase the efficiency of the collection process, those are two avenues that can greatly improve the environmental performance,” says Johnson. “So I don’t think we’re locked in the [scenario that] scooters are more polluting than alternatives forever.” As companies struggle to make a profit, maybe they’ll find better ways to take care of their scooters, and it’s not hard to imagine electric vans someday doing the pickup.

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Even without all those changes, scooters are already a greener alternative to taking a car with Uber or Lyft, and those companies have recognized the opportunity. Uber has added scooters to its Jump service, which also rents out electric bikes (that I also ride). Lyft operates scooters in a bunch of other cities but not San Francisco, so far.

The San Francisco Bike Coalition sees electric scooters as part of the greater effort to get cars off the road. “We encourage the lawful use of scooters—that means that scooters are welcome to, and should, operate in bike lanes and not on the sidewalk,” they said in an email to me. “We’ll continue to advocate for street safety improvements, like protected bike lanes that benefit all road users, and make San Francisco a better place to work and live for people who bike and ride scooters alike.”

I won’t defend myself only in utilitarian terms: Scooters are also damn fun to ride. But even if I wanted to ride them all the time, finances would curb my scooter use. Uber, for instance, charges 33¢ per minute for its e-scooters. A Muni ride costs $2.50. If I’m running late and a scooter can get me where I need to go in seven minutes or so, it’s a deal. If it’s a 10-minute scooter ride and not urgent, I’ll consider other options—be it walking, taking the train, or riding my own bike (for free).

Like with other technologies, the virtues and vices of scooters lie in how you use them. But in a city where other forms of transportation can sometimes be too much of a headache to use, scooters are now my go-to alternative.

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About the author

Sean Captain is a Bay Area technology, science, and policy journalist. Follow him on Twitter @seancaptain.

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