Embrace the Scooter Revolution

Bird, the Uber of the electric scooter world, has deployed its first 50 scooters in Virginia — in Arlington County, to be specific. Arlington has no official policy regarding electric scooters, and Bird placed its black-and-white scooters without county permission. Whether that becomes a problem remains to be seen.

“We will be having discussions with the county manager and the county attorney’s office on how to respond to Bird’s deployment of electric scooters in Arlington,” county spokesman Eric Balliet wrote in an email to the Washington Business Journal.

Bird, a California company that has raised $400 million in venture capital backing, has announced plans to expand into 50 new cities by the end of the year. The service works like this: Users download an app that identifies where unused scooters are located. Passengers ride the scooters wherever they want. Bird requires riders to wear helmets and stay off of sidewalks, but has no mechanism to enforce the requirements — a source of contention in some municipalities. At the end of the day, Bird picks up the scattered scooters and places in them locations where they are most likely to be used the next morning.

Bird’s Save Our Sidewalks pledge lays out the company’s thinking:

We’re witnessing the biggest revolution in transportation since the dawn of the Jet Age. From car ride-sharing to bike-sharing to autonomous and electric vehicles of all kinds, an explosion of innovation stands to transform the cities in which live, improve the environment, and help get us from Point A to Point B.

The sharing of bikes, e-bikes, e-scooters, and other short-range electric vehicles to solve the “last-mile” problem is an important part of this transformation. We have an unprecedented opportunity to reduce car trips –especially the roughly 40 percent of trips under two miles — thereby reducing traffic, congestion, and greenhouse gas emissions.

Smaller-than-automobile ride sharing is not without a downside, acknowledges Bird. “We have all seen the results of out-of-control deployment in China — huge piles of abandoned and broken bicycles, over-running sidewalks, turning parks into junkyards, and creating a new form of pollution,” states the Save Our Sidewalks pledge. To avoid having such things happen to the U.S., Bird vows:

  • The company will retrieve all vehicles from city streets every night, inspect vehicles for maintenance and repairs, and re-position the entire fleet to where they scooters be wanted the next day.
  • It will not increase the number of vehicles in a city unless they are being used on average at least three times per day (weather permitting). The company will remove underutilized vehicles, and it will share its data with cities for purposes of verification.
  • Bird will remit $1 per vehicle per day to city governments so they can use the money to build more bike lanes and promote safe riding.

I have no idea how many people will cotton to the idea of riding electric scooters. But Bird is taking the financial risk, so I’m not worried about it. For the public, Bird’s approach sounds like a no-lose proposition — especially if scooter riders avail themselves of the ever-expanding bicycle infrastructure. Take Richmond for example. The city has been adding bicycle lanes (see Steve Haner’s recent post on the Franklin Street bike lanes), but it appears that the bike lanes are expanding faster than bicycle ridership. If bike lanes are under-utilized — and they seem way under-utilized to me — cities should be delighted to see them employed by a bicycle-compatible transportation mode like scooters.

Bird has only so much capital to deploy so many scooters in so many cities. I don’t know how it prioritizes markets for entry, but I presume that it would consider the percentage of young people, density, availability of mass transit, and the prevalence of bicycle lanes and other scooter-friendly infrastructure. Oh, yeah, and one more thing. An expressed desire by city officials to collaborate with the company — which Arlington, despite its preference for non-automobile transportation modes, has yet to provide. Richmond, Roanoke, and Norfolk should be stumbling over themselves to get in line for the next deployment of Bird scooters.

The more transportation choices the better.

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5 responses to “Embrace the Scooter Revolution

  1. re: ” Bird requires riders to wear helmets and stay off of sidewalks”

    which gets us back to mobility infrastructure … if not on sidewalks – then on bike lanes or streets?

    When you said scooter .. it reminded me of road scooters that look like motorcycles but are not usually capable of more than 40-45 mph and are
    used on roads…. and apparently do not require a regular motor vehicle license. They do cause problems… because it the big speed difference… I’d be curious to know what the accident stats are for them compared to other… and though I support bike/ped.. I’m not sure these bigger motor scooters are compatible with a lot of 55mph roads.

    here’s the kind of scooter I’m talking about:

    they’re common in many other countries.

  2. The picture in the post shows a scooter in Santa Monica in California (near Santa Monica Place mall). I spend quite a bit of time there. They are everywhere in Santa Monica. You could probably find 50 in a couple block area. From my perspective, it appears that very few people wear helmets and there is quite a bit of use of sidewalks. There are lots of bike lanes in SM, which pulls scooter traffic off the curb.

    Santa Monica has pretty good public transport options in multiple bus line, the metro, and public bike rentals. But the scooters seem not to be in competition with those. I think areas of similar density and demographics to Santa Monica are good target markets. Higher density areas like Manhattan doesn’t seem to be good due to limited space to maneuver. With lower density, it is too slow and lightweight to cover the distances. I imagine some parts of Virginia would work, but not large areas.

  3. while we’re discussing … at one time, there used to be an interest in people using roller skates.. the “in-line” plastic wheel kind… those who are good at it have good control and can “walk” with groups of peds or goose it when a clear path is available.

  4. Once the novelty wears off, it all boils down to convenience. NoVa is a region struggling on the cusp of convincing a solid number of households to manage regular commuting and socializing after work (at least in some parts of town, and assuming the Metro system actually works reliably) without driving a car. Nobody is going to get soccer parents to ferry their kids to games and other after school activities and go shopping etc. on scooters! But — the working parent(s) who gets off the subway and is faced with a mile or two walk home on a hot day will treasure access to an electric scooter, and he can also defray a large part of the cost by planning to avoid Metro parking fees this way (except in bad weather?). Of course tourism around the City’s many diffuse museums and other sites could generate a lot of daytime demand. Not sure how the scooters used twice a day for commuting will magically be relocated to the tourist areas of D.C. and NoVa to generate three-plus uses a day overall.

    There are several private schools that have regular school bus dropoffs at a shopping center near me; and I have seen kids get off the bus and go retrieve a personal scooter or skateboard stored for the day at a local store where tutoring is done. Vision of the future?

  5. I think the young folks of today are active and mobile by choice and any/all wheeled human or motorized variants are a choice.

    And really, what could be better than young folks still not flabby, developing a life-long love for walking/biking/scooter/blading, etc – anyhow?

    Habits like that can contribute to a long life of fitness – like we see folks in other countries… American is chock-full of flabby folks compared to Europe and Asia.

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