Scooters Get a Second Chance

When US companies started renting grown-up versions of toddlers’ plastic scooters in 2017, the mini vehicles were a lightly used and often mocked way to get around cities. But five years and a pandemic later, shared electric scooters are getting a second look and a chance to fix their bad reputation.

Electric scooters may also provide a blueprint for making technology to mold our collective needs.

About five years ago, in some US cities including San Francisco and San Diego, a bunch of young companies started offering electric scooters that people could rent by using the smartphone app.

Some people love using scooters for short trips around traffic-clogged parts of the cities. Officials and other residents saw scooter companies as interlopers with products that were eligible for a ride to parked scooters with pedestrians or litter sidewalks. The scooter backlash was vicious.

Slowly, though, the companies started collaborating with cities to make the scooters safer, more reliable and less hated. They’ve also begun testing new ideas including automated speed limits, which some transportation experts would like to see applied to cars, too.

No new mode of getting around will cure all the worldwide transportation woes, and scooters will definitely have drawbacks. But rented electric scooters may eventually find places in their cities that are hunting for solutions to traffic, pollution, road dangers and the limits of public transportation.

And if scooters catch on, it will be because many US cities did something they did or couldn’t do with on-demand ride companies like Uber and Lyft: they effectively regulated them to minimize the downsides and maximize the public good.

“Are we still doing scooters?” asked a Bloomberg News headline last month. Yes, but it is different from how we were doing scooters in the past.

Officials in many cities have responded to complaints by wading into how and where scooters operate. Many cities have limited number of scooters available, requiring companies to beef up liability insurance or that scooters be available in lower-income neighborhoods.

In the Los Angeles area, scooters have built-in no-go zones that stop people from using them in crowded areas such as the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Chicago is among the places that require people to lock scooters on fixed objects like bike racks instead of leaving them anywhere. And New York has pledged dedicated lanes and parking zones to make it safer for people on bicycles and scooters.

Scooter companies, too, have responded to gripes about faulty or short-lived scooters. Wayne Ting, chief executive of the scooter-and-bicycle rental company Lime, told me that many rented scooters are used to the same models that people buy for personal use. He said that Lime was now on its fourth generation of scooters designed to withstand the wear and tear of repeated rentals.

The pandemic also has altered people’s routines and disrupted public transportation. Americans seem to be increasingly interested in alternatives for moving around, including rented and owned electric scooters and bicycles.

Not everyone wants scooters, no matter the changes. Some officials, including in Miami, have said that scooters have no rightful place and banned them at least temporarily.

On the other end, some advocates of alternatives to car transportation say cities are overreacted to scooters, arguing that restrictions may make them too cumbersome to use and support the status quo of cars.

What’s perhaps most surprising about the story of the scooters in 2022 is that it shows that private tech companies and governments can work together to make emerging technology serve the public interest.

Seleta Reynolds, general manager of the Los Angeles Department of Transportation, told me she had learned from past regulatory mistakes that allowed stagnation in the taxi service and allowed Uber and Lyft to avoid addressing the ways in which they made traffic and pollution worse.

“I’m bringing the groundwork here so I can welcome new innovations,” Reynolds said. “The way forward is not letting them come in and do whatever the hell they want.”

Reynolds said that calls for scooters to be issued to the city’s public complaints line since new rules went into effect, and that restrictions on the number of scooters in parts of the Los Angeles area had not reduced ridership. She said her goal was to make sure city officials didn’t block alternatives to driving alternatives, which Los Angeles needs, while making sure technology companies address the downsides of their services.

The approach to scooters, Reynolds said, is a model for how Los Angeles plans to incorporate future transportation technologies, including driverless vehicles and flying cars.

It is not clear whether scooter rentals will ever be an appealing transportation option for the masses or a financially viable business. But they show that to improve transportation, we may need as many alternatives to private cars as possible, and strict oversight to ensure the benefits outweigh the drawbacks.

  • Do newer driver-assistance technologies make cars safer? There is not enough publicly available data to make an accurate assessment, my colleague Cade Metz reported. And yet, safety is the biggest selling point for features like Autopilot, the Tesla system that automates certain elements of driving like steering and braking.

  • The double-edged sword of being out online: MIT Technology Review posted about ways that LGBTQ people in Malaysia have used social media to communicate and advocate for their rights in a country where same-sex relationships are a crime. But activists are also exposed to online threats, cyberattacks, government surveillance and prosecution. (A subscription may be required.)

  • Why do I have so many gadget chargers and cords ?! The European Union will require phones, tablets, portable speakers and many other electronics sold in the 27-nation bloc to be used by the same type of charger by 2024, my colleague Adam Satariano reported. Laptops will be included in that list by 2026.

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