The Electric Scooter Isn't Enough
TAKING YOU FOR A RIDE

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The electric scooters are not good. I can't even say they're fun to ride. As it stands, I don't see how any of the scooter share companies will be made to behave and innovate in a way that makes the scooters worth it in the long-term.

Okay — now that I've got all that out of the way, I'd like to back up a bit and talk about Portland, Oregon.

Portland is in the middle of a four-month trial program for electric scooters that began in late July. The three companies participating, Bird, Lime and Skip, together have just over 2,000 scooters on Portland streets. The Portland Bureau of Transportation says over 430,000 trips have been completed via scooter share since the trial's launch, accounting for over 540,000 miles traveled.1

According to Lime's calculation, a 1.7 mile trip I took on one of their scooters last month on a visit to Portland saved 695 grams of carbon dioxide. I'm guessing that's calculated relative to whatever Lime considers an "average" car to be, but trying to accurately guess at how environmentally friendly scooters are now would require robust data on how quickly these companies are scaling, the actual numbers of battery-powered scooters they're having shipped via boat from China and over land afterwards, and how many of the scooters are already ending up irreparably busted before they can even offset their own carbon sink. Here's another number for you: at the time of publication, scootersintheriverpdx.com estimates that 17 scooters have been tossed in the Willamette River.

 

I'm not a transit expert, but I used to live in Portland; I moved there for college, and when I lived on campus and was just getting to know the city, I got around on the city buses and light rail. I lived there before Uber and Lyft arrived — I still have the number for a local cab service saved in my contacts. When I moved to a house off-campus, I started commuting by bike, and I've since tried Portland's bikeshare service that launched after I moved away. I'm not a NUMTOT, but I think from experience I can tell you that if scooter sharing is suited to work anywhere, Portland would be the place. To illustrate why I think it isn't, I've got to talk about how the established — and also imperfect — ways to get around the city work.

Buses And Trains

Three things stuck with me the first time I visited Portland. In order of importance from least to most, they were (1) the academic rigor on display at what would become my college; (2) the french fries with pulled pork at Potato Champion on SE 12th and Hawthorne; (3) the fact that I could call a phone number and receive an accurate estimate of when the next bus would arrive.

I knew not a scrap of Portland's history when I first visited — not anything of the Multnomah and Clackamas peoples who predated American settlers, nothing about the fateful coin flip that named the city "Portland" and not "Boston" and least of all how the mess of highway winding along the Willamette could've been much, much worse.

In 1943 the city of Portland paid the (in)famous Robert Moses $100,000 to devise a comprehensive, city-wide redevelopment plan in anticipation of the coming postwar boom. Moses more or less played his hits, delivering Portland officials a "bulldoze for highways first, consider the consequences never" plan that would've tripled the mileage of road in the city at the expense of, you know, the people who lived and worked on that land. After Moses' grand plans proved too expensive, Portland later set sights on the 8-lane Mount Hood Freeway that would've demolished the very neighborhood that I lived in some 50-some years later, had it been built.

Instead of billboards and beautiful highways, the neighborhood's still there, and it has great access to north-south and east-west bus lines, with a recently added stop on Portland's light rail not far off. Of course, not every neighborhood was spared as Portland made way for Interstate 5 and other non-Moses development plans2, but the city ultimately dodged a bullet by giving up on the Mount Hood Freeway when people vehemently opposed it. Not only did some of the money from that project end up reallocated to finance the expansion of light rail, but if Portland's grid had been sliced up by highways, whatever bus and train options that existed after the fact would be severely hampered. What I didn't appreciate as an 18-year-old visiting the city for the first time was that, as novel as a real-time transit tracker was to me then, the substantive difference between the Seattle-area transit I was used to and Portland's was the fact that Portland isn't a tangled mess of highways with water on either side.

What does this all mean for scooter share? Well, if patience is the ultimate virtue for public transit riders, I'd argue the opposite is true of trying to rely on scooters. On the surface, the apps and distribution schemes for Bird, Lime and Skip are all the same. You can pull up a map to show the nearest scooters and place a hold on one for a limited time so you don't have to sprint to pick it up. Scooters end up parked one of two ways: outside another rider's destination, or they're dropped off by gig laborers. The latter parking spots are being planned and optimized somehow, surely, but tough luck if you reserve the only scooter near you only to find out it's not actually accessible. Perhaps it's in a tree, or someone's basement — too bad, hoof it to the next one.

On the rare occasion when your bus or train never comes, you can always get mad at the local transit authority. With the distributed, laxly-enforced rules of dockless scooter share, if there are no scooters in the area you're in, what do you hold responsible? The company? Supply and demand? Other scooter riders, or people who've intentionally made them unusable? First-hand, the "seamless" convenience of scooter share felt like an illusion to me in Portland — with over 2,000 scooters placed around town, they felt ubiquitous as I moved about the city, but they were never there in reach when I needed them to be.

Cars And Rideshare

On the subject of parking scooters, let's talk regulation. Portland got out ahead of the scooter share companies with its pilot program; unlike San Francisco, where Bird and Lime are no longer allowed to operate after they rolled out their scooters without permission, Portland's preemptive regulatory approach is intended to mitigate the worst excesses of Silicon Valley VC-backed disruption strategies — chalk it up to experience.

Portland is one of the many cities that Uber strong-armed its way into while flagrantly violating local laws. In late 2014, Uber launched in Portland illegally, operating for two weeks before backing down under threat of a lawsuit from the city. It wasn't long after that when Portland launched an official pilot program for Uber and Lyft, but Uber's illegal head start made headlines again in 2017 when the New York Times' article revealing the existence of Uber's Greyball, a tool for deceiving regulators, cited the illegal launch in Portland as a prominent Greyball use case. The city opened an investigation and subpoenaed Uber for more information, but ultimately dropped the issue. To date, Uber and Lyft are still the only rideshare companies offering service throughout Portland; a smaller service, Wingz, offers rides to Portland's airport.

I went on several Lyft rides last month while visiting Portland, and the conversations I had with drivers (Portland has the chattiest cab and rideshare drivers of any city I've ever been to) always got to the topic of the scooters, whether I brought them up or not. The scooter share model is not directly analogous to rideshare, of course. Uber's model of not owning vehicles and not hiring drivers as employees made — well, still makes — them hard to bring in line. Scooter companies operate own their vehicle fleet, and they just leave them out on city streets, which leaves them vulnerable not only to city action, but citizen action as well.

… hence the scooters in the Willamette River, and the myriad instances of scooter vandalism documented by accounts like "pdxscootermess" and the more global "birdgraveyard" on Instagram. These accounts are a mix of scooter fails, intentional scooter destruction and, more so in the case of "pdxscootermess," righteous, astute NIMBY-ism.

 

The horror stories spawned by Uber and Lyft, easy for boosters to write-off as inevitable growing pains, are of a different variety, including but not limited to: exploitative labor practices, inappropriate behavior from drivers towards passengers and vice versa, and now years into ridesharing's rise, increased traffic in cities. With scooters, there are harrowing reports of injuries and of cutthroat tendencies amongst people charging the scooters for cash, but there's also the ever-present nuisance factor — rideshare will never have to overcome the image problem of looking like fancy, branded litter.

Bicycles

Speaking of fancy branding, have you ever seen Portland's bikeshare bikes? You certainly can't accuse the neon-orange Biketown bikes, emblazoned with bold text and the Nike swoosh, of being hard to see at night.

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 They say it isn't pronounced "bike-y town," but that won't stop me.

Launched in 2016, the Biketown program stands in stark contrast to the scooter share companies' approach, for better and worse. Biketown isn't a dockless program — there are docks spread throughout the city, but Biketown bikes can also be locked up anywhere throughout the service area using the built-in u-lock for an additional fee. The fleet of 1,000 bikes is owned by the city, and as such the bikes can't be unlocked using the Biketown app, as not everyone has a smartphone.

In order to better serve the city's actual cycling needs of the city (prior to the program's launch, 7.2% of Portland commuters already cycled), the Biketown program has also implemented discounted plans for low-income residents and has started to make adaptive bikes available to riders with disabilities. The service has reduced the cost of annual memberships and significantly expanded its service area out from the more affluent downtown and central east-side in the last two years.

From personal experience, I can say that the Biketown riding experience is solidly "okay." The annoyance starts with trying to get them unlocked — the attached keypads were bad to start with and are now in the process of being replaced after two years of abuse. The bikes themselves, manufactured by Jump, are quite heavy. Every time I've been on one, the shifting didn't feel quite right — but I guess I should be thankful they're not single-speed or even fixed-gear. Honestly, for me the worst part about riding them was going without a helmet. In Portland, helmets aren't required by law on a bike over the age of 16, but when I lived there I almost never rode my bike without one.

I commuted by bike for three years out of the five I lived in the city, and even for all the good infrastructure and behavioral norms, I never felt truly "safe" on my bike. I remained, at all times, acutely aware of how much cars still rule the road there. The poorly paved streets in Southeast Portland impacted cyclists way more than they did drivers; every cyclist I knew there could tell you a story or ten about cars treating bike boxes as mere suggestions; there are intersections seared into my memory by the white ghost bikes that mark them. A week before I left the city, I was knocked on my ass by a driver in a pickup truck while I was at a full stop, waiting for the light to change. Uninjured, I rode away from the scene suddenly thankful that I'd be leaving my bike in Portland.

Here's the part where I relent and admit that riding the scooters is, under the ideal circumstances, enjoyable: on a well-paved, flat, empty street, the experience is… pleasant.

In any other condition, it was like all my anxieties regarding cycling shot through the roof. Taking the scooters downhill felt like courting a death wish. The one brake and the accelerator paddle are split across the handlebars — I didn't feel safe taking a hand off to signal turns on the scooters, and it's not as though I felt safe not signaling. I seriously considered buying a helmet there and bringing it back on my flight. For what it's worth, I didn't see a single other scooter rider wearing a helmet over the five days I spent in the city.

I did see a bunch of certifiably reckless riding behavior (worst offenders: a couple riding one scooter, and a rider letting their friend on a longboard hold their shoulder to skitch behind them). I realize I can only blame the scooter-share companies themselves for so much of this. It's not as though it's in their best interests to have people using their products irresponsibly, and I don't envy anyone whose job is to market the scooters as fun without promoting them as a novelty or making them seem like toys. Still, it demands that we question whether or not the scooters are being rolled out irresponsibly in the first place.

Case in point: I thought a simple trip up the Eastbank Esplanade was going to be my safest, most comfortable scooter ride, but I was mistaken. The Esplanade is a city park pathway that follows the Willamette and at one point transitions down to a section that floats on top of the river. Apparently, I shouldn't have taken the scooter on the path at all; though bikes are allowed, motorized vehicles are banned on Portland park land, including the scooters. I only learned this days after my trip when the pdxscootermess Instagram posted a picture of a sandwich board citing the relevant city code placed by the Portland Bureau of Transportation. I saw at least half-dozen other scooter riders when I traversed the Esplanade, and I have to wonder how anyone would've expected that the scooters wouldn't be taken on one of the city's most scenic and convenient routes.

 

I reached out to the Portland Bureau of Transportation about the issue of scooters on park land, and bureau spokesperson Dylan Rivera responded with the following:

In the last month or so, we have expanded our public education and outreach regarding the prohibition on e-scooter use in parks. We have posted additional sandwich board signs in Tom McCall Waterfront Park, we have provided thousands of educational fliers to the City's Park Rangers, parking enforcement officers and transportation regulatory specialists (who handle permits for private transportation providers such as Uber, Lyft, taxis and e-scooters) to hand out to e-scooter riders. From the start of the pilot program on July 25, we required the companies to educate riders about the rules of the road as well. They have been providing reminders and introductory information within their apps, and at least some of the companies have marked city parks on their maps as off limits for e-scooters, citing the city's rules.

Talking over Skype, Portland-based Ride Report co-founder William Henderson said the city is "like the dog that caught the car" when it comes to regulating scooters. Henderson first got involved with shaping the future of Portland's cycling infrastructure when he designed small, affordable bike count sensors in 2015. These were soon followed by the Ride app, which tracks user's bike routes and lets them rank their trips by comfort — Ride users' submitted data gets turned into stress maps like this one, which serve not only as route-planning guides for cyclists, but useful data for transportation planners. Now, Ride Report is offering a free compliance dashboard for dockless bike- and scooter-share programs to cities that need it. Cities that have gotten scooter-share companies to agree to terms before operating, like Portland, need tools to actually monitor compliance. The Ride Report dashboard can help the dog keep up with the car, as best it can.

 A look at the map of Portland made using data from the Ride app — green routes are more comfortable, red more stressful.

I talked with Henderson for over an hour about how the scooters both clash and mesh with the other transit options in the city. A cycling advocate to the core, Henderson reminded me that it'd be naive to dismiss the scooters entirely — after all, cities have tried and often failed to make biking seem like an attractive alternative to driving, and there's progress to be made on that front with bike share and scooter share programs.

Henderson also has a measured, critical view of the incentives at play with the scooter share companies. Right now, the biggest players like Bird and Lime are looking to expand rapidly and secure funding before addressing the physical scooters themselves. Henderson pointed out that the Chinese consumer scooter models being imported and branded by the various scooter-share ventures aren't being used in the same way they are in China; instead of being used by owners for first- and last-mile connections on public transit commutes, scooter share companies pitch scooters as a full trip solution for riders who have little-to-no incentive to take good care of what they ride. It's certainly possible that scooter share could work better if it encouraged the former use-case, or if future scooter designs better serve the latter (Bird recently announced their first custom design, emphasizing improved durability and stability).

This is to say nothing of the accessibility concerns that scooter companies seem unlikely to solve any time soon: they're not suitable for use by a whole range of people living with disabilities. You've got to be able to stand and balance in order to use them, and riding even over decently-paved streets can be so rough (at least on the Lime and Skip scooters I tried) that people with sensitive knees and feet will have an awful time of it. The scooters provide snappy travel time for people who'd otherwise be too tired or incapable of biking the same distance, but that's a fairly limited boon for accessibility weighed against all the people for whom scooters simply aren't an option. While limited accessibility might not be a reason to abandon scooters entirely, I believe that without addressing those concerns, the revenue generated for the city3 should be poured back into making public transit and other options more accessible than they are currently — especially since, as disability advocates point out, poorly-parked scooters block sidewalks for people who need them clear.

Before we ended our call, Henderson said he believes that cities have the ability to change the incentives at play for scooter share companies — to make them prioritize safety, sustainability, and equity over reckless growth. I hope he's right. My gut tells me that the scooters are here to stay for a while, in some form or another, even if nobody would miss them and just walk or bike in their absence. Perhaps, if Portland would opt to establish a city-owned scooter-share program akin to Biketown, removing VC dynamics from the equation could lead to better solutions.

Even then, private incentives would enter the equation at some point (Henderson brought to my attention that Jump, now owned by Uber, manufactures the Biketown bikes while Motivate, now owned by Lyft, operates the system). Still, if we're going to have them, I'd rather that cities have greater control over their scooter programs than what they can muster by trying to hold rapidly scaling companies to compliance. If a Greyball-like scandal breaks with a scooter share company, or if data collected on riders gets exposed or otherwise mishandled, will we really be able to say we didn't see it coming?

I'd like to imagine that in some utopian, maybe even car-less Vision Zero future, we'd have scooters that were entirely free and the cycling infrastructure to accommodate them. Then again, though I'm loathe to pin the downsides of scooter share on individuals as opposed to the companies pushing them, I doubt it'd work: for a few years starting in the mid-'90s, hundreds of bright yellow bikes were set loose on Portland streets. They were for communal use, totally free to the public.

These were bikes that folks without money or even homes could use — a far cry from the "tech bro" stereotype associated with scooters, which even a PBOT employee referenced in a tweet the bureau later apologized for. The yellow bikes were hopeful, even radical, and were ultimately hampered by greed and entropy: scores of bikes were stolen or vandalized, and those that survived fell into disrepair at a rate that proved untenable for a program without cash to keep up with.

Perhaps one of the scooters that's been chucked into the Willamette rests on the riverbed near a forgotten yellow bike, as plenty of those ended up getting dunked too. I don't like to think that we're incapable of coming up with better transit solutions or that we're incapable of recognizing them and supporting them when we do, but when everything ends chucked in the river, it's hard to be convinced otherwise.

 

1

That's the first 70 days of the scooter trial. If I did the math right using the openly available data for Portland's bikesharing service Biketown, it logged over 113,000 rides and approximately 305,000 miles on a fleet of 1,000 bikes in its first 70 days, back in 2016.

2

For instance, read this piece about the predominantly black Albina neighborhood, bulldozed to make way for freeways, stadiums and a convention center.

3

Portland currently collects $0.25 per e-scooter ride, which suggests they've already brought in over $100,000 from the trial.

Mathew Olson is an Associate Editor at Digg.

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