In the spring of 2018, the citizens of several American cities awoke to find something new: Thousands of electric scooters, mysteriously deposited all over town, unannounced.
They were put there by a new breed of well-funded companies with one-syllable names (like Bird, Lime, Scoot, Spin and Jump) that want to introduce a cheap, fast, clean way to get around cities like Santa Monica, California. By using an app, a person can find any scooter nearby, charged and available. You point your phone's camera at the scooter's bar code and scan it, and you're ready to go.
The scooters are simple to operate, and give users the freedom of a car, and the fresh air of a bicycle, for the price of taking the bus.
The crazy part, said correspondent David Pogue, is that when you arrive at your destination, there is no dock or rack where you'd park the scooter. You tell the app you're done, and you just leave it for the next person to find.
"You put somebody on a scooter for the first time, and there's not a person that doesn't come off smiling; I love that," said Joe Kraus, the president of Lime. Its scooters have provided over 100 million rides so far, in more than 120 cities, in 30+ countries.
"What are the problems cities have?" Kraus said. "Pollution. Congestion. We drive around in these boxed aquariums on wheels. Scooters put you out in the world. They reduce congestion by taking cars off the road. And they're certainly incredibly efficient in terms of carbon emissions."
But somebody's got to recharge all those scooters every night. So, the scooter companies employ an army of freelancers, like William Neher in Washington, D.C.
"I've been able to make anywhere between $100 to $300 a night," Neher said.
"And then you're responsible for getting them back out on the street the next morning?" asked Pogue.
"That is one big part of it. I'm about to load up at least maybe a dozen in my Prius ... I call it a clown car for scooters, quite honestly!"
An app tells Neher where to put the scooters back on the streets, and he releases the scooters at the drop points.
The scooter companies insist on considerate, attractive placement. "You don't want the scooters to be an eyesore," Neher said. "You don;t want them to be in the way of sidewalks, we're not blocking fire hydrants."
Pogue asked, "What are the benefits of having this kind of job as opposed to a 9-to-5 desk job?"
"There's so much independence that I've gained from this. And I've never been skinnier, and my wallet's never been fatter! It's been remarkable."
What an amazing development, these scooters – good for us, good for our cities, good for the world! So, why have so many cities banned them?
John Mirisch is the mayor of Beverly Hills, California, where the scooters are not allowed. "They arrived overnight, and [are] dumped on people's lawns and all around the city," he said. "And none of the scooter companies had talked to anyone at the city – they just kind of appeared. And for a lot of our residents, it was litter.
"There are other cities that are also upset that these companies just came and dumped their product, and we'd all collectively be left to deal with the impacts of what they were doing."
Yes, the impacts. People can leave the scooters anywhere, and sometimes that's in the middle of the sidewalk or on people's lawns. That carelessness infuriates other citizens to the point that scooter vandalism has been an ongoing problem.
And then there's the other kind of impact: Catherine Lerer, a Los Angeles personal-injury lawyer, says people have suffered terrible injuries: "Head injuries, broken bones, surgeries – injuries which are going to affect them for a lifetime.
"The calls that I get from riders who are injured, they are injured when the scooter malfunctions," she said.
"Do you get the impression that they malfunction much?" asked Pogue.
"Very much, all the time," Lerer said. "The scooters die mid-ride. The brakes lock up. The handlebar post collapses. The handlebars detach. They were never intended to be like rental cars, commercial fleet usage, you know, use after use after use every day. And that's why they have a lifespan of only 30 to 45 days!"
"Do you think helmets would help?"
"Yes, I think helmets are so, so important," Lerer replied. "In California, we did have a helmet requirement."
And then came Bird, another scooter-sharing company, which sponsored a bill, signed into law, that removed the helmet requirement as of January 1 of this year.
So, Pogue asked, "You think this problem is fixable?"
"I mean, it has to start with not only the helmets, but also inspecting these scooters on a daily basis," said Lerer.
The great scooter backlash, and reports of at least eight rider deaths, seem to have humbled the scooter companies. According to Lime co-founder Toby Sun, the days of dumping scooters in cities are over. "I think working with the city is very important," Sun said. "We're in markets for the long run, right? So, I think building that trust and collaborative approach will get us a lot longer serving the cities and users."
Pogue asked, "There are problems with accidents and parking and vandals and cities who don't get it. What percent confident are you that you will get through all of this, and scooter sharing will become a standard thing?"
"My confidence level is 120%," Sun replied. "I'm fully confident that this is going to be revolutionary."
That will happen only if cities agree to accommodate the scooters – for example, by designating places to ride them and park them. Lime's Joe Kraus thinks it will happen. "it's happened before. By 1917, nine years after the introduction of the Model T, the last horse-drawn trolley was taken out of New York. In nine years, we took a city that was based around human and horses, and we transformed it into an urban landscape centered around cars.
"These periods of change can happen rapidly when there's big problems, in our case congestion [and] pollution, and there's a great solution. In that case, the Model-T. And I would argue today in the case of an incredibly efficient magic carpet that you can drive around for about three bucks a ride!"
For more info:
- Lime Micromobility (li.me)
- Catherine Lerer, McGee Lerer & Associates
- Mayor John Mirisch, Beverly Hills, California
Story produced by Amol Mhatre.