Scooters will soon find city-friendly sweet spot

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Electric scooter on the road. Image: Shutterstock

NEW YORK

Purveyors of electric scooters to urbanites, Bird and Lime most prominent among them, are all the rage in Silicon Valley.

The toy-like tech marvels sometimes clog up streets and sidewalks, falling foul of officials even in San Francisco.

Yet they are also a bridge between cars or mass transit and walking – a low-cost, green, last-mile transport option. They may soon find a city-friendly sweet spot.

Santa Monica is ground zero for the scooter wars, which kicked off in 2017. The Californian city is also in the vanguard of efforts to control their proliferation and devise rules for use and placement.

After the vehicles appeared by the thousand, San Francisco banned them in May, allowing them back three months later under licenses that severely limit their number.

Lime and others are now transporting Parisians, and New York City Council members in late November introduced bills to legalize electric scooters and bikes.

Meanwhile venture capitalists can’t get enough.

Bird and Lime each raised more than $400 million earlier in 2018, according to news reports, with Bird aiming for a $2 billion valuation.

Car-hailing giant Uber bought Jump, another e-scooter provider, and rival Lyft is in on the business too.

Scooter mania reflects their ability to substitute taxis or walking for short journeys – say from a subway to an office – as well as their compact size, relatively lower costs, and perhaps greater fun factor.

Uber may even be interested in buying part or all of one of the leading scooter firms, according to news reports.

There’s overlap with shared human-powered and electric bikes.

But scooter mania reflects their ability to substitute taxis or walking for short journeys – say from a subway to an office – as well as their compact size, relatively lower costs, and perhaps greater fun factor.

The modus scooterandi has followed Uber’s example: Show up aggressively in a market first, and deal with problems later.

Blocked sidewalks, broken equipment, regulation, safety and other concerns have cropped up.

There are signs that Bird, for one, is taking a more measured approach now. In New York, it’s organizing demonstrations of its e-scooters and working with legislators.

That approach makes sense, because although scooters, like bikes, are an appealing addition to urban transport, they can also quickly become a menace – and subject to knee-jerk bans by local authorities – if a city’s infrastructure can’t handle them.

New York, for instance, has over 1,000 miles of bike lanes and a Citi Bike share program, operated by Lyft-owned Motivate, that has been going for five years, but there’s still too much scope for scooters, bikes, and cars to mix in dangerous ways.

And scooters, which don’t need docks, can be left anywhere (like across a sidewalk) if they aren’t corralled.

Reuters