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Are Electric Scooters the Future of Commuting? You Decide

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Photo via Quartz Media

In what seems like just a few short years, bike shares—both docked and dockless, pedal and pedelec—have become a massive global phenomenon, with cities large and small covered with the now-familiar sight of colorful, inexpensive bikes from Lime, Spin, Jump, Ofo, and half a dozen other companies. More bike share start-ups seem to pop up by the week. According to Business Insider, the number of shared bikes worldwide rose from 700 thousand in 2013 to 2.3 million in 2016. Those numbers keeps going up, despite predictions of doom in certain U.S. car culture cities.

The difficulty of actually turning a profit amidst intense competition and rapid growth might seem to hamper dockless bike share outfits like Lime and Santa Monica’s Bird. But both companies are now valued at $1 billion and have raised millions in venture capital for the next wave in ostensibly car-killing transport shares—electric scooters. The cute, two-wheeled vehicles have already taken off in major cities and on college campuses around the world. The buzz is big, and maybe predictably overblown. (Bird’s founder, former Lyft and Uber executive Travis VanderZanden, has compared electric scooters to the advent of the jet engine.)

Nonetheless, “it’s not hard to see the appeal,” writes Condé Nast Traveler, “Electric scooters are easy to ride, let you breeze up hills without breaking a sweat, and are even cheaper than some bike shares. (You can cover five miles for less than $2 with either company’s fleet.) The scooters are also better for the environment than taking a cab, the companies say.” The easy-to-ride electric vehicles can reach speeds of up to 15 miles per hour, and most rides are less than 2 miles.

Renting a scooter couldn’t be easier. Both Lime and Bird (other companies like Spin are also in on the action) have apps that display available vehicles nearby. The apps “unlock” and “lock” the scooters. Rides start at $1, then cost 15 cents per mile. There are no time or mileage limits. Once you’re done, just lock the scooter and leave it behind. One drawback, notes Andrew Collins in his test ride report for Jalopnik, is that “you can’t count on it being available for your return trip.”

Not only are electric scooters great for short trips to the grocery store but they offer a convenient means of solving the so-called “last-mile problem,” which for commuters generally means covering the distance to and/or from a transit hub. Thus, scooters could encourage more public transit use generally as drivers might be far less inclined to get in the car (and maybe lose prime parking) when they can scoot to a bus or subway stop.

The rapid spread of scooter shares has caused its share of problems, many akin to the recent clutter of dockless bikes. “People are leaving the scooters everywhere,” write Mike Murphy and Alison Griswold at Quartz, “creating a mess and nuisance in the process…. Santa Monica filed a criminal complaint against Bird in December, alleging that the company began operations without city approval.” The company ended up agreeing to pay over $300,000 in fines.

San Francisco recently banned scooters outright after Lime and Bird started operating without explicit permission from the city, raising the ire of both officials and some residents. In their rush to flood the market and get ahead of competition, companies may skirt some regulations, and as usual, the pace of start-up innovation outstrips government deliberation. In Seattle, notes GeekWire, permitting for scooter shares has been tied to “the long-term plan for the related bike-sharing initiatives.” But the question of whether cities can reasonably accommodate a huge influx of nomadic scooter shares on top of the influx of bike shares may ultimately be decided by commuters themselves.

“Critics say electric scooters are essentially overgrown children’s toys,” write Murphy and Griswold, “ridden by out-of-touch elites who carelessly dump the vehicles wherever they feel like after riding. They argue that scooters aren’t actually improving deficiencies in public transit.” However, if enough riders actually do find them useful, not only for jaunts to the beach or coffee shop but for daily rides to work, then electric scooters may well become permanent fixtures in the constellation of post-car transportation options in the future.

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