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posted: 4/21/2018 1:10 AM

Review: Scooters could revolutionize urban transport -- if it weren't for stupid humans

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You'll find them obstructing sidewalks in Austin, draped on trash cans in San Francisco and tipped over like dominoes in Los Angeles.

In Washington, D.C., National Park Service workers dredged two of them from where Rock Creek flows into the Potomac.

They're Internet-connected scooters, and a bunch of well-funded tech startups think they might just upend how we get around cities. First they have to survive a speed bump: jerks.

Companies including Bird Rides, LimeBike, Spin and Waybots this spring flooded a half-dozen cities with the motorized two-wheelers. Then came a wave of scooters behaving badly. And in some cities, the era of startups disrupting first and seeking forgiveness later seems to have worn out its welcome.

"I'm going to go back and live in the 1850s and I'm going to hitch up my horse somewhere and see how the scooters like that," said Sherrie Matza during a hearing about the scooter scourge at San Francisco's City Hall on Monday.

We've been riding motorized scooters around San Francisco to get a handle on all the fuss. What makes these upright rides different from children's toys is their motors. They zip up to 15 miles per hour, which can make getting around five times faster than walking -- but also a hair-raising test of balance. You do, undoubtedly, look goofy riding one.

These scooters also have GPS and data connections. Using a smartphone app, you can locate one nearby and unlock it for as little as $1. But it's up to you to ride responsibly and park out of the way.

Evidence suggests many people don't. "It now feels strange when I'm not tripping over one or almost getting clipped by someone zooming by each day," said Alex Kummert, who commutes on foot into San Francisco's Financial District.

Motorized scooters, like these from Bird and Spin, have been showing up in cities around the U.S.
Motorized scooters, like these from Bird and Spin, have been showing up in cities around the U.S. - Bloomberg photo by David Paul Morris

Call it the eternal optimism -- or is it willful ignorance? -- of tech startups. Dockless scooters follow a wave of shared transport technologies that started with Uber cars, then expanded to shared commuter vans, and more recently added "leave them anywhere" shared bikes such as Ofo and Jump. Yet even in the months after hard-charging Uber co-founder Travis Kalanick got ousted, the scooter startups are being caught not thinking through the consequences of their technology -- and drawing from Uber's old playbook of charging into cities and skipping city hall.

Austin has impounded more than 50 scooters. San Francisco seized 66, and on Monday its city attorney sent three companies a cease-and-desist letter calling their services a "public nuisance" and saying they were "endangering public health and safety."

Cities are struggling to figure out how to manage transport options that aren't built around personal cars. Where, exactly, are scooters supposed to be stored -- should you have to pay for parking? Scooters laid haphazardly on sidewalks and in front of doors are a serious impediment for wheelchairs and the elderly. (PSA: To not be a jerk, the correct way to park is at a bike stand or against a wall, away from pedestrians and entryways.)

And what happens when streets are filled with hot-rodders whizzing by and scaring the bejesus out of people? Scooters can also be a danger to riders: Many people ride them on sidewalks and without helmets, flouting the law. Santa Monica, California, officials have made hundreds of traffic stops because of the electric scooters and say children and adults have suffered head traumas and arm fractures. (PSA part two: Invest in a helmet and ride scooters on streets or bike paths -- never on steep slopes and never on sidewalks.)

Some of the scooter startups haven't exactly been asking for permission. Bird, which has raised $115 million from venture capitalists, was founded by former Uber executive Travis VanderZanden. After Bird launched in Santa Monica last fall the company paid $300,000 to settle a complaint from the city for not having a proper license. San Francisco and Austin are now weighing regulations, and in Washington the scooters are covered under an existing dockless pilot program.

In San Francisco, like many other cities, scooter riders are supposed to stay off sidewalks and wear helmets.
In San Francisco, like many other cities, scooter riders are supposed to stay off sidewalks and wear helmets. - Bloomberg photo by David Paul Morris

Tensions are particularly high in San Francisco, a dense city that was also the first to encounter Uber. Scooters dominated a meeting Monday in City Hall as lawmakers, citing hundreds of citizen complaints, weighed how to regulate them.

"It is clear that many of these companies continue to build their corporate empires off of a basic premise: making massive profit always trumps protecting the public, and innovation is only possible by cutting corners," said Aaron Peskin, a city supervisor.

"It would be very nice if the tech bros could come in and ask for permission instead of asking for forgiveness," he said.

The long line to present citizen comment swung between disability and pedestrian-rights activists to scooter fans in hoodies. "I think the scooters run amok are actually a plot of the young people to kill off all us old farts so they can have our rent-controlled apartments," said Fran Taylor, a San Francisco resident at the hearing.

Others praised how shared scooters let them decrease the cost of getting around. "Sometimes I need to get from place to place downtown, five six blocks at a time, and the convenience of the Bird has been very helpful for me," said Jack Strong, a contractor.

The scooter companies say their interests are aligned with cities that want to cut down on congestion and the environmental impact of cars. "Rides are going to have to shift to some new technologies, and we think we've found something that can really help," said Carl Hansen, Bird's director of government affairs. "Bikes fall over. Any transportation technology is going to have its issues."

The human element may be the key to winning over regulators -- but is a hard issue to crack. Why do people flout rider rules, not to mention torture the scooters?

"These are edge cases," said Spin president Euwyn Poon of inconsiderate scooter parkers. After a while, he said, the issues will drop -- thanks to a combination of efforts to weed out rude riders and the fact that people get used to new vehicles over time. "They become part of the city and part of the street," he said.

Many of the scooters' companion apps warn that you are not supposed to ride on sidewalks, remind you to wear a helmet and even ask you to scan your driver's license. Bird and LimeBike said they would start requiring riders to submit a photo of where they park.

In China, where dockless bikes are now ridden by millions, the idea of shared transportation tech has been a hit but has also taken its toll. Some cities in China have far more bikes than there is demand, leaving sidewalks no place to walk or with piles of mangled bikes.

Ofo, China's largest dockless bike provider, says the solution is education. "People are going to park them incorrectly in the early days," says Chris Taylor, Ofo's head in North America where the company launched operations last year. But over time, he says, people learn what the "furniture zone" is on sidewalks.

"People just need to be responsible and know the limits," said Patrick Tao, 37, after taking his first ride on a Bird in San Francisco on Tuesday. He parked his scooter, which had a flat tire, next to a bike rack.

He thinks the tech could have a future, but acknowledges, "There is always going to be some a--- who ruins it."

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