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The E-Scooter Is Part of a Balanced Transit Diet

Here they come. Photo: Gary Hershorn/Getty Images

Two centuries ago, a disturbing new two-wheeled contraption appeared on the streets of New York. Pedestrians and drivers of horse-drawn vehicles saw the velocipede as a cluttering, dangerous nuisance, and it was quickly banned. It took more than 40 years for it to reappear, this time as the bicycle. A century ago, a disturbing new four-wheeled contraption appeared on the streets of New York. Pedestrians and drivers of horse-drawn vehicles saw the automobile as a cluttering, dangerous nuisance, but they found it impossible to resist. Despite the suspicion, the entire city was redesigned to accommodate it: sidewalks were narrowed, traffic signs installed, rules written, roads built, and police officers’ job description changed.

Now another kind of vehicle is joining the ecosystem of the streets. And just like those old technologies, this one promises convenience, calm, and order. Electric scooters first appeared in American cities three years ago, dumped on sidewalks by roguish tech companies and challenging slow-moving municipalities to react. Some cities negotiated; others caved. New York did what it does best: It banned the damn things. Last year, the state and city both voted to unban them, legalizing e-bikes in the process, and as of last month, New York has nervously begun to embrace the sophisticated little computer on wheels.  By next spring, the first scooter-share pilot programs will roll out, scattered around several boroughs (but not Manhattan). And since this is the nation’s biggest and potentially most lucrative market, a lot is riding (so to speak) on the outcome.

One question is whether New York can learn from going last—whether it can have a smoother, more civilized experience than cities that woke up one morning to a flock of scooters threading daredevilishly through traffic and blockading sidewalks. The second puzzle is whether this technology can actually fill in gaps in the transit network, by hitting the blocks that express buses skip, speeding a trip to the nearest subway station, or easing a run to the grocery store. Scooters can be fun and infuriating; can they also be essential?

I think the answer is a hearty, raised-glass yes, so long as the city keeps some overeager startups on a tight leash, until companies run by tech zealots internalize the idea that they’re in the business of providing a public service, like school buses and tree care and waste disposal. Two-buck-a-ride scooters won’t save the world, but they just might persuade a lot of recalcitrant, habitual drivers of the need for protected bike lanes.

The dream is sweet. While Citi Bike was born in high-rent zip codes and took a long time to shake its image as an adorable but optional amenity, the scooter pilots will launch in neighborhoods that are stranded far from the century-old subway system. For residents of certain marginalized areas, the service will be subsidized, not by taxpayers but by the VC-funded tech tigers themselves. This is where progressivism and neoliberalism meld: the government proposes concrete social equity goals, sets the rules, limits prices, and retains control. Private companies slaver to comply. That’s the theory, anyway.

Moving at a top speed of 15 miles per hour, scooters can turn a 45-minute trudge or an endless wait for a bus into a 10-minute open-air trip—but they won’t be able to drag race a delivery worker’s moped-bike. The city demands that the scooters be self-policing, and companies like Superpedestrian are promising to deliver; try to steer one of the company’s MIT-engineered Link devices into the no-go zone of the Brooklyn Heights Promenade, and it will instantly slow to a plod until you wheel it back into the permitted part of the map. Lime claims its scooter can sense sidewalks (which are out of bounds) and while it won’t mutiny in mid-ride, the app sends transgressors a polite warning. Repeat offenders will be banned from the service. Drop your ride outside a designated parking zone, or neglect to lock it to an authorized pole, and the clock keeps ticking, running up the meter. Neighbors who want the things out of their local parks need only complain to their elected officials and, voilà: excluded. Ride-share scooters will be the most urbane and civilized of vehicles, quietly defeating users’ attempts at abuse. That’s the theory, anyway.

The sunny version goes farther: not only will the scooter share program not need the NYPD to keep customers in line, but it also won’t place any new strain on an overtaxed Department of Transportation. The agency will soon be sifting through submissions from companies dying for a crack at the luscious New York market; the chosen ones will pay for the privilege of operating here. Data management companies, also in the mix, will provide the city with a digital command center, so public employees can monitor whether there are enough scooters in the right place and the right time, then prod the companies to correct imbalances when they arise. One evening you may get out of the subway at Jackson Heights-Roosevelt Avenue station, find an empty scooter dock, and have to hoof it home the old-fashioned way—but by god you’ll be in better luck 24 hours later. That’s the theory, anyway.

The prospect of all that win-win-winning seems so rosy that it causes certain highly skilled New Yorkers to roll their eyes, shake their heads, and raise one eyebrow all at the same time. Especially now, when the streets of New York are devolving into a lawless matrix. Tanklike SUVs crush pedestrians at crosswalks. Restaurants erect theoretically open-air pavilions so sturdy that they are essentially colonizing the sidewalks with new construction. Motorcycles let off high-decibel growls as they shoot down side streets at highway speeds. Souped-up e-bikes surf the sidewalks, scattering pedestrians. Even as large parks have become more thronged during the pandemic, motorized two-wheelers (including privately owned scooters) buzz illegally along the pathways. Cars crash through barriers denoting nominally open streets, and the city responds with a firm okay, then. The police can hardly be relied on to keep bike lanes clear when they’re the ones blocking them.

The result of this whaddayougonnadoaboutit culture is not just mild discomfort: so far this year, about 230 people have been killed in crashes on city streets so far this year, 15 percent more than in 2019, and countless more have been maimed. How can a city government unable to cope with existing forms of mayhem possibly manage a deliberate new disruption?

There are reasons to doubt the private side too. First-generation scooters were essentially disposable and frequently out of order. Dinky wheels sometimes turned an encounter with a pothole into an emergency room visit. Lime’s dockless bikes appeared with much fanfare in the Rockaways in the summer of 2018 and proved popular, until, 18 months later, they vanished, the victim of coldhearted economics. (A fleet of scooters is cheaper and easier to manage than bikes.) The most established companies are also those with the most tarnished records as urban buccaneers, and while newcomers will have to prove they can compete, old- (as in three-year-old-) timers must demonstrate that they’ve reformed. Gizmos matter less than the expertise with which they’re managed. “Anybody can go on Alibaba and order 10,000 scooters, but that doesn’t make you a good operator. You need a high level of logistical understanding,” says Colin Murphy, a consultant at the Chicago-based Shared-Use Mobility Center.

So why am I optimistic? Because enumerating these dangers doesn’t make them come true; instead, it makes them easier to neutralize. Vehicles can be made safer, sturdy and dockable. Besides, things can go wrong and still come out right. Citi Bike, too, started out misty-eyed but fragile. Then it grew, floundered, regrouped, and expanded again. More than 100 million rides later, it has become a continuously evolving but crucial part of the city’s transportation network. Scooters have no particular importance. It makes little difference if they are eventually replaced by some other kind of person mover, if they graduate from two wheels to three, or if one company bests another and a third goes under. What matters is that the city adjusts to their presence—that New Yorkers be able to get around safely, quickly, and sustainably, without having to rely on the outsized overkill machines we call cars.

The E-Scooter Is Part of a Balanced Transit Diet