THE ECONOMIST’S 1843, 22 MARCH 2019 (LINK)
A new turf war is raging on the streets of Los Angeles. Outside Gjusta, an artisanal bakery in a trendy part of Venice, four electric scooters lie on their side, beeping plaintively. They belong to Spin, one of a handful of “micromobility” companies — among them Bird, Lime and Scoot — currently duking it out for control of LA’s sidewalks and bike lanes. Don’t be fooled by their cheerful names: on either side of the stricken vehicles stand suspiciously neat rows of rivals awaiting their next rider. Could it be sabotage? In the scooter wars, anything is possible.
Such companies — most of which are based in San Francisco — have put wheels on the ground in many cities, but LA is the glittering prize. LA has the worst congestion in America, a problem that needs urgently addressing if California is to achieve its ambitious emissions reduction goals by 2030. Its public transport system is widely viewed as unsafe (I was reluctant to believe this until I took the metro and a woman in my carriage had her phone stolen by a man in a studded leather face-mask). Four in ten car journeys in LA are under two miles, often taken by solo drivers. In a flat, reliably sunny city, bike and scooter sharing offers an environmentally friendly, convenient alternative for these “last mile” trips (walk in LA? You must be mad). But is this notoriously car-addicted place prepared for two-wheeled travel?
To find out, I headed to Santa Monica. This progressive beachside city (really a well-heeled suburb) has acted as a testing ground for micromobility schemes since Travis VanderZanden, a former Uber executive, set up Bird there in 2017. While Angelenos may not exactly approve of cyclists, they are at least familiar with the concept of the bicycle: LA’s transport authority has run a bike-share scheme for years. The new bikes operated by the likes of Jump are essentially a dockless, power-assisted upgrade of London’s Boris Bike. Electric scooters, however, are an unknown quantity. While some areas like Beverley Hills have banned them (at least for now), Santa Monica City Hall has granted four scooter companies licence to operate for an 18-month trial period.
Hiring one was absurdly easy. I chose Lime, simply because other companies required an American driving licence. I downloaded the app and registered my details in a few minutes, then used the in-app map to locate my nearest vehicle, parked on the pavement a couple of hundred metres away. Scooters don’t vary much between companies, several of which use the same Chinese model. They’re all sturdy, dockless vehicles with an internal locking mechanism that prevents you from wheeling one off down the street without hiring it. I unlocked my new friend by scanning a QR code behind the handlebars. A merry jingle emanated from its digital interface, and I was ready to ride.
I got the hang of it pretty quickly. There’s a button for “go” and bike-style brakes for “stop”, and that’s pretty much it. I lurched off down the pavement — no bike lane in sight — and was soon barrelling along at a top speed of 15mph without a helmet. That’s too fast for a pavement, even one bereft of pedestrians. With my small wheels I could have easily come a cropper on an uneven paving slab. But never mind — I was enjoying myself! When I reached my destination I simply parked the scooter near the kerb and took a photo of it via the app. Total cost for a seven-minute, 1.6km journey: $2.20.
It was cheap, convenient and fun. Not to mention illegal: California state law forbids riding scooters on pavements (and most roads). You’re supposed to ride in bike lanes, but there aren’t nearly enough. So everyone breaks the law, zipping around with impunity on what are essentially adult-sized toys. This is part of the problem — these models may be fast and surprisingly heavy, but to many of us, scooters will always be playthings. Can we really be expected to ride them like adults?
Either way, they’re proving popular: Bird, which is already valued at $2bn, reports 50,000 regular riders in Santa Monica. For a certain type of Angeleno — the kind that likes to spend entire days in “athleisure” gear without ever breaking sweat — scooters offer ample opportunity for louchely posing while gliding past pavement cafes. Unsurprisingly, they’ve also been subject to a backlash from cyclists and pedestrians. Scooters have been found suspended in trees or thrown off cliffs. In one respect, however, the cyclists have won: scooters are now banned on the long seaside bike lane known as the boardwalk — the ideal place to ride them, one might think. The ban is enforced by “geofencing”, which explains why my vehicle gave up on me one night, leaving me stranded on the boardwalk.
Scooters may yet turn out to be a crucial element in a “multi-modal” future for urban transport. But they require responsible people to ride them. For the moment, anarchy reigns on the wild west coast.
Originally published at www.1843magazine.com on March 22, 2019.