Electric Scooters Are Cool as Hell. But Their User Experience is Hell.
By Ryan Hatch
You see the picture above. You know where this is going.
Electric scooters have, in the last 18 months, gradually descended en masse upon dozens of cities in the U.S. and around the world, reshaping intercity transportation on a scale I’m not sure we can quite comprehend yet. I see you rolling your eyes. But stay with me, because these scooters have systematically changed the way we get around town, the biggest innovation in this space since probably Uber. At press time, several scooter companies have already received mind-boggling valuations (Bird’s the largest, at over $2 billion) due to their enormous popularity and sky-high ridership.
Indeed, electric scooters probably aren’t going anywhere because, at face value, they appear to be more than a passing fad. They’re not just giving away two billion dollars to anyone. But an honest conversation about these machines can’t exist without addressing some serious flaws with the user experience, shortcomings that threaten their future.
To apprise the uninitiated, electric scooters, like the one you see above, are lightweight, four-foot-ish L-shaped … well, scooters. With a motor tucked underneath the floorboard, they barely need a push to get going, and with a light tap on the handlebars’ throttle, off you go, no further physical exertion required. The brake is on the left side of the handlebars. There’s a headlight, allowing night riding. Laws vary city to city, but the general rule of thumb adopted in most places is to ride in bike lanes when possible, the street when safe, and the sidewalk when clear. (Fair warning: prepare to be hated by everyone — city officials, drivers, bikers, pedestrians, and not least lawyers.)
My review? I can’t deny it, dear reader: they’re cool as hell. I simply cannot get enough, in fact. Everyone in my life can confirm. You know “runner’s high?” I get scooterer’s high. Some sort of visceral effect washes over me during a ride. I am not exaggerating. If anything, I’m underselling it. Riding one makes me feel like a kid again. It makes me feel alive. It gives me hope. Scooters, so my campaign slogan would go, are change we can believe in.
Here’s how riding one works:
- Find a scooter on a map within a company’s app on your phone
- Arrive and claim the scooter
- Scan the scooter’s barcode to activate it (it’ll usually make a nice “Ding!” type of sound)
- Begin riding
- After reaching your destination, park, and select ‘End Ride’ on the app
- Leave the scooter on a sidewalk or out of the way of cars and pedestrians, and prop it up using the kickstand. Take a picture using the app’s camera to prove it.
- All done.
Activating the scooter costs $1.00, and every minute henceforth spent riding costs fifteen cents. So if your ride is six minutes, it’ll cost you $1.90; a 10-minute ride costs $2.50, and so on. See two of my past rides below:
When this works as planned, it’s great — my God, is it great — and I can totally see why they’re valued so highly. Compare it with using Uber/Lyft/whatever. Taking a scooter instead of a cab in congested cities is a) markedly cheaper; b) faster; c) better for the environment; d) devoid of forced conversation; and, e) judgement-free — i.e., no one is grading your scooter performance that could affect if you’re able to rent another. (Let’s get “Well, what happens when it’s raining/snowing/freezing cold?” or “But I need to get to the airport 30 miles away” arguments out of the way. Sure, in those cases, take a covered vehicle.)
If comparing scooters with biking, the trump card scooters play is the effortless ride, plus its shareability — when you’re done, you’re done, and can leave the scooter wherever you are. Scared of commitment? Scooters are for you.
If comparing scooters with walking — do I even need to continue?
Deep breath. What I’ve described above more or less represents what every scooter company calls its ideal “Use Case,” the optimal, perfect-world scenario sold a billion (or two) times over to investors in Silicon Valley. A rider finds a scooter, safely rides it to her chosen destination, locks and leaves it where she chooses, all for a low price. A revolution! You bet, they’ve marketed this whole thing awfully well.
I don’t have large-scale numbers for how often this perfect situation plays out, but in my many experience, it’s less than half of the time. Like, much less.
Which sucks, man.
Instead, here’s what happens: I see a scooter on the map, walk several blocks (always in the opposite direction of where I’m going) to pick up it up, but what do you know? It’s gone. GONE, I TELL YOU. My time, my dignity, my life — all of it, gone. Someone beat me to the punch. It is, in fact, a punch.
Or, the scooter hasn’t been picked up; rather, it’s being held hostage in someone’s yard or car or house. This person (who should maybe be jailed) has selfishly kept the scooter for himself at an inconvenience for everyone else. Sure, you can report the scooter as “missing” on the app, but what good is that? I might as well yell at the clouds.
Or, if the scooter isn’t gone, it certainly exists, but what I saw on the app was a lie. A BOLD FACED LIE. Because the way this works is that the map will tell me not only where a scooter is, but also how much battery life it has remaining. And all too often the scooter on the map tells users that a scooter is at 100, or 75, or 50 percent battery life (100 percent battery is about 20 miles worth of riding), yet when in reality after you scan the scooter’s barcode, it will say something to the effect of, “Sorry, this scooter is low on battery and cannot be used.”
It’s not fit to print in a family newspaper what I say out loud, in public and in front of strangers, when this happens. I’m getting upset just writing this. And if it’s not the battery life, it’s a “damaged” scooter that will send me into a fit, because that too makes the scooter unrideable, and is something I wasn’t alerted to before I walked six blocks, uphill, in the heat. It’s awful product management at best, malicious engineering at worst.
These two major problems happen constantly and in the four months I’ve been riding has shown no signs of improving. It is enraging and agonizing, perhaps my worst user experience in recent memory, and I bank with Wells Fargo.
Look, I understand that maintenance of these scooters is difficult. My empathy for building and maintaining a serviceable product on such a large scale runs deep.
But come on, these are easy fixes. The app’s user interfaces barely have to change. For starters, allow users to reserve/unlock scooters without scanning the barcode. What’s the downside? Users will still be paying — if it sits for five minutes unused, well, that’s up to the rider’s discretion. I, for one, would absolutely be willing to pay for the peace of mind that the scooter isn’t going to be snatched away before I arrive. (Only Lyft scooters have addressed the reserving issue; for some reason they’re the only company able to grasp the fact that people are literally trying to give away money for this feature. Unfortunately, Lyft suffers from the broken scooter issues as much as anyone else, deeming their reserve feature often useless.)
As for the low battery and broken scooter problem — get with the program. A few broad suggestions: simply fix the engineering. Developers are among the best problem-solvers in the room. Let them do their thing to help ensure the scooter and app talks to each other in real time. Also, allow users to better signal when a scooter is broken or low on battery. Scooter riders look out for one another (save for those jerk hoarders). If one’s unrideable, provide an easy way to have that scooter taken off the map after a user sends an alert. Should there be a verified option for frequent users? Perhaps there should. These power users can help monitor the situations.
All of this comes down to being dependable. Too often these scooters aren’t. While using Uber and Lyft is, from my view, a crummy and expensive experience, they’re nothing if not reliable. Trust is earned and so far, these scooter companies are running low. I guess at least one thing’s consistent.