The Scooter Problem
I don’t love the scooters. I do love the e-bikes, with their baskets that have a cupholder ring and wide comfortable seats. But the scooters stress my used up cross country knees and test my limited balance. The sit-down scooters are great, but there’s no basket. This is all just a personal preference. I love that the scooters exist. I love that I can walk out of my house and in a few minutes grab a bike or scooter, and then whisk myself off to wherever I want to go. I love that when I’m done getting my haircut downtown, or shopping in Czech Village, or going to dinner, I can find another small electric vehicle and whisk myself home, quickly and cheaply. All of VeoRide’s (Cedar Rapids exclusive bike and scooter share vendor) offerings are transportation. And they’re an incredibly wonderful form of it too.
The utility of public ebikes and scooters is obvious. They are quick. They are convenient. They are relatively cheap. They are easy to park. They are fun and easy to use. They are perfect for short and medium length trips. After you park it you can forget about it, no fumbling with chain locks or worrying if it will get nabbed while you get a cup of coffee. The scooters make all sorts of trips fun and easy to do without a car. They’re clearly very popular, and also being used for far more useful trips than just puttering around downtown and New Bohemia. The scooters and e-bikes are a novel form of transportation, and they’re posing novel challenges.
The biggest challenge is that people keep scooting like assholes. People who would never ride a bicycle for an errand, or walk from New Bohemia to downtown, are now hopping onto VeoRide’s with gusto. This also means a lot of people who don’t know basic rules and etiquette for biking are using them too. The rules for bikes apply to scooters too. There’s also been a not insignificant amount of general buffoonery and chicanery from a minority of scooter users, that dominates any discussion about the existence of the scooters themselves. A scooter has no thoughts, just vibes. It goes where you point it and stays where you left it, until the next person uses it. So when people hop on and ride down the sidewalks at full speed, or blow past stop signs, or leave the scooters blocking neighborhood sidewalks why do we blame the scooter?
The scooters are good. They are fun and useful and cheap, and when is anything ever all three?
It turns out that the scooters require more from us than we expected. You are vulnerable on a scooter. To potholes, and car doors, and texting drivers. You are dangerous on a scooter. To pedestrians, to other scooter riders, to cyclists. People love riding the scooters but hate everyone else on a scooter. The scooter exposes inadequacies in our bike infrastructure. When we rage at scooters being on roads where they don’t belong we reveal how myopic we are. A scooter, or a bike for that matter, on a road is evidence that road needs bike infrastructure. A scooter is just a form of transportation, like feet or a Honda Accord. Someone’s just trying to get somewhere. When we park a scooter so that it blocks a sidewalk it reveals how selfish and callous we are. Wheelchair users especially bear the brunt of this indifference. When we ride a scooter on the sidewalk we are being an asshole. There’s people walking here! When we blow past stop signs and red lights it shows how reckless we are. A scooter is no match for a Tahoe. The scooter problem is that when presented with the scooters some people don’t know how to act.
We can learn, as a community, to park them properly, ride them in the bike lanes, and signal our turns. We can build rules and a culture around scooting that make scooting less annoying. We can build more bike lanes, so scooting is safer and more practical. We can scoot boldly into a brighter future, carried by the soft hum of an electric motor. We could do all of this, except for the biggest scooter problem of all; scooters represent change.
When presented with a practical and novel way to get around some people would rather see the new idea handicapped or abolished rather than trust that we’ll figure out how to not be dicks on scooters sooner rather than later. Scooters are also not cars, and there’s a very loud group of people who don’t want to see anything that’s not a car on the street, no matter what street you’re on.
Scooters represent a cultural shift. They’ve made what it much more accessible to get around without a car, or at least get around without a car less often, and it turns out it’s… actually rather pleasant. Even if you the person who has only used the scooters to get between New Bohemia and Downtown when a Saturday afternoon shopping turned into dinner, and dinner turned into drinks, isn’t it nice? They’re a crack in the dam of the car’s transportation hegemony.
Letting a few hundred cheap, fun, and practical devices loose on the city revealed that people will happily choose the option not to use a car when such an option exists. They’ve left behind physical evidence and a big data trail of all the places people actually want to or need to go, and proven that someone didn’t actually need a car for that trip. A great dataset for the city to use in prioritizing bike infrastructure if you ask me. The scooters show that there’s still a lot of work to do culturally and practically to make our city more friendly to pedestrians, bikes, and scooters, but that we’ve also come a long way.
The counterpart to this is that if you’re wedded to the idea that cars are the end-all-be-all transportation mode scooters are an existential menace. And the people who think this about cars are very loud, and firmly set in their opinions. I call this group the “Nobody Goes Downtown Anymore It’s Too Crowded” Brigade and you can find them in KCRG Facebook comments and every public meeting that has ever happened and will ever happen. It’s that second spot where you realize they have real power. For a certain kind of person if the choice was to cure cancer or shave thirty seconds off their commute time the shorter commute would win every time. These are the kind of people who write public comments. We’ve let them drive public policy for ninety years. The results speak for themselves.
I think we can recognize that there have been issues with the scooters, most of which is the bad behavior of a minority of scooter users, and a lack of cultural norms surrounding how they’re supposed to be used, while also realizing that the scooters can be a huge asset to our community.
We’ve now reached a point where we have to make a choice. Do we want to be the kind of place where we retreat back into our cars, careening down arterial streets, spewing exhaust, tearing down whatever we can get our hands on to hopefully coax in another big box store? Or do we want to be a city of quiet streets, with strong local businesses, where we invest in our neighborhoods and create locally? A city where you coast down the street, standing over a humming electric motor, on our way to something uniquely Cedar Rapids?
I know which future I want.