The invasion of the electric scooters…

Growing numbers of US cities, and particularly San Francisco, are being invaded by hordes of electric scooters (not the kind Audrey Hepburn whizzed around Rome on, but the sort long beloved of small children), following the dockless, app-managed bicycle model in China that can be located, unlocked, and then parked — or abandoned — on sidewalks after use.

In San Francisco, competition between different companies using similar models of these Chinese-made scooters has already prompted a backlash in response to the dangers an adult traveling at up to 15 mph on a busy sidewalk presents. The major player, Bird, led by former Uber manager Travis VanderZanden, is pushing to make it legal to use scooters on sidewalks, saying the company collects them every night to review and recharge them, and is willing to pay up to a dollar for each scooter every day to city halls that endorse their use.

Most local authorities, however, have other plans: some have sent cease and desist notices to the three main scooter suppliers, to interrupt their activity while they draw up a legislative framework for their use, in San Francisco on Sunday improperly parked scooters were removed and fines issued: 29 Bird scooters, 23 owned by Spin and 14 by LimeBike, the three main players.

The offending scooters run on electric motors of less than 750 watts, cost between $200 and $500 if you buy them individually, are made in China, mostly by Xiaomi, and can carry a person weighing up to 90 kilos at speeds of up to 15 mph. Initial problems with these types of engines, which tended to overheat and burn out, and were particularly highlighted by hoverboards, seem to have been solved, have been solved, say manufacturers. Bird, which has raised $115 million, started in Santa Monica, where it faces fines of some $300,000 for operating without a license, although its founder and CEO insists he notified the city’s mayor of the launch of the service through a LinkedIn message. LimeBike, which also operates a fleet of conventional and electric bicycles, has raised $132 million, is based in San Francisco, and operates a fleet of 35,000 bicycles and scooters there, as well as in Seattle, San Diego, Washington DC, Austin, and some cities in Germany and Switzerland. Spin also offers a variety of bicycles and scooters and has raised about $8 million, and operates in dozens of cities and university campuses.

Scooter users are requested to think safety: they should use a helmet and have a driver’s license, as well as parked without blocking sidewalks, preferably in bike spaces, “when available”, and used only in bike lanes and not on the sidewalk. The reality is somewhat different: in the absence of meaningful supervision, the scooters are used by anyone, with or without a helmet, on sidewalks, and then abandoned. An app allows you to locate vehicles, unlock them by scanning a QR code, and digitally lock them after uses. The price is $1 per trip plus fifteen cents a minute, with some providers offering monthly subscriptions.

In theory, there’s no reason why electric scooters couldn’t make a contribution to so-called multimodal mobility, typically to move between a metro or bus stop and the final destination, or for short, inner city trips. Critics charge they are children’s toys and not intended for adult use — even stripped down to the buff and carrying no extra weight, the average adult American comes in at around 90 kilos. Similarly, scooters are not much good in hilly cities, accidents are common, and in addition, users simply abandon them anywhere. Recent images of gigantic pyramids of abandoned bicycles in Chinese cities haven’t discouraged investors from backing plans to inundate city streets with electric scooters, although that could change.

Nobody knows yet whether these vehicles will play a role in the future of urban mobility, but if you live in a big city, you’re probably going to start seeing scooters on a sidewalk near your very soon.

(En español, aquí)