It’s September 2017 in Santa Monica, California. You’re driving to work and suddenly you see it. An adult male wearing business casual attire riding an electric scooter in the bike lane. A few blocks later, a young woman with her long hair blowing in the ocean breeze whizzes past you riding a scooter while you sit at a stop light. Then you notice that nearly every corner has a collection of shiny new scooters waiting to be ridden. What was happening? You hadn’t heard anything about this!
And you wouldn’t be alone. Almost overnight, the unheard-of tech startup company Bird dropped hundreds of shareable scooters onto the sidewalks of the seaside community. Without permission from state or local government, or trumpeting from local press, Bird launched one of the more interesting business moves (or rather, social experiments) in urban American history. How did these venture capital game changers flip the perception of a product from a kids toy to a fun, viable mode of transportation and recreation for people of all ages?
Scooter share was born, not from careful planning, but from understanding that product trends are usually the result of three things… good design, abundant access, and, forgive my crassness, a shit ton of money behind it. The truly interesting thing about the first electric scooter share rollouts was simply that there was no rollout. Like a parent leaving a toddler alone and unsupervised with an addictive toy, these machines were thrust upon the public with little planning, few instructions and almost no restrictions. And this was part of the appeal… no rules, just a fun ride to work or the beach without having to find a parking spot.
This was no small feat, considering that just a few years ago, the thought of an adult riding a scooter was laughable. Scooters, electric or not, have long been associated with Razor, the affordable kids brand which has sold 34 million scooters since 2000. The stigma of someone in a suit and tie riding one of these two-wheeled machines to work was enough to discourage anyone from considering these devices as legitimate options.
But in 2019, Americans took 88.5 million scooter trips, more than double the 38 million trips taken in 2018. In just a few short years, this funky yet portable form of micro-mobility has gone from being a children’s toy to becoming this country’s fastest form of short-range urban transit.
The lawless dispersal of hundreds, if not thousands of e-scooters in dozens of American cities dared residents to give them a try. And as anyone who has actually ridden one of these devices will tell you, one ride will probably acquaint you with why they are so popular. They are just plain fun, whether you’re going to work, the store, or just joyriding with a friend.
As more people gave in to their curiosity, more and more city residents told their friends. By the time cities began to pull the reins on this almost anarchistic mobility fad, citizens were hooked. As cities started taking the first steps toward regulating or even trying to ban these machines, ridership and product loyalty was so high that city governments were, in large part, at the mercy of residents and visitors who could not get enough of the e-scooter experience.
Bird and Lime payed high prices in fines and fees as a result of their initial scooter dispersal. But they created something from nothing, a culture of American micro-mobility enthusiasts who embraced the product and collectively shed the aforementioned stigma in a matter of months.
Let’s step back in time a bit. When the automobile first hit the streets in our country, it was seen as a terrible nuisance, and a decidedly deadly one at that. Weaving in and out of the path of pedestrians, horse and buggies and bicycles and street cars, the automobile was a highly-debated fly-in-the-wine of the American transportation system. But Henry Ford would change all of that, creating the Model T, the car that was economically approachable to the masses. Middle class families could choose this new transportation innovation with confidence. A whole new employment industry arose from the sale and maintenance of these vehicles. And just like scooters today, the stigmatized form of mobility became the modality of choice for the masses. This trend was subsequently spurred by the creation of an American infrastructure revolution that exclusively subsidized the automobile as the dominant form of transportation.
The explosive popularity of scooter share in America closely mimics the automobile boom of the 1920s and 1930s. An approachable assault of new technology and practical connectivity continues to usher in a neo-transit reality that transcends stigmas and overcomes preconceived notions. Laws don’t dictate operation, rather operation dictates legislation. The power of shared micro-mobility is the more sustainable answer to the century-long dominance of the over-subsidized and over-prioritized reign of the American automobile.
Let’s be clear… the electric scooter is not the future of transportation for most of American households. But their ascent from children’s toy to an accepted and practical tool of urban mobility in a matter of a couple of years is astounding. Just like the innovation, financial backing and the subsequent infrastructure boom that lifted the automobile to the preferred mode of transit that it is today, the popularity of electric scooters has risen so dramatically because of money and access. Neither mode of transportation arose from an organic choice… their growth was/is facilitated by a conscious agenda to get you, the “driver,” hooked for life.
The big difference between automobile dominance and scooter infancy (other than the obvious physical differences) is the infrastructure component. From the 1950s through today, the U.S. made unimaginable investments in building and maintaining wide, smooth and fast roads built only for cars. Scooters, bikes and other forms of micro-mobility that have seen private investment and innovation have not yet experienced the same type of hyper-prioritization (a dedication to protected bike/scooter lanes, paved trails for easier access without car contact, etc.). That being said, slow progress has been made, with cities and communities committing to road diets and adding bike/scooter lanes as a result. But outside of most major metros, the re-allocation of space from cars to pedestrian, bike and micro-mobility infrastructure is still in the early stages. Typically, population density is a major determinant of how quickly cities mobilize around bike and micro-mobility infrastructure improvements.
Scooters are but a small piece of a much larger transportation revolution that we must take seriously if we are going to re-knit our communities and repair the damage to our planet. But they are an unquestionable example of how mobility perceptions can change when we privately and publicly invest in smarter solutions. Just like the automobile in the early 20th Century, investment in sustainable transit will continue to “drive” change with regard to how we move… this time, toward a better choice for our cities and our Earth.