Metropolis

Every Town Can Be a Scooter Town

Even, at last, New York City.

A person in all black on a scooter on the sidewalk in New York City.
A New Yorker rides a scooter in October 2020. Soon these could be everywhere. Jose Perez/Bauer-Griffin/GC Images

For all the controversy that electric scooters kicked up a few years ago when they debuted en masse across California, the buzzy two-wheelers have since become a fixture of urban life across the country. Cities like Seattle have gone from outright banning the tech over safety concerns to allowing more and more scooters in by the month. Beach towns like New Jersey’s Asbury Park are warming to the scooters, while places like Portland, Oregon, have seen success promoting scooters as automobile alternatives that can reduce carbon emissions. Plenty of companies, including car manufacturers like Ford, are getting in the e-scooter game—both the kind you can rent and the kind you can buy.

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Cities are for scooters now. Except, until very recently, New York.

When streets emptied out last spring, people everywhere found new (and less carbon-intensive) ways to use the road. Even as drivers have returned to the asphalt, the momentum for decarbonized transport is continuing, with more Americans buying cycles and e-bikes and electric cars and, yes, scooters. Those zippy little vehicles still aren’t entirely uncontroversial—they can be a danger to pedestrians when left scattered on sidewalks and can clutter public spaces when parked, for example. But manufacturers, officials, users, and others are adjusting, with added features like Google Maps integration, artificial intelligence to determine where best to distribute scooters, and turn signals to smooth out the experience. Plus, you don’t even need a smartphone to use some of the rentable scooters on offer (like the ones from Lime and Veo), and wheelchair-accessible scooters are gradually rolling out. With such upgraded fleets, New York’s crowded streets should also be able to handle the two-wheel toys at this point.

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But for years, the state and the city wouldn’t allow them due to not-unreasonable public safety concerns. The pandemic changed the calculus. In April 2020, the New York State Assembly legalized e-bikes and e-scooters, and two months later, the New York City Council not only removed certain local restrictions on e-scooters and e-bikes, but also approved a yearlong pilot program for areas “underserved by public transit, lacking options for last mile connections to transit stations, or underserved by existing dock-based bike share programs.” Then, just two months ago, 1,000 brand-new Bird, Lime, and Veo scooters and mopeds appeared in a perhaps unexpected spot: the East Bronx.

Starting small—instead of dropping scooters everywhere—was the idea. New York City Department of Transportation officials and scooter operators held “dozens of meetings with community boards, local [business improvement districts], nearby medical facilities, and more,” the agency explained to the local paper Norwood News. Why the Bronx? As a department spokesperson told me, the area provided a test opportunity to “help connect over 570,000 residents across 18 square miles to major job centers,” while not “overlapping with Bronx neighborhoods targeted by CitiBike.” (While bike share is available in other parts of the borough, the program hasn’t reached the East Bronx yet because of an incomplete city-planned expansion program and community board opposition, as one local transit advocate told me.) There are also simultaneous, ongoing city plans to construct new transit and bike lanes within the borough. Plus, there are jobs to be created here, per the city DOT: dozens related to scooter operations and maintenance, and more to come regarding “outreach and administration.” Bird also committed to working with a local nonprofit in order to hire formerly incarcerated residents looking for stable jobs.

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It’s a slower process for rolling out a new mode. But so far it seems to be working—by early September, city officials informed me, more than 48,000 rides had been taken just in the weeks following the launch. This cuts against the argument that transportation startups need to move fast and catch regulators unawares in order to get any traction, as Uber and scooter operators initially did.

I’d previously ridden Bird and Lime scooters in cities like Nashville, D.C., and East Lansing, Michigan, but I knew the East Bronx’s new toys would be far different from the ones I’d previously tried, and would be complementing a unique terrain. So on a recent weekend, I went and tried them.

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The first thing I noticed were the intense safety features on each scooter brand’s app, of a nature I hadn’t previously seen in other states. All had multichapter tutorials and quizzes on local rules of ridership, parking, and more—Lime’s had at least four mandatory videos and quizzes. While casual riders may find this annoying, at the very least it does help drill laws and regulations in your head and could help disincentivize troublemakers who want to use the scooters for harmful or impractical purposes.

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After the evaluations, you can scan the maps on each of these apps to see where scooters and parking spots are available; Veo’s has a nifty feature also showing the battery life of its units. Taking any of the scooters requires a simple scan of the scooter’s code as well as verification, helped by your phone’s camera, that the scooter is coming from an authorized place; a slowed-down “training mode” option can be triggered if you’d prefer it. And both the app and the scooter itself will make sure you stay within the borders of the approved scooting area: There were multiple moments where I (accidentally!) swerved outside the pilot map, causing my scooter to fully quit out on me until I trekked back to the allowed area. In theory, these geographic limitations will be adjusted accordingly when scooting expands citywide.

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A screenshot of a page in the app asking a true or false question about where Bird scooters can be parked and another screenshot pointing out that "riding is prohibited in this zone."
The apps feature quizzes on the local rules of the road and alert riders when they have gone out of the permitted zone. Screenshots
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I tried all three brands, which all mostly complete the same checklists. Veo has a scooter that lets you sit down—not like a bicycle seat but one you can lean back in. Meanwhile, Birds take a little while to accelerate, especially if you’re trying to scale any upslope area, though once they get going, they get going, with the speed measured on each scooter’s handy screen. (I hit a peak of 25 mph downslope, but going up it was hard to surpass 8 mph.) Lime vehicles also have screens that alert you when you’re heading into forbidden territory and notify you of potential technical issues. For me, the most important measure—whether the scooters made for stable, pleasurable rides, and whether I could easily take them where I wished to go—was accomplished by all three brands. The DOT says no one particular scooter company has been more popular than the others in terms of ridership.

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While traveling, I saw Bronx residents of all stripes, from tall guys in suits to seniors in workout gear to twentysomethings in extremely casual wear. All were riding in friendly, unaggressive ways; I even got a smile and nod while riding near an elderly gentleman on a Bird. When I talked to some residents, they seemed less interested in the particulars than in the fact that there were scooters there at all. At a designated scooter parking area, a 40-year-old Bronxite who identified himself to me as A.P. told me he was happy that scooters provided options for people to go outside, get exercise, and explore their neighborhood.

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Because scooters are a “last mile” mode, they complement a part of the city where transit is sparser. Shawn Garcia, a lifelong Bronx resident who works with the advocacy organization Transportation Alternatives, described the long-running problems scooters could help solve: “Growing up in the Bronx, it was harder to get to certain neighborhoods, and the train had unreliable service.” Even today, “it takes 20 to 30 minutes to get to a train station. There isn’t consistency with bus service,” he told me. Garcia’s group is helping implement the pilot by visiting the East Bronx and demonstrating the scooters for residents, who he says have been pleased to get the vehicles before the rest of the city.

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Some have been skeptical, however. Earlier this summer, an environmental activist named Roxanne Delgado penned an op-ed about the issues with choosing the East Bronx for the scooter pilot: the frequency of vehicle crashes along nearby roads and the potential for clogging the few green pedestrian spaces available to locals, especially those who are differently abled or older. Days before the launch, Delgado led about a dozen protesters in a rally to oppose the program.

“There’s no regulation or enforcement,” Delgado elaborated in an interview, explaining that police were not enforcing regulations, and showing me emails where DOT officials told her to send complaints directly to the scooter companies. “I’m not going to put myself at risk by telling someone they need to get their scooter off the greenway. That’s what the DOT should be doing.” Delgado claims she’s not against micromobility and alternatives to cars, but she is skeptical of the reasoning for placing scooters in particular in this low-income area—and suspects that the community happens to be a convenient dumping ground because scooter companies “need the New York market” and can’t compete with programs like Citi Bike.

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I relayed these concerns to Garcia, who said they were “legitimate” but also that “it’s important to figure out solutions that don’t involve cutting off access to these things.”

“It’s not that what Roxanne’s saying [regarding potential rider issues] is wrong,” Garcia told me. “But let’s create more access, more availability. Like we did with the bike lane on the Hudson Parkway”—which finally earned community approval this year after tireless advocacy from cyclists—“we can do something similar on Pelham Parkway” so that scooters and bicycles have their own spaces, hopefully leading to safer areas for all residents, no matter their preferred mode of transportation.

Beyond pedestrians, there’s another safety concern with the scooter rollout: drivers. Sometimes, too many cars on the road forced me to swerve onto the sidewalk; the scooter beeped but pedestrians seemed fine with my detour. On some busier roads, especially the business areas near the Bronx’s many freeways, I made do riding along parking lanes, something that was only untenable when someone had double-parked. I asked the DOT about how it was planning to ensure scooter enthusiasts had ample room on the few unprotected bike lanes—controversially known as “sharrows”—available in the area, and wouldn’t be blocked by cars; I didn’t get any firm plans of action. Considering how many cars have fatally struck cyclists over the past few years and scared many New Yorkers from taking bikes or scooters or mopeds, it’s clear this remains a core problem, one that not only affects the city’s already-active cyclists but also keeps more New Yorkers from trying an innovation like scooters.

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When I got off my Bird and Veo rides, I was congratulated by each app for playing a part in reducing transportation carbon emissions by taking these scooters instead of cars. We’ve a long way to go before the humble e-scooter is adopted widely enough to put a real dent in greenhouse gases. The Bronx pilot—while years late, compared with scooter use across the country—shows that it’s possible to put a new form of transit on the streets without pissing everyone off. The community engagement, from both enthused activists as well as concerned citizens like Delgado, is a good start; widely scaled safety and storage and tech-recycling features will have to come next; and eventually we may all have to get used to the upheaval of a transportation system that should no longer prize cars above all else. This will lead to growing pains.

Still, the fact that scooters have finally come to New York City—one of the most congested, car-heavy, dense, climate-damaging cities in existence—shows there’s further promise for them yet.

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