Future Tense

There’s Something About Scooters

Dockless scooters seemed at first like a sidewalk scourge, but they’re changing city streets for the better.

Four women ride e-scooters to cross a city street
Santa Monica, California, on July 13, 2018. Robyn Beck/AFP via Getty Images

In September, Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms announced a plan to triple the size of the city’s protected bike lane network by the end of 2021. Following in the footsteps of similar declarations by mayors of denser, bluer cities, the network expansion—from 4 to 12 miles—isn’t particularly ambitious. But Atlanta’s cycling plan is notable because of its impetus: the surging popularity of shared e-scooters, and the road safety issues they lay bare.

Atlanta’s “Action Plan for Safer Streets” is perhaps the most significant example of the scooter craze actually influencing policy and infrastructure in American cities, but it’s not the only one. Scooter companies—buoyed by their fees, data, and millions of new two-wheeled street users—have begun to push cities, especially those that have historically had few cyclists, to rethink their auto-centric street designs. Indianapolis has earmarked the fees it charges scooter companies to build safe “neighborways” for bikes and scooters, and activists in Nashville have used scooter data to make a stronger case for bike lane expansions along popular corridors, to name just two more examples.

Scooter-sharing companies already faced an uncertain future before the coronavirus pandemic, and now that future is in great jeopardy, with most companies suspending service in the U.S. But no matter what happens going forward, this two-year experiment has clearly demonstrated the demand for micromobility—human-size, often electrically boosted vehicles—in a wide variety of American cities. Scooters have also proven to be a powerful symbol, illustrating the geometry and physics at the root of the nation’s transportation problems—for those who are willing to look.

Scooters are a lot of things to a lot of people, but everyone can agree they’re popular. In 2018, the first year they were widely available, shared, dockless scooters provided 38.5 million trips in America, more than the nation’s much-longer-established docked bike-share systems like CitiBike. All indications suggest that number should be higher for 2019. Atlanta saw more than 3 million rides in the first nine months of 2019. Austin, Texas, saw 5 million rides in a 15-month period between 2018 and 2019. Los Angeles sees about 1 million scooter and dockless bike rides per month. A single company, Lime, which operates fleets of scooters and bikes around the world, announced its 100 millionth ride in September 2019.

All those rides translate to a lot more riders on two wheels—and not only in coastal cities with vibrant cycling cultures. “You have basically double the number of citizens saying, ‘Where’s my damn bike lane?’ ” said Regina Clewlow, CEO of Populus, a micromobility data platform, extrapolating from a 2018 report. “I think cities are hearing that.” And their constituents might be giving them more leeway to act on road safety improvements that have historically been a hard sell to the car-owning public. Even if only a handful of scooter riders become bike lane advocates, plenty more will at the very least understand their utility firsthand. (It has become commonly accepted that bike lanes are the best place for scooters to ride). Even drivers who might otherwise resent bike lanes are forced to acknowledge that they’re actually being used, and are thankful that the pesky scooters are being kept out of their way.

Obviously, these attitudes are difficult to measure. But they appear to correspond with the actions of governments and advocates in cities with high scooter usage, like Atlanta. “When e-scooters arrived in Atlanta, they quickly surpassed the number of bikes on the streets,” Rebecca Serna, executive director of the Atlanta Bicycle Coalition, wrote in an email. “The increase in rides and visibility, combined with several tragic deaths on e-scooters, created an added impetus and urgency for the city to create safe spaces for LIT (light individual transportation) modes.”

Tragedies—and millions of uneventful rides—aren’t the only thing pushing cities to add micromobility infrastructure. In Indianapolis, as well as Denver; Dallas; Hoboken, New Jersey; Santa Monica, California; San Francisco; and many other cities, the fees scooter companies pay to cities are earmarked for bike lanes and locking corrals. These fees add up to a lot less money than cities need to build out significant protected bike lane networks, but they make a difference. Miami’s aptly named Bird Avenue received the nation’s first fully scooter-funded bike lane in October.

But the impact scooters have had on urban policy and infrastructure pales in comparison to their potential as a pedagogical device. Almost overnight, countless American cities witnessed a mass demonstration of “the geometry problem” of urban transportation: Space in cities is limited, and different modes of getting around use that space with different efficiencies. Each car takes up about 50 square feet of space (more for trucks and SUVs) and requires 85 feet of stopping distance when traveling a measly 25 miles per hour. By contrast, scooters take up about the same amount of space as a jogger, and bikes typically take up no more than 10 square feet. That’s why a two-way, protected bike lane can transport about seven times more people than a car lane of equal size. And it’s why bike and scooter riders don’t really experience problems like gridlock or circling for parking.

American cities that for generations have sought without success to combat congestion with more car lanes are now being hit over the head with another solution: smaller vehicles. This is a lesson that cities in Asia, Africa, Latin America, and Europe absorbed long ago, as seen in the popularity of bikes, mopeds, and tiny cars. Micromobility, in concert with “macromobility” offered by mass transit vehicles like buses and trains, promises to use limited road space more efficiently than passenger cars—including electric or autonomous cars—ever could.

Bikes have always illustrated this principle, as do packed buses. But there’s just something about scooters that seems to be more appealing to a wider range of people in a wider range of cities. Researchers are still trying to reverse-engineer that alchemy. Perhaps it’s the flexibility of beginning and ending a ride anywhere, or the total lack of pedaling, or the no-fuss, stand-up posture. For whatever reason, a remarkable number of scooter riders report that they never or seldom use bikes, indicating that they are micromobility converts. Forty-four percent of scooter riders surveyed in the urbanist utopia of Portland, Oregon, reported never using a personal bike, and about one-quarter had never ridden public transit—imagine what those numbers look like in Dallas or Indy.

On the other hand, the main reason people choose not to ride scooters, or bikes for that matter, is less mysterious: They simply don’t feel safe. But too often, in popular media and intergenerational dinner conversations, the root of the danger is misattributed. Scooters and bikes are surely the most vulnerable vehicles on the road, but they’re not the ones killing people. Banning bikes and scooters wouldn’t make the streets any safer. Getting more people to ride bikes and scooters would. “If you were to get rid of all our cars tomorrow and have a bunch of scooters riding 15 miles per hour, would there still be crashes? Yeah, there would be,” said Rebecca Sanders, an urban planning professor at Arizona State University who studies street safety. “But almost none of them would be fatal.” (ASU is a partner with Slate and New America in Future Tense.)

Once again, scooters illustrate an obvious but all too often overlooked lesson, this time in physics: Smaller vehicles traveling at lower speeds are far less dangerous. They also require a lot less energy to power. And it would seem these lessons have come at an opportune time, as cars get bigger, more powerful, and, thanks to all of that added weight, more polluting. In fact, it hardly makes sense to call them cars anymore, when more than two-thirds of passenger vehicle sales in America count as “light trucks”—that is pickups, SUVs, and “crossovers.” Over the past couple of years, some of these vehicles have reached truly murderous proportions, with oversized grilles and jacked-up chassis that cut down on visibility and strike pedestrians at heart or neck level. Researchers think these wannabe monster trucks are a major factor behind the 46 percent increase in pedestrian fatalities in America since 2009. Cyclist fatalities and overall traffic fatalities have also been trending up, hovering around 40,000 over the past few years. And that’s not counting deaths from pollution.

It’s fitting, then, that the other major transportation trend of our time is these harmless two-wheelers. Scooters symbolize a different urban transportation ethos, one that is safer, more humane, and more efficient. But for now, they are just that: a symbol. A possibility. The precarious and sometimes exploitative business model upon which scooter companies rely may not be long for this world. And the scooter form factor, however trendy, may still prove to be a fad. Multiple experts consulted for this story think e-bikes, sales of which have been skyrocketing during the coronavirus pandemic, could be a more serious micromobility technology that enables longer trips and space for kids and cargo. The current crisis has also highlighted just how essential comprehensive docked bike-share systems have become in the few major cities where they exist. Years of public-private collaboration and community outreach have made them indispensable—in contrast to the fly-by-night scooter companies.

But even in this moment of profound flux, the lessons scooters have made plain still stand. Americans concerned about road safety, congestion, and the environment can spend their newfound downtime studying up.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.