Unfortunately, the Electric Scooters Are Fantastic

Jun 01, 2018, 12:56 PM

They would understand my plight in Old Europe. In ancient, barbaric days when local vassals managed petite armies, brute knights often swept into villages, declaring the inhabitants subject to new laws and new lords before riding off again with the changing of the season.

When this latest army invaded my village, it seemed no different than the rest. I had heard rumor of it for weeks, had feared and resented it, had assured friends that its occupation would end as soon as all its predecessors. But when its foot soldiers finally arrived, I was shocked to find myself charmed. Now, I cannot imagine life without them.

I speak, of course, of the electric scooters.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. It was not rumor exactly that first warned me of these conquerors, but The New York Times. Months ago, its heralds announced that electric scooters had overtaken cities across California. These vehicles looked like the Razor scooters of yore, though they had small, zippy, battery-powered engines. You could rent one with your smartphone; ride it down the street, around the neighborhood, or across the city; and then get off, tap your smartphone, and walk away. They cost about $3 per ride.

They were a public menace, that much was clear. A certain kind of young man—the type who might bring a Wi-Fi-enabled water bottle to the climbing gym, say—could be spotted whirring atop them in a mad bid for market share, the start-ups behind the scooters had dumped thousands of them on city sidewalks, frustrating San Francisco’s cyclists and terrorizing its wretched NIMBYs. A worrying story, certainly, but the threat seemed distant until this April when I spotted a scooter in my neighborhood in Washington, D.C. Hoofing it to the subway one morning, I caught its silhouette out of the corner of my eye: unused, teetering, a putrescent green. Immediately I despised it.

Why? I asked myself this over the weeks to come. I was bored with new technologies, bored with their repetitive promises, their glassy aesthetic, their oligarchic subsidization. And then one day I found myself late to work and staring a scooter in the face. I supposed I should try it once, for science.

I downloaded the app and activated the scooter, feeling very silly. I pushed down the throttle and lurched forward. I released it and the scooter stopped, nearly throwing me off. As I tried to figure out my balance, a teenager ran up to the scooter next to mine, activated it, and drove away. I had never felt so old.

But five minutes after stepping on the scooter for the first time, I had mastered it. It’s best ridden with one leg on the platform and the other hanging off the side for emergency braking, or fleeing. For a classic scooter, all propulsion has to come from either gravity or the rider’s body, pushing off the ground with his foot. An e-scooter only needs you to push off when coming out of a stop. (After that, the engine takes over.) The push-off/scoot-forward/hit-the-throttle movement is the only real coordination required.

Confident of my stability, I brought the scooter to its top speed: 15 miles per hour. About 10 minutes later, I was at work. My three-mile commute had never gone so fast.

On that first ride, a few things became apparent. First, I was more likely to respect traffic laws on a scooter than on a bike, because I wasn’t as worried about conserving my momentum on a scooter. Second, riding a scooter is reminiscent of riding a Segway—even if you, like me, have never ridden a Segway in your life. It turns out that even Segway virgins like myself immediately intuit the unnaturalness and awkwardness of standing-still-while-moving-quickly-forward. It feels kinetically uncool; it’s the posture of conspicuous tourists and safety-vested traffic cops. Third, the personal-injury lawsuits over these things are going to be spectacularly lit.

And yet I couldn’t quit the scooters. The next day, I took a scooter to work again, even though I wasn’t running late. The day after th...