Very interesting analysis of e-scooters: their utility and their dangers. I can always count on The New Yorker, The Atlantic, and Mother Jones for thorough reporting and analysis of issues I care about. Other specialized publications can match them on various topics but it’s hard to beat those three.
The E-Scooters Loved by Silicon Valley Roll Into New York
Fleets of electric scooters have taken over city streets worldwide. With New York finally climbing aboard, do they represent a tech hustle or a transit revolution?
By John SeabrookApril 19, 2021
Shared electric scooters offer a solution to what transportation experts call the “last-mile problem.”Illustration by Igor Bastidas
New York City used to be an early adopter of new transportation modes. In the late eighteen-sixties, New Yorkers took up the velocipede, a primitive version of the bicycle. Half a century later, the city embraced the automobile, and eventually made free parking available for the fossil-fuel-burning machines—a remarkable giveaway of expensive public space that many carless citizens would like back now. New York also engineered and built a subway system, above ground and below ground, which, before the covid-19 pandemic hit, carried five and a half million riders every weekday—a landmark of American people-moving the city may never reach again, if remote work is here to stay.
But when it comes to shared electric scooters—the adult, motorized versions of the standing “kick” scooter that you push with one foot—New York has taken the slow lane. As with its bike-share scheme, Citi Bike, which launched in 2013, years after most other big cities, New York has adopted a conservative approach to this ballyhooed new mode of getting around town.
Beginning in Southern California, Bird and, later, Lime, both venture-capital-backed tech startups, dropped fleets of rentable electric scooters onto the streets of Santa Monica, where Bird’s vehicles appeared in 2017, and San Diego, Lime’s first city, in 2018. Bypassing municipal regulators, the companies hoped to attract customers as quickly as possible. Under Uber’s former head of international growth, Travis VanderZanden, Bird got its black-and-white scooters into a hundred cities globally during a yearlong blitzkrieg. Blindsided city governments, struggling to respond to this onslaught, temporarily banned scooters in Seattle, West Hollywood, and Winston-Salem, among other places.
Although Bird wasn’t close to profitable, it soon reached unicorn status—a billion-dollar valuation. Lime then joined Bird in the unicorn paddock. Investors went all in on “micromobility”—the buzzy, catchall term for bicycles and lightweight electric vehicles—hoping to stumble onto the next Uber. Within a year, more than thirty scooter-share startups had popped up around the world.
In many cities, scooter-sharing was adopted faster than bike-sharing, and by a broader demographic of ridership. Bird amassed more than ten million rides in its first twelve months. Users loved the scooters for their convenience. In Austin, Texas, for example, during South by Southwest, scooters proved to be ideal for hopping between venues. On the West Coast, Venice Beach sizzled with the sound of scooter wheels. By 2019, the long-necked, flat-bottomed machines had become a fixture of the urban landscape in Paris, Vienna, Madrid, and Mexico City, like for-hire mechanical swans clustering on sidewalks.
Transportation wonks hailed scooter-sharing as the best solution to their “last-mile problem,” when the trip between the train station and home is a little farther than walking distance—around a quarter of a mile, for most people. Futurists saw it as the first transportation mode to incorporate mobile-computing and global-positioning technology in its core design, and touted the e-scooter as a harbinger of the battery-powered, software-controlled car of the future. But to detractors e-scooters were a fad, and scooter-share programs were a tech hustle that exploited a limited public resource—city streets—to enrich private investors.
Bird and Lime attracted lawsuits from injured riders, and passionate animosity from lots of people who encountered the dockless scooters that were left in the middle of sidewalks. In May, 2018, San Francisco, after receiving almost two thousand complaints, issued cease-and-desist orders to Bird, Lime, and a third operator, Spin, which was bought by Ford in November, 2018. A class-action suit in Los Angeles the same year accused Lime, Bird, and others of “aiding and abetting assault.” Scooter vandalism became a performance art. The Instagram site Bird Graveyard documented busted Birds, trashed Birds, Birds in the Bay, and Birds flambé.
Among the big transportation hubs in the West, only New York and London stood fast during what is now seen as the Wild West phase of scooter mania. Then came the pandemic, scrambling transport habits around the globe, and creating rare opportunities for what transportation theorists refer to as “mode change.” To judge from New York’s increasingly crowded bike lanes, the scootering mode has arrived.
E-scooters aren’t the first standing electric vehicles to attempt to enter New York’s transportation system. The Segway, a two-wheeled “human transporter,” was released in December, 2001, and hyped by Jeff Bezos as “one of the most famous and anticipated product launches of all time.” There were photographs of Bezos and the Segway’s inventor, Dean Kamen, riding the machines on sidewalks around Times Square.
Today, the human transporter is perhaps best remembered as the electronic steed that Paul Blart mounts in “Mall Cop,” a 2009 film that leans heavily on the sight gag of a casually standing person who is in motion. But the Segway’s influence lingered in the broad set of state and city laws that banned most forms of single-person E.V.s from the streets and sidewalks, including e-bikes and e-scooters.
In the late two-thousands, the first wave of e-bikes arrived in the city as food-delivery workers, virtually all immigrants, began using them. For a fifteen-hundred-dollar investment in an e-bike, a worker can increase his nightly earnings by two dollars an hour—which could amount to thousands more in yearly earnings. Some Yuppie early adopters had also taken to the outlawed bikes: my sister-in-law’s elbow was shattered in Manhattan, in 2010, by an e-biking filmmaker who was going the wrong way in a bike lane.
A crackdown began in 2017, shortly after a sixty-year-old Upper West Side investment banker, Matthew Shefler, who used a speed gun to clock cyclists in the Columbus Avenue bike lane, called in to “Ask the Mayor,” on WNYC’s “The Brian Lehrer Show,” and decried the dangers of the modern-day velocipedes to Bill de Blasio.
The following year, the N.Y.P.D. issued delivery workers hundreds of five-hundred-dollar citations and sometimes took away their e-bikes. Workers who spoke Chinese or Spanish had their bikes confiscated at a much higher rate than those who spoke English. The Deliver Justice Coalition fought back with the support of influential local politicians, including Jessica Ramos, a state senator from Queens, and Carlos Menchaca, a City Council member from Brooklyn, but they lacked the funds to lobby state lawmakers in Albany effectively. The status of pedal-assist e-bikes was eventually clarified as exempt from the law—Citi Bike began electrifying its fleet in 2018—but the full-throttle e-bikes favored by the city’s forty thousand delivery workers remained illegal.
During the same period, micromobility companies began to eye the lucrative New York market, despite being blocked by the Segway laws. Bird and Lime did have the funds to spend on lobbying Albany lawmakers. Bird brought in Bradley Tusk, who had designed Uber’s strategy for disrupting New York City with its gig-working drivers in the early twenty-tens; between January and June of 2019, Tusk was paid a hundred thousand dollars. Lime also spent heavily on lobbying.
Phil Jones, Lime’s senior director of government relations, took a leading role in crafting the new law for the scooter companies. “There were a lot of overarching state laws put into place that made two-wheeled electric vehicles illegal, inspired by the Segway,” he told me. “That’s what we were up against, and that’s what delivery workers were up against.” Jones helped consolidate five bills aiming to legalize two-wheeled E.V.s into a single piece of legislation, Senate Bill 5294A, sponsored by Jessica Ramos. With the financial capital of the scooter bros and the political capital of the persecuted deliveristas, the bill was passed by the New York Assembly in 2019, but Governor Andrew Cuomo vetoed it, ostensibly because he wanted all e-scooter and e-bike riders to wear a helmet. According to insiders, the underlying reason was the Governor’s hostility toward Ramos, a rising star in state politics.
On March 20, 2020, Cuomo put the state into lockdown. Within weeks, the food-delivery workers whom the N.Y.P.D. had been harassing were being hailed as frontline heroes. During the terrifying early days, particularly, it seemed as though ambulances and delivery e-bikes were the only vehicles moving. Cuomo, who had backed down on his demand for helmets, as long as a rider is older than eighteen, signed the bill that April.
In July, the City Council mandated a scooter-sharing pilot. In October, the Department of Transportation issued a Request for Expressions of Interest; the D.O.T. would award up to three of the applicants with contracts. New York is one of the world’s largest potential markets for micromobility, and an invaluable proving ground for the concept, so the scooter pilot attracted intense interest from dozens of companies—not only Bird and Lime but also many smaller operators that hoped to prevail over the two Goliaths. One of these was Link, which is owned by Superpedestrian, an engineering and robotics firm based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Link’s fleet of fluorescent-yellow scooters can be rented in Seattle, Oakland, Madrid, Rome, and seventeen other cities.
By January, 2021, the field in New York’s pilot competition had narrowed to seven. On an arctic day at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, the finalists were invited to demo their scooters and operating software for D.O.T. observers.
“We are definitely the underdog here,” Paul Steely White, Superpedestrian’s policy director, said as he glanced around at the reps from the other companies that were setting up their scooters on the frigid, windswept pavement.
Bird and Lime were at the Navy Yard, too, and also Lyft, the ride-hailing and bike-share behemoth, which does fleet logistics for Citi Bike; Ford’s Spin; Voi, a Swedish company that operates in European cities, where the bicycle-friendly infrastructure makes scootering less daunting than it is in New York; Beryl, a British company; and Veo, a Chicago-based startup.
White pointed to Superpedestrian’s victory over Bird in its bid for Seattle, in September, 2020; Link was one of three operators that were issued permits. (Lime and Wheels, a California-based maker of a hybrid scooter-bike, received the others.) White attributed Bird’s defeat to its disruptive history as well as to the company’s use of gig labor to service its scooters. He hoped that Link, which has a perfect compliance record in the twenty-one cities in which it operates, and has never used gig labor, would have a similar advantage over Bird with regulators in New York, where gig labor won’t be allowed. Both Bird and Lime, for their part, say that they have moved past the early years of disruption, and have become compliant government partners. More recent generations of Bird’s scooters, such as Bird Two, in scratch-resistant silver, are much sturdier than its early models, as are Lime’s.
To unlock the dockless shared scooters, users download a smartphone app. Rides generally cost a dollar to start and then twenty-five cents a minute, which makes them economical for short, fast trips, but costly for recreational larking. In renting a scooter—or a bike—you provide the hire company with information about you, your route, your travel speed, your driving style, and your destination. Cities grant scooter concessions in part to have access to these data, which are aggregated and anonymized according to rules that underpin the Mobility Data Specification, an open-source digital tool. This information is far more granular than the data that can be gleaned about subway or bus ridership. What to make of the fact, according to a study commissioned by the Dublin City Council, which fitted cyclists with sensor-enabled lights made by the cycling-technology and data firm See.Sense, that women swerve more than men when they ride, and that they stay closer to the curb, even though the road is rougher there? See.Sense’s Irene McAleese told me, “They could be cycling close to the gutter to feel safer, if good-quality cycle infrastructure is not available.”
Both White, fifty, and a colleague, Graham Gullens, thirty-six, wore heavy parkas, mittens, hats, and face masks. Their eyes lit up as the D.O.T. observers began arriving. One at a time, the observers tried Link’s yellow scooters, heading toward a set of orange cones. Gullens sprinted behind each one to call attention to the precision of Link’s geofencing. A data-driven form of collective intelligence employed in scooter fleets, geofencing uses G.P.S. to create virtual boundaries around terrestrial places. The technology can keep scooters off sidewalks and away from restricted areas by automatically cutting the power to the motor when the scooter crosses the geofence. Geofencing also requires users to end rides in designated scooter-parking areas, reducing sidewalk clutter. You could still pick up a parked scooter, though, if it isn’t locked to anything, and throw it into the East River.
The finalists in the New York pilot all employed a version of geofencing, but they differed in significant ways. Some systems rely on cloud computing, which can entail delays of up to thirty seconds when the scooter hits a boundary. Link does all the mapping and computing on three microcomputers built into the scooter, so its geofencing system kicks in almost instantly.
Gullens wanted to be there when Link’s scooters hit the geofence at the orange cones and stopped. “I was just really excited to show off our system,” he told me. “I was also trying to stay warm.” If nothing else, the day would prove conclusively that scootering is not the best mode of travel in the dead of a New York winter. You can’t put your hands in your pockets while driving or lean into the wind. In a lot of ways, walking that last mile works better, and it’s free.
Still, “we showed that we’re trying really damn hard,” White told me. “I think this is part of the underdog mystique that ultimately wins them over.”
Paul White has been at the forefront of micromobility since before it was a concept. He’s risen to be a colonel in the war on cars during his career, with most of it spent at Transportation Alternatives, a nonprofit founded in 1973 to fight the supremacy of the automobile in the city. As T.A.’s executive director starting in 2004, White was the public face of cycling in New York, calling for better, safer bike infrastructure, and eulogizing riders killed by cars and trucks. He was friends with the dynamic D.O.T. commissioner under Michael Bloomberg, Janette Sadik-Khan, who created hundreds of miles of bike lanes. He was instrumental in getting cars banned from both Central Park and Prospect Park, and in helping to persuade the city, under the Bloomberg administration, to build the Prospect Park West bikeway, which was installed in June, 2010. Anthony Weiner, who opposed the bike-lane boom when he ran for mayor in 2013, vowing to rip the lanes up if elected, called White and his colleagues “policy jihadists.”
It therefore came as a shock to many in the bike-advocacy community when, in the fall of 2018, White announced that he was leaving the nonprofit world to join Bird, the Silicon Valley unicorn. The company had offered to make him part of its public-policy “dream team,” and after discussing the role with a former colleague, Melinda Hanson, the founder of Electric Avenue, an E.V. consultancy, he decided to take the job. “I was pushing fifty, and I had been at T.A. fourteen years,” White told me. “Young Jedis were coming up through the ranks.” Being an executive director mostly meant fund-raising, and, he said, “that wasn’t what I originally signed up for in terms of trying to kick down doors.” Community boards, which tend to be dominated by car drivers who don’t want to lose their free parking, fought back against bike lanes. Under Mayor de Blasio, City Hall’s top priority was the Vision Zero program, which focussed on reducing auto-related fatalities, rather than on building cycling infrastructure. The pandemic has proved to be a disaster in this regard. Drivers, delighted to find the roads empty for once, floored it. Road fatalities have been the highest since Vision Zero began.
“I saw what was happening with scooter mania,” White explained. “Yes, there were all these issues with sidewalk clutter, but just look at the numbers. More women were riding, more low-income people were riding, and it was more racially diverse.” White felt the same energy around the micromobility movement that he had experienced in bike advocacy during the Bloomberg years.
The lockdowns in the face of the pandemic brought scooter mania to an abrupt halt. After mid-March, 2020, no one wanted to share anything, and, with no one going anywhere, scooters’ data-gathering capabilities were useless. Across the U.S. and Europe, the metal swans went into hibernation, which meant removing thousands of scooters from city streets.
Layoffs followed throughout the industry, and Lime eventually lost its unicorn status. Still, when White got an e-mail from Bird’s management summoning him to a Zoom Webinar on March 26, 2020, he had no inkling of what was to come. A woman’s voice read a statement collectively firing more than four hundred Bird employees, including everyone on the Zoom call. (The mass termination is preserved on YouTube.) “It was pretty brutal,” White said. Immediately after the ninety-second call ended, screens on the company-issued laptops, on which people had been working from home, went to gray and everyone was locked out of e-mail and Slack.
White was “really low” for a couple of weeks, he said, and he considered leaving the transportation field altogether. In 2019, he and his wife, Zoe Ryder, a poet, and their three children had moved to a six-acre farm in Ulster County. He had lots of projects in mind. But, as lockdowns eased and scooter-sharing returned to cities in the summer and fall of 2020, he began lobbying to join Superpedestrian.
“I wanted to work for the good guys,” he said. “I just have so much invested in this personally. I feel like if we don’t win New York, I’m going to be filling potholes for the Ulster County Department of Transportation.”
Electric scooters don’t look like the coming revolution in transportation, but to Horace Dediu, a business analyst and micromobility’s leading evangelist—he coined the term—that is part of their appeal. “The next revolution in transportation will come from the bottom,” Dediu has said. Dediu was born in Romania and came to the U.S. as a child; he attended Tufts and the Harvard Business School. He now lives in Finland, where he is multimodal. On YouTube, he philosophizes about urban mobility while riding his bicycle.
Dediu argues that, just as the heavy desktop computer has been superseded by lighter laptops, tablets, and smartphones, so the automobile will be “unbundled” into much lighter, cleaner, and less resource-dependent E.V.s that can be used for most of the trips people now make by car. (In the U.S., sixty per cent of all car trips are less than six miles.) Lithium-ion batteries, first introduced to consumers by Sony in high-end camcorders, today power an ever-expanding array of mobile devices—not just our phones and laptops but also vehicles like e-bikes, e-scooters, e-monowheels, e-skateboards, and other continually evolving forms of micromobility that no longer require the user’s energy to move them.
Dediu calls e-scooters “smartphones on wheels.” No other vehicle on the road has a higher proportion of brains to brawn. Scooter riders, however, are less reliably intelligent. In the Wild West days, reckless driving and cheaply made scooters reduced the life span of some scooters on the streets to just over twenty-eight days. When Bird and Lime launched, they deployed consumer scooters bought from the Chinese manufacturers Segway-Ninebot and Xiaomi, which weren’t made for the hard-knock street life of a public-transit vehicle. In San Francisco, brakes failed as some users were scootering down steep hills, leading to class-action lawsuits. In Auckland, New Zealand, a software glitch caused scooters to brake suddenly. In October, 2018, Lime recalled two thousand of its scooters from fleets in Los Angeles, San Diego, and Lake Tahoe over fears that the batteries, which are installed under the standing platform, might explode. Lithium-ion-battery fires can occur on rare occasions when a short circuit causes the battery to release a large amount of its stored-up energy at once; that’s why airlines won’t allow lithium-ion batteries in checked baggage. There was a fire at Citi Bike’s main charging hub in Brooklyn, in May, 2019.
Still, Dediu believes that today’s scooters could evolve into tomorrow’s automobiles. The technologies embedded in a state-of-the-art e-scooter and e-bike—mobile communications, autonomous driving capability, and artificial intelligence—will be central to the cars that Apple or another tech company might make in the future. If cities are going to meet the zero-emission goals they’ve set and if automakers like Ford and G.M. are going to electrify their fleets by 2030 and 2035, respectively, as they have pledged, automobiles will have to become smaller, lighter, and more efficient, particularly given the limits of lithium-ion-battery technology. Four-wheeled, covered quadracycles, electric rickshaw-taxis, and electric minibuses resembling three-wheeled tuk-tuks are all possibilities.
But the disposability of shared scooters also raises the question of just how green this new mode of transport really is. There is still no commercially reliable way to recycle lithium-ion batteries—a huge caveat for the sustainability of E.V.s in general. All the superannuated scooters eventually end up in landfills, as did shared bikes, which were widely embraced in China early in the past decade, then abruptly cancelled in many places, leading to shocking photographs of enormous bike-burial sites. Added to the environmental costs of discarded batteries and scooters are the emissions produced by the trucks and vans that bring the scooters to charging stations—or, in some cases, to gig workers’ homes. On important issues, such as labor practices and sustainability, the Wild West of micromobility remains unsettled, even as the go-go early days of disruption have given way to the courtship of regulators like New York’s D.O.T.
To get a better sense of scooters as proto-vehicles of the future, I visited Superpedestrian, the home of Link. The company currently has a hundred and ninety employees, many of whom work at its R. & D. lab, in a former machine shop on a quiet back street in Cambridge. Assaf Biderman, the company’s Israeli-born forty-three-year-old founder, joined me on Zoom for a tour, beaming in from an island in Greece where he, his wife, the Israeli singer-songwriter Nili Ohayon, known as Onili, and their six-year-old daughter, Livia, were spending the pandemic. When they return to the U.S., the family plans to settle in Brooklyn.
After completing his military service in Israel, Biderman majored in physics and architecture at M.I.T. At the university’s Media Lab, he worked under Hiroshi Ishii, whose research into human-computer interfaces was pioneering in the early nineties. Collaborating with Ishii, Biderman told me, “brought me into the idea of using new sensors and digital tools to create a meaningful connection between humans and machines.” Biderman was also inspired by Bill Mitchell, the Australian-born dean of architecture at M.I.T., who foresaw the profound effects that data would have on architecture and city planning. As Biderman put it, “When the urban environment starts to emit data, you can begin to plan it with quantitative tools.”
In 2003, Biderman and Carlo Ratti, a former postdoc in Ishii’s lab who is now a professor at M.I.T., founded the Senseable City Lab, within M.I.T.’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning, to explore how introducing digital technologies into the built environment can aid in the study, design, and management of cities. As the lab started consulting with cities around the world, Biderman told me, he kept hearing that demand for urban mobility is expected to triple by mid-century. “Growth in global population, growth in urbanization, and rising incomes are all driving it,” he said. “But the streets we have are what we’ve got. How can you use those streets to move more people more efficiently?”
Superpedestrian was launched in January, 2013. Biderman assembled a team of forty robotics engineers, who spent the next four and a half years coding a machine-learning-based operating system that could be used in any small electric vehicle, including a car, and for which they eventually received thirty-seven patents. “A self-sensing control system” is how Biderman describes it.
In 2017, the company brought out the Copenhagen Wheel. By replacing the back wheel of a conventional bike with the Wheel, you could convert it into an e-bike. In addition to its vehicle intelligence, the Wheel could sense and learn from the city’s infrastructure. It recorded carbon-monoxide levels, reported on traffic congestion, and used algorithms to detect potholes. The Wheel also had the machine-learning capacity to adapt to a rider’s unique pedalling style and pace.
Priced at seventeen hundred and fifty dollars, the Wheel went on sale in 2017. The only thing it couldn’t do was sell. “It offered too much for its price,” Biderman told me. “We should have charged four or five thousand for it. Then people would have understood they’re getting the best.”
In 2018, Biderman entered the scooter-share market. He asked his engineers to design a high-tech scooter, and they loaded it with all the intelligence and self-diagnostic capacity that the Copenhagen Wheel had, as well as many new features. During my visit to the lab, Graham Gullens showed me Link’s Seattle fleet on a monitor. The individual scooters, represented as green dots, were zipping around the city in real time. Choosing a random dot and clicking on it, Gullens explained how Superpedestrian’s operating system was performing more than a thousand autonomous maintenance checks a second—brake issues, battery-cell-temperature imbalances, severed internal wires, water penetration—so that an algorithm that has learned to detect signs of incipient scooter failure can take the vehicle out of service before a serious malfunction occurs that might land the machine in the shop and the rider in the hospital. (The system can also detect collisions and report unsafe driving to local control centers.) As a result of this regimen of automated self-care, Link scooters require maintenance once in every two hundred and fifty trips, versus the industry standard of once in every fifteen to forty trips.
“The scooters even open their own service tickets!” Biderman exclaimed. “With the instructions on what needs to be fixed for the mechanics. And, once it is fixed, the scooter tests itself to see if the work was done correctly.”
Last November, I bought an electric scooter for my wife, as a birthday gift. It was a portable model, with a steering column that folds. You can get one for five hundred dollars, and a fair number of people who rent scooters and enjoy getting around on them eventually do buy their own. That poses problems for the long-term viability of scooter-sharing. “The best customers end up leaving the market,” David Zipper, an urban-mobility and technology-policy expert and a visiting fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Taubman Center for State and Local Government, told me.
As a gift, the scooter was a disaster. My wife rode it maybe fifty yards down the unprotected bike lane on our street in Brooklyn, went over a speed hump, and that was that. Like the women in the Irish cycling study, she didn’t feel safe. Horace Dediu, the micromobility seer, told me that he considers women to be an “indicator species” when it comes to new forms of transportation. “In Europe, whenever women begin to use a mode it becomes mainstream very quickly,” he said. Cycling has long skewed male, but in Denmark more women cycle than men, a fact that Dediu attributes to the country’s investment in infrastructure.
After taking a few spins on our street, I felt safe enough. (“Lord, grant me the confidence of a mediocre white man,” the writer Sarah Hagi memorably tweeted in 2016.) So I set off for a test commute into Manhattan, following my usual bike route.
In a 2018 study of Austin scooter injuries conducted by the Austin Public Health Department and the Centers for Disease Control, a third of the accidents occurred on the first ride, so I went cautiously, wearing a helmet, but I soon got the knack. Cruising down Carlton Avenue, I caught the giddy appeal of e-scootering. “It’s like supercharging yourself for a few minutes,” as Assaf Biderman put it to me. You stand there, and with virtually no effort at all—only the slightest pressure of your index finger on the trigger-shaped throttle button—you’re skimming along through the air. But the standing position also accounts for the P.B.E. (Paul Blart Effect): you look like a blissed-out dork. Elon Musk told the journalist Kara Swisher that scooters “lack dignity.”
On my outbound trip, I almost lost my balance on the rough blacktop around the perpetual construction on the protected Flushing Avenue bike lane. In downtown Manhattan, I steered around potholes and other gouges caused by the freezing and thawing of pavement and the plowing of snow. Cities in more temperate climates, such as Southern California, where scootering first took off, don’t have New York’s pothole problems; in 2020 alone, the D.O.T. filled 120,561 of them. The standard size of a wheel on an adult’s bicycle is twenty-six inches in diameter, and it will roll through all but the deepest ruts. Scooter wheels, by contrast, have a much smaller diameter—mine are ten inches—and can’t negotiate the hairier craters as easily.
Even cities with smoother infrastructure have reported an epidemic of certain types of injuries at the beginning of sharing programs. Wally Ghurabi, the medical director of the emergency center at UCLA Health Santa Monica Hospital, participated in a 2018 study, conducted by the university, of two hundred and forty-nine patients admitted to the E.R. after scooter accidents, of whom ten had worn helmets. A hundred of them had head injuries. “You take a seventy-kilogram person going, let’s say, fifteen miles an hour,” Ghurabi told me. “He topples, loses his scooter, and lands on his head. Imagine the force of seventy kilos times fifteen miles an hour, hitting the asphalt. Asphalt is not forgiving. I’ve spent hours upon hours taking asphalt out of people’s faces in the forty years I’ve been doing emergency medicine. And, because they’re unprotected heads, you have brain bleeds. People have to have surgery to evacuate the blood.”
Ghurabi compares the enthusiasm for electric scooters to the in-line skating craze of the early nineteen-nineties. “Roller skates put my kids through college, man!” he said.
I got home safely, and soon I was regularly scootering around Brooklyn and into Manhattan. If nothing else, it was a half hour of lightheartedness in the day, although my mellow was somewhat harshened by hostile vibes I detected from other users of the bike lanes. Human-powered cyclists—my erstwhile mode buddies—seemed especially peeved at me. Was it my lack of body language, which seemed to make it difficult for oncoming riders to anticipate my projected path? Was it mode rage? Purists, like my friend Rob, think that bike lanes should not be for motors of any kind, including e-bikes, and certainly not for e-scooters. But, if you forgo the dangers of the open road, and scooter on the sidewalk, you menace pedestrians; in addition, some city sidewalks, which are maintained by property owners, are in worse shape than the streets. (It’s also illegal.) In vain, I searched the eyes of passing scooterists for some inter-modal camaraderie, but I found only a shared sheepishness.
In December, as I was leaving a community-outreach event on scooter safety which Paul White and a colleague, Paul Mondesire, were staging at Bedford-Stuyvesant’s Restoration Plaza, I hit a hole. I had scootered over from Fort Greene—a harrowing two-mile trip along Fulton Street, which, like many city streets, has only two stripes of faded white paint for bike lanes, and for some stretches not even that. After watching community residents try e-scooters for the first time, with mixed levels of enthusiasm, I said goodbye to the two Pauls and scootered across the plaza. A chunk was missing between the plaza and the adjoining concrete—more pockmark than pothole—and the front edge of my scooter caught it, instantly ending my joyride and sending me hurtling toward the pavement face first.
Newton’s third law, that every action has an equal and opposite reaction, is a tired maxim of everyday physics, but when your face is involved in the equation the third law becomes the only thing in the universe that matters. The prow of my bicycle helmet was probably going to save my head from a brain bleed, but it wasn’t going to protect my nose, teeth, and skin from skidding across the concrete.
Because I was travelling at eight miles an hour, about half the scooter’s top speed, I was able to get my hands out, just. Mondesire rushed over to help me, but I jumped up, with gravel embedded in the heels of my palms and a bloody knee, more shocked than hurt. Had I been going any faster, it would have been very ugly.
“Textbook fall!” White shouted.
The pandemic has brought a temporary mode shift to urban transportation systems around the world. Anne Hidalgo, the mayor of Paris, has seized on the opportunity presented by the pandemic to accelerate her vision of la ville du quart d’heure—a city in which mobile citizens can avail themselves of multiple modes of transportation to get anywhere in fifteen minutes. An app like Google Maps, which already lists trip times for driving, mass transit, biking, and walking (and plans to add scootering soon), could calculate the best mode to use for certain segments of the trip, and when to switch.
Hidalgo has closed quayside Seine roads and the Rue du Rivoli, restricted car use on the Champs-Élysées, Paris’s busiest street, and introduced hundreds of kilometres of coronapistes—pop-up protected bike lanes that can be installed virtually overnight. More than half the people using them are new to cycling or scootering. Since the pandemic started, Sadiq Khan, the mayor of London, has added almost two hundred miles of protected lanes, and London’s cycling population has grown two hundred per cent.
“This is it!” David Zipper, the urban-mobility expert, said to me, of the possibility for transportation reform in New York. “This is our window! And if you miss this opportunity it’s not going to come around again.”
In New York City, the Mayor recently announced a new road-level bike lane on the Brooklyn Bridge; the Queensboro Bridge is getting a two-way bike lane on the north side and a pedestrian walkway on the south. But if the recent opening of the Daniel Patrick Moynihan Train Hall, the $1.6-billion addition to Penn Station, is any indication, multimodalism may not come naturally to city planners: there is no bike parking at all, except for a Citi Bike rack out front. The new commissioner of the city’s D.O.T., Hank Gutman, has promised ten thousand more parking racks for bicycles across the city.
At a recent forum on transportation in which eight of the Democratic candidates vying for office in November’s mayoral election took part, much of the discussion focussed on how they would meet Vision Zero’s goal of zero road fatalities by 2024, the importance of dedicated bus lanes, and whether there should be more N.Y.P.D. officers on the subway. The question of expanding cycling infrastructure came up only briefly, and none of the candidates mentioned e-scooters. Andrew Yang, the former Presidential contender, committed to biking to work at City Hall if elected, although he allowed that he might need to take a car now and then, “to make phone calls.”
Even before the pandemic, transport planners knew that many people who take up biking are shifting from public transit, or walking, and not from cars. The micromobility gains in Paris and London are mostly at the expense of their Métro and Underground systems. Post-pandemic New York needs to act on two fronts. It has to better protect its bike lanes, so that more cyclists and scooterists feel safe enough to use them—in 2019, cars and trucks killed twenty-nine cyclists in the city, a twenty-year high. And it has to make sure that the older forms of mass transit recover so that New Yorkers who have absolutely no desire, or ability, to jump on the latest micromobility vehicle can rely on them as they used to.
As people go back to working in offices and shopping in stores, but potentially remain leery of trains, buses, and car pools, many will mode-shift to four wheels rather than two. Ridership on the subway is still at only thirty-five per cent of its pre-pandemic levels; bus ridership is about fifty per cent. Traffic, however, is already reaching pre-pandemic levels at the river crossings and on interborough expressways open to commercial traffic, even as it remains depressed in midtown. According to Sam Schwartz, a longtime New York transportation analyst, the city is facing a “scary” traffic scenario this fall, unless something is done to redirect the public’s atavistic retreat to private automobiles.
If seventy-five per cent of remote workers return to their Manhattan offices, he explained, but twenty per cent of them remain fearful of public transit and mode-shift to driving, the number of vehicles entering the central business district in Manhattan will increase by two hundred and nine thousand cars over the 2018 peak, when midtown traffic crept along at an average of five miles an hour. (Congestion pricing, the plan to toll drivers crossing the East River and entering Manhattan below Sixtieth Street, seems all but inevitable now.) Unless the M.T.A. receives additional funding, there will almost certainly be cuts to subway and bus service to make up for missing fares. Instead of the fifteen-minute city, we may be looking at a ninety-minute one.
Three weeks after the Navy Yard event, the D.O.T. announced that it had selected the northern part of the East Bronx—including Eastchester, Wakefield, Pelham Parkway, City Island, and Co-op City—for the first phase of the e-scooter pilot. The borough has the lowest median household income in the city, and eighty per cent of its residents are Black and Latino. Transportation options are sparse, and there are no Citi Bikes, partly because the city skipped many lower-income neighborhoods in its bike-share rollout. Will Carry, a D.O.T. official involved in the development of the pilot, told me, “D.O.T. wants the e-scooter pilot to be a success, but we also do not want to hurt Citi Bike—so we sited the pilot entirely outside Citi Bike’s service and planned expansion areas.” Geofencing will be used to corral scooters in busy areas, but not on quieter residential streets, he said. The plan is to expand into the South Bronx next year, and other boroughs after that.
What if shared scooters turn out to be just another Segway: a human transporter that people don’t need? “If people are not that into it, we would take that into consideration,” Carry allowed.
Superpedestrian’s Paul Mondesire grew up in the Gun Hill Houses and later in Co-op City, so the D.O.T.’s choice of his home turf, where Link had done a community-outreach event, seemed to bolster the company’s chances.
But it was not to be. The winners, which were announced last week by Commissioner Gutman, in a ceremony held in Pelham Parkway, were Bird, Lime, and the Chicago-based company Veo.
“We’re just puzzled,” Biderman told me, on a Zoom call with White. “We know we have the best vehicle—the best technology, the highest safety rating, and we’re the only operator with a one-hundred-per-cent compliance record.”
White said, “We didn’t invest in lobbyists.” He added, looking crestfallen, “Still, this stings.”
“We’ll be fine,” Biderman said. Only days before, he had reached an agreement with an automotive company to license Superpedestrian’s intellectual property for use in a new four-wheeled electric vehicle. “Our business is not only about the operations of a rental business,” Biderman went on. “We are an engineering company that makes a platform for microvehicles. And the world is going micro.” ♦Published in the print edition of the April 26 & May 3, 2021, issue, with the headline “Scooter City.”