Late last month I made the fateful choice to join the gig economy (after hours, naturally) by collecting and charging some of those rideshare electric scooters “all the kids are talking about.” I put the “kids” bit in quotes because I have been surprised at how wide the age and demographic spread has been among the riders I’ve seen, from businesswomen to construction workers to kids to just about everyone in between.
It’s gotten me thinking: Could this “Uber, but for scooters” thing catch on? And if it does, how would it fit into our short-term, or even long-term, public transit future?
For Kansas Citians and St. Louisans, whether scooters catch on is an important question in light of the rail plans that both cities have pursued in recent years and may yet continue to pursue. As we know, streetcar lines are fixed, stop often, and can be dramatically impacted by traffic. Scooters are much more tailored to the user’s needs, though heaven help you if it rains.
But that said, during my Nightcrawler-esque scooter-gathering pursuits it has been fascinating to see so many people using rental scooters zip past Kansas City’s streetcar as the publicly financed, free-to-ride trains trundle on their tracks, from stop to stop, at roughly the same speed. And, according to the Dallas News, it seems the scooters are catching on just about everywhere they’ve been introduced:
Only last week The Atlantic ran a piece about [micro-scooter inventor Wim] Ouboter that said scooters aren’t the future, but only because they were the present long ago. They might have been sold and marketed as kids’ toys—even winning, in 2001, the award for “best toy designed for outdoor play.” But as The Atlantic’s Sarah Holder just wrote, the scooters were always intended “to fundamentally change urban transportation.”
Until now Razor has ceded that transformative micromobile marketplace to Bird, which has 3,000 scooters in Dallas, and Lime, which replaced most of its green-and-yellow rental bikes with around 2,000 rental scooters, according to docs prepared for the briefing. Clearly [scooter manufacturer] Razor grew tired of missing out on the business it essentially created—especially now that Bird is up to $1 billion in funding, making it what CNBC recently called “the burgeoning industry’s first unicorn.”
Lime and Bird have already shown these things work. The companies gave the city stats that show rides span just more than a mile and take, on average, about 13 minutes. The companies say people are riding twice as far on the scooters as they did on the rental bikes—yet their rides are six minutes shorter. Nothing in those docs indicates that scooter riders are less sweaty. But I can attest, yes, you do tend to smell better after 13 minutes on a scooter than 19 minutes on a bike.
What the scooter companies will tell you is that they’re in the business of solving the “last mile” problem in urban areas—that is, replacing the walk from public transit to your home, with a scooter ride instead.
But I also wonder to what extent, at least in Kansas City, the scooter is not just replacing the last-mile walk, but also the first mile of public transit. Granted, the scooters aren’t free to use like the streetcar, but they meet a need that the streetcar doesn’t—transit flexibility over short distances. Keep in mind that in Dallas the average trip is about a mile, which makes the two-mile length (north to south) of the streetcar line in Kansas City particularly notable. And that’s to say nothing of the east-to-west flexibility that scooters provide that Kansas City’s streetcar would seem unlikely to ever satisfy.
Will private rental scooters, or something similar, end up replacing the publicly-financed streetcar? It’s a possibility that I think city leaders here in Missouri and elsewhere need to consider before starting or expanding their urban streetcar systems.