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Scooters could solve a big urban mobility issue—if startups listen

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Kids and seniors know that scooters are the future

Scooters are easy. Is that why so many people think they’re a problem?
Sergio Ruiz

For me, the scooter revolution occurred late last year. This was long before Bird invaded Santa Monica, Spin flooded the Bay Area, or Lime was unleashed upon San Diego. It was when my three-year-old first blazed by me on her kick scooter, leaving me standing on the sidewalk in disbelief.

If you’ve been around kids in recent years, you’ll know that toddlers are way ahead of the scooter trend. The colorful wheeled device is much more than a toy—it’s an urban parenting tool.

Unlike a bike, a scooter is light enough to carry short distances and compact enough to load onto a bus or train. My daughter can now move as quickly as an adult, and keep up that pace even for longer treks. Well, let’s be honest—now I’m the one who can’t keep up.

Parents love scooters as much as their children do—because as a transit solution for families, it makes short trips easy.

“Easy” is not a word that most people would use when describing how to get around an American city, especially with kids. The endless grind of hauling tiny humans who require twice their weight in gear is why many parents eventually resort to buying cars.

Just this week, urbanist parents engaged in a heated Twitter debate about how even the most dedicated transit-riding households surrender to car ownership after they have one or more children. “Having kids predicts having cars,” wrote economist Lyman Stone. “Transit access doesn’t.”

Decreasing short car trips is the big promise that the U.S.’s nascent electric scooter-share industry is making. “Our goal is to replace as many of those trips as possible, so we can get cars off the road and curb traffic and greenhouse gas emissions,” Travis VanderZanden, founder and CEO of Bird, said in a statement.

This is apparently why the scooters must roam free, so they can be more widely dispersed over a geographic area. Untethered scooters, the companies argue, can make their way deeper into neighborhoods not served by public transit. Last month, Bird released data that claimed its users had taken one million trips; the average trip was 1.5 miles. Last year, 35 percent of U.S. vehicle trips were two miles or less.

A dockless electric scooter and bike share bicycles travel down Market Street in San Francisco.
Sergio Ruiz

This country has become so desensitized to cars and all their negative impacts that when something else is introduced, it’s easy to fixate on—or make fun of—whatever is new.

But even before this dockless wave, scooters—and not just the ones you see hung in trees—have proved to be useful car-replacement solutions for all types of people.

Right now, the presence of scooter share is introducing people to the potential of other non-car mobility solutions, says Terenig Topjian of Have A Go. The site, which reviews various lightweight electric vehicles (LEVs), is bulking up its coverage of new products, from e-unicycles to motorized skateboards to a cute three-wheeled electric bike that might be called a “bicy-car.”

Unfamiliarity with these kinds of vehicles had previously created various bottlenecks to adoption, which have essentially been erased overnight, says Topjian. “Thanks to the sudden simultaneous mass arrival and adoption of e-bikes and e-scooters, they did create a sudden awareness—even if much of this awareness came in the form of complaints—of the presence of alternate modes of mobility on city streets.” And manufacturers are listening.

URB-E’s foldable seated scooter can handle light hauling.
Steve Hymon/Metro

A good example is URB-E, an electric scooter made in Southern California. The company recently unveiled new models that include accessories like baskets and cargo wagons, says Evan Clark, the company’s director of e-commerce. “We found that whether our URB-E owners are commuting to work or just running errands around town, they need a mobility solution that allows them to carry backpacks, briefcases, groceries and more.”

In fact, URB-E is currently testing a scooter share at the University of Southern California that might serve as a model for fixing dockless woes. URB-E’s scooters are foldable and light enough to carry indoors, eliminating the need to leave them on streets, says Clark. “The URB-E even folds up into a shopping cart and is approved to be brought into Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods.”

Even the non-electric scooter industry is seeing its own surge in popularity. There’s a whole cohort of Americans who are aging out of their kick scooters and simply graduating to a grown-up model, says Micro Kickboards’s customer service director David Stebbins. “In the past five years, we have gone from approximately ten adult products to well over 50, when accounting for the various color options.”

Micro has now introduced two new models of electric scooters to feed growing demand for commuters who need them for quicker trips, and has been in talks about a sharing program as well. “The last mile is a key usage for these products,” says Stebbins. “Getting off the train or bus epitomizes what our adult scooters are doing.”

My three-year-old rides on a dedicated path along the Los Angeles River using her beloved Micro Kickboard.
Alissa Walker

In the last year, the concept of the “last mile” has become imbued with new meaning for me because it’s literally about how long my daughter can comfortably walk before she starts inquiring about the availability of piggyback rides. I can and will walk a mile to and from my local train station—it takes me about 20 minutes—but I’ve been increasingly thinking about those who can’t.

Last-mile solutions are not necessarily new. From the walker my neighbor uses to get to the bus stop, to the shopping carts commandeered to push heavy water jugs home from the corner store, these are traditional ways of getting around cities which, for the most part, have not necessarily been “disrupted” by the tech world.

In fact, the solutions to most of these types of mobility challenges have involved more cars. And the track record for equity here is not good. Uber—where Bird’s VanderZanden was head of growth—has been sued by disability groups and only offers Uber Family, a service with a car seat that allows parents to travel with kids, in a handful of cities, for a $10 surcharge.

An Urban Arrow electric cargo bike can haul just about anything, including kids.
Urban Arrow

I have seen the glory of scootin’—knowing how scooters have helped someone with limited mobility, I know they’re a good last-mile solution. But I personally cannot use the scooter share for a majority of my trips since I’m usually accompanied by one or two kids.

However, the dockless model—the idea that the right mode is right there, right when you need it—is especially brilliant for people who are not commuting to 9 to 5 jobs, whose transportation needs change throughout the day. Someone like a mom.

If the idea behind dockless sharing is to leave mobility devices out in public spaces, for anyone to use at an affordable price—starting at $1 per trip, for now—they should be usable to a wider range of customers.

Detroit recently launched the U.S.’s first adaptive bike-share fleet, with seven different types of bikes. Electric scooter companies could do the same. How about dockless scooters for older adults? Electric-assist carts for people to haul laundry and groceries? “Bicy-cars” with child seats? A e-stroller share for parents who need to get their kids to daycare on buses which require strollers to be collapsed while onboard? (Seriously, that’s the rule on our buses, and it sucks.)

If these ideas sound like they’d only serve a small portion of the population, consider that by 2030 the number of Americans 65 and older will double to make up one-fifth of the population. Or that one-fifth of Americans have disabilities that may make them unable to drive, walk, or ride bikes. And one-fifth of Americans are under 18. Now think about all the family members and caregivers who are helping these people get around—if they don’t have easy options, they, too, will likely resort to driving cars.

A scooter with storage compartment in the front standing next to an elderly couple sitting outside at a cafe.
PriestmanGoode’s Scooter for Life was commissioned for London’s Design Museum.

The micromobility revolution is happening, whether or not startups blanket streets with scooters. But the sharing model offers a chance to deliver better solutions to our streets.

As these companies expand—most likely to a city near you—they have a big decision to make. They can either flood sidewalks with options for able-bodied adults who already have plenty of other options to get around. Or they can work to help people get around who genuinely do not have other options except driving—families, older adults, people with disabilities. This would include working directly with cities to physically take space away from cars, design for accessibility, and make safety a priority.

Scooter share has the potential to change some Americans’ commuting habits—a necessary goal in a country where only 3 percent of us walk or bike to work. But if I walked out of my house tomorrow and saw the streets of my neighborhood teeming with dockless electric-assist cargo scooters, my life would change overnight.

I could haul my heavy computer bag home from work, do preschool pickup, and grab groceries on the way without ever getting into a car—and still have plenty of room to get my kids and their scooters to the park.