Cherry Picking And The Problem With Urban Scooters

Recently, there has been a bunch of articles about the phenomenon of urban, for-rent scooters, such as Bird. While most of the stories have taken the ‘slow down you damn kids!’ approach, there is a real problem that scooters cause. Petula Dvorak sort of gets at it (boldface mine):

We need to George Jetson and Marty McFly our way out of our traffic and commuting calamity. Light rail, Mag-Lev, even a reliable Metro would work, too.

The electric scooters swarming our city this summer?

Not the answer…

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve tried the scooters, and they’re totally fun, cheap and effective. They are perfect answer to what used to be a sweaty, five-block walk in between meetings in downtown D.C.

That’s not my beef with these things. Here’s my problem: the variety of devices on our streets — combined with the epic and enduring bikes-versus-pedestrians saga — will keep sucking the air out of a transportation conversation that has to become more urgent.

Scooters are a tiny solution for a tiny population….

But the way it looks from the road, they are primarily being used by mobile, agile young folks who can no longer be bothered with Metro or bus schedules or walking. They’re not taking a car off the road, they’re taking a rider out of public transportation.

And who could blame them? I’ve ditched Metro dozens of times because I needed to be on time….

The world of electric scooters does little for the construction workers, hospitality workers, janitors, maids and nurses who live in cheaper housing outside the city and have to crawl through pre-dawn gridlock to drop the kids at day care and get to work or take three buses each way to their jobs….

We used to be a nation of builders, of movement and innovation. Our decaying public transportation is becoming a joke while cowboy entrepreneurs — Uber and Lyft among them — come in with innovative solutions that fix a hole, but do little for an entire system.

The problem with scooters is that they cherry pick the intermediate distance public transit ride (one that doesn’t involve carrying large or heavy things like groceries). Someone who needs to travel three or four miles isn’t going to use a scooter. And the “sweaty, five-block walk” isn’t a high use scenario for public transit either (disabled people do use the bus for this purpose, however). But it’s the mile long trip, plus or minus, that loses customers to scooters. Yes, for the individual, it’s probably more time-efficient and cost-efficient (depending on the transit system) to use a scooter for these trips. But these ‘inefficient’ trips help subsidize the longer trips and trips for those with special needs. As long as we insist that a significant part of the mass transit budget be paid for with user fares, losing these ‘intermediate’ riders is a real cost to the public system.

Like many privatization schemes, this is externalizing the expensive parts (long trips, trips for the disabled) to the government purse, while making money off of the ‘efficient’ parts. Of course, many people who use the system don’t live in places where scooters, as Dvorak notes, are an effective means of transportation. But they’re not the beautiful people, so fuck ’em, I guess.

This doesn’t mean that mass transit can’t be better (sometimes much better), though that has to do with funding and what the purpose of mass transit is thought to be (which we’ll return to later).

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2 Responses to Cherry Picking And The Problem With Urban Scooters

  1. zero says:

    Dvorak is a gem.

    My beef with Metro buses: it takes three separate buses and around 90 minutes of travel (if perfectly timed) to get from my apartment to my daughter’s school. It’s less than 20 minutes by car. I’m in moco, so nearly all the bus lines are designed to feed transit centers and Metro train stops rather than the places people actually need to go.

    A better bus network could be done with very little capital investment.
    A better rail system is going to take a lot more cash, but it has the potential to take a lot of cars off the road.

  2. David Chase says:

    This is not too far away from what bikes can do; the difference between an owned bike and a rented scooter is not large; some sweat, and the risk of theft if locked. E-bikes cut the sweat nicely. Better options for carrying things, too.

    E-skateboards are pretty spiffy, too.

    If the transit remains crappy, don’t be surprised if people look for alternatives.

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