How Silicon Valley’s Scooter Craze Made Me Realize That I Don’t Know Anything
Are scooters a dangerous nuisance or an environmentally friendly form of transportation? Or both? Watch Follow This on Netflix.
Silicon Valley's newest darling seemingly came out of nowhere. One day we were all walking around the streets on two feet like the dumb ape descendants we are; the next, we were tearing down city sidewalks, wind in our hair, waving at the rest of the bipedal plebs from the perch of an electric scooter. In the blink of an eye, thousands of them — from companies like Bird and Lime — appeared in Los Angeles and San Francisco. The scooters were here to save us: from showing up to that meeting 10 minutes late; from having to order that five-block Uber; from 20th-century public transit systems. Scooters: Good! For this disruption, our scooting saviors were rewarded with multibillion-dollar valuations. But weeks later, a new narrative emerged. Scooters: Bad! They were a nuisance clogging our sidewalks and disrupting traffic. They were dangerous — illegal, even. A venture-funded pox on our streets.
So which was it?
I spent a week traveling across the country trying to find out. I spoke to surf bros making thousands charging scooters on Venice Beach, city planners in Memphis, concerned neighborhood watch groups, and the scooter companies themselves. I listened to countless arguments in favor of scooters and against them. I logged dozens of miles on Bird and Lime scooters. I wore an absurd helmet. I was mocked and celebrated. I managed not to die. And yet I cannot say for certain whether we are on the cusp of an e-scooting paradise or a dystopia — or if by this time next year we’ll care about scooters at all.
The conclusion might be a cop-out, but it gets at a key tension in our relationship with technology. Technology enables connection, expediency, convenience, world-improving advances. But it also inspires dependence and enables manipulation, harassment, radicalization, election interference. And those things, the bad things, are a strong cause to consider what we sacrificed for a more convenient and connected world. Getting excited about the next big thing isn’t so easy right now.
Scooters are something of a case study in this. They are silly, but they are also a potentially elegant solution to the thorny last-mile problem with mass transit. The way they appeared on the streets overnight is a good example of Silicon Valley's "innovate first, ask questions later" mindset. Scooter companies seem keen on rewiring the transportation systems of our cities, but it's not entirely clear that they'll take responsibility for the unintended consequences of their technology: A scooter ensured that I wasn't late to an important meeting. A scooter knocked me off the sidewalk and onto my knees.
Scooters are, at once, tech’s aged, blind enthusiasm and its newer, reflexive skepticism.
Are scooter startups really worth billions? There are plenty of good arguments that they should be. If they do usher in a new era of micromobility — the so-called unbundling of modern transportation — we might be less dependent on cars for the vast majority of our transit needs. This, micromobility advocates argue, opens up a vast potential to redesign our cities. Just as the motor vehicle helped create the idea of the suburbs, a patchwork of micromobility options (scooters, bikeshares, etc.) could inspire new kinds of neighborhoods. Speculators bullish on the Birds and Limes of the world argue that scooters themselves are untapped platforms full of e-commerce options (scoot into a new area, get served deals that help riders explore the neighborhood). It’s a revolution in the making, they argue — provided it catches on.
But there are clear downsides. They’re dangerous — particularly in the hands of reckless drivers. They're unregulated. They can be a real annoyance on the sidewalks and streets. When they are vandalized or hurled into rivers, ponds, and oceans, they are an environmental hazard. They’re exclusionary to anyone without a smartphone — perhaps the lower-income, car-less individuals who could stand to benefit from them the most. And they are the product of the same venture-funded, rush-to-scale environment that gave us platforms we first embraced and now distrust for sowing discord and hate.
As the venture money flows in and the scooters continue to pop up in the physical world, there's a desire to make sense of the craze and render a verdict. But in our current moment, there's a newfound reluctance to predict the future. And there's a feeling among many observers that our compasses have been scrambled. What used to be a fear of missing out on the next big thing has given way to a fear of what the next big thing hath wrought. If scooters are actually going to rewire the world, they'll have to assuage us of those doubts. It's a tougher bar to clear, but we'll all be better for it.