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Meet the New Urban Menace: The State of the E-scooter

Bird, Lime, and Spin scooters are slowly creeping into cities and taking over the sidewalks, often to the chagrin of the locals. Here’s what you need to know.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Just as major cities were beginning to understand and cope with all the changes introduced by ride-hailing companies like Uber and Lyft, a new and much more obnoxious transit trend hit the streets. Shareable electric scooters have arrived.

The e-scooter sharing model is simple: You use an app to locate and unlock a scooter. The app has your credit card information stored, and it charges you for the unlock and for the amount of time spent on the vehicle. When you’re done, you ditch it. It’s part of the “first mile–last mile” solution, a mode of transportation that gets you home from the bus stop or from the grocery store to the subway, be it via an Uber car or a scooter. The scooter invasion happened quickly — and without regulation — and has escalated from a mock-worthy San Francisco trend to a serious sidewalk danger.

The e-scooter phenomenon is not a passing craze, and they are not without value. Using e-scooters for a short ride is better for the environment than taking an Uber, for instance. (Though not better than a bike, so it depends on what’s being replaced.) They are quickly becoming ubiquitous in major cities and filling their sidewalks, and scooter-sharing business models are giving way to a whole new subsector of transit: micro-transportation. The industry has grown rapidly; consider this an update on the state of the e-scooter.

Big Names in the Scooter Biz

There are three major players in the industry. Bird, started by a former executive for Uber and Lyft, is the behemoth with the most scooters and most rides among its competitors. Bird is available in a handful of metro cities (Austin, Santa Monica, and Washington, D.C., among others) and recently became the first e-scooter unicorn after it was given a billion-dollar valuation.

While Bird may be the most high-profile, it’s not singular. Lime (previously called LimeBike) is another big name in e-scooters, and according to its website, serves over 50 communities including large metro cities like Seattle and L.A. According to TechCrunch, the company is now working with Segway to bulk up its fleet. The Segway Lime scooters have better battery power than the original versions and are supposed to be safer, with better durability and night visibility. There is also Spin, which is currently available in 30 cities and on 18 campuses. All of the scooters have the same payment plan: They cost $1 to unlock and 15 cents per minute. Aside from slight variations in designs and apps, the main difference between the three is in how aggressively they’ve entered cities and how prevalent their bikes are.

The entire industry is powered by Ninebot, a China-based company that acquired Segway in 2015 following a trademark dispute between the two companies. (Both manufactured stand-up scooters beloved by tourists.) As mentioned, Lime uses Segway scooters, and Bird and Spin scooters are made by Xiaomi, which is a subsidiary of Ninebot. Now we’re witnessing the fruits of the merger, and the often-mocked Segway has returned with a vengeance.

There are a few other smaller companies, but none that have truly made a dent in the market. The makers of Boosted Board, a popular electric skateboard (which was part of the “hoverboard” craze), launched Skip in May in Washington, D.C., with plans in motion to expand to San Francisco.

Also, Jackie Chan is a shareholder in a company launching an e-scooter-sharing business in Singapore.

Docked vs. Dockless

There are two kinds of e-scooter sharing programs: docked and dockless. In the former, users have to return their rental scooters to a dock location and lock them to the station via app, which is also how they find and unlock the devices. Most well-known bike share companies use docking stations. Meanwhile, all of the major e-scooter models are dockless. This model allows users to grab scooters wherever they find them and leave them wherever they please.

The benefit to dockless scooters is that riders grab and leave them at starting and ending locations, so users go exactly where they want without having to seek out a dock. The con, of course, is that it can lead to sidewalks full of tipped over, abandoned scooters. These eyesores aren’t only obnoxious to look at, but a hazard for pedestrians and cyclists.

The other issue with dockless e-scooters is vandalism and litter. Scooters have been found in many places they shouldn’t be (i.e., in trees, bodies of water) and covered in things you’d rather not think about (i.e., body waste). Pedestrians, cyclists, and drivers alike are frustrated not only by electric scooters crowding streets and sidewalks, but also with the new hazards they bring with them. Many riders don’t wear helmets, something the companies are supposed to require and are struggling to enforce. And on the other side of the discussion are those using the scooters, who defend them as a quicker, more viable way to finish off their commutes, or to save extra time getting around in places where, in some cases, public transportation is unreliable or inefficient. The e-scooter revolt is real.

New Model, Old Fights

To no surprise, cities are grappling with the new micro-mobility market as these scooters have invaded already bustling, crowded areas. In April, CityLab reported that San Francisco sent cease-and-desist letters to the three major companies for “‘endangering public health and safety” after residents complained about issues related to parking and sidewalk riding.

San Francisco, where scooters are prevalent, is busy impounding scooters parked improperly, at a cost to the city. The issue has reached a fever pitch: The city created a program to regulate scooters, requiring the companies to get operating permits, educate their users about the law, and force users to wear helmets and use bike lanes.

San Francisco is ahead of the curve, while other cities are still struggling with how to regulate the scooters. In some cities, scooter companies have used the old Uber tactic of hitting the streets without going through the proper channels, hoping to win residents over and force cities to allow them to stay. It’s the “ask for forgiveness, not permission” move — which is exactly what happened with Lime in Austin in its attempts to one-up competitor Bird.

Bird faced controversy with its launch in Santa Monica, where it failed to get the business licenses it needed and went to court over the issue. This resulted in the company agreeing to pay the city more than $300,000 in fines. Santa Monica is particularly unhappy with the scooter invasion and in February passed an emergency ordinance saying it could impound misparked scooters. Move in and win over hearts and minds — without permits — appears to be Bird’s model, as it deployed the strategy in Nashville and Austin.

The city of Austin, which only recently gave approval to Uber and Lyft, has a reputation for preferring local transportation-sharing programs. In fact, while stalling the invading scooter companies, it gave official permits to a local scooter business called Goat, which says it wants to work alongside the city.

Seattle has said it won’t allow scooters at the moment. Neither will Honolulu. Atlanta is struggling with them. Charlotte fought them, only to allow them to legally return. In short, it’s a big, unregulated mess resembling the early days of on-demand ride-hailing, a part of the gig economy that’s only now starting to cooperate with cities. You can expect the micro-mobility trend to be just as fraught, if not more so — cars have always been confined to roads. Scooters don’t have a designated space, and a huge part of the problem is users won’t wear helmets or stay in bike lanes.

Where Are the Ride-hailing Companies?

Naturally, Uber and Lyft are interested in the very new micro-mobility market. While neither company has officially announced a scooter-sharing division, both have expressed their intentions to. In May, Lyft reportedly looked into applying for permits to run e-scooters in San Francisco, and the permits are likely to be approved. Uber is also interested in e-scooters. In January, Uber partnered with a bike-sharing company called Jump, allowing users to book bikes through Jump’s app or its Uber Bike feature, and Uber has since acquired the company. It’s possible Uber will use this acquisition as a jumping-off point into the e-scooter market, but firm plans for either of the companies remain under wraps.