Just Ride

The case for taking back scooters from Silicon Valley

Building to Code is a monthly column about how we live among cities and each other. It regards cities as what they’ve always been: not systems of capitalist resource management, but the stages that society plays out on.

If you were a young person in Amsterdam in 1965 you may have called yourself a “Provo.” Coined by the Dutch criminologist Wouter Buikhuisen to describe dropouts, beatniks, and other countercultural figures of 1960s Amsterdam, the word Provo was embraced by the very people it was meant to pathologize. Just like their Situationist comrades in Paris and the hippies in San Francisco, they held happenings, made public art, and shouted at cops; unlike their Parisian counterparts, some Provos sought power, and in 1965 ran for public office.

The next year the Provos circulated a pamphlet titled “What the Provos Want” which included several “white plans” — equal parts art projects and policy proposals. The “White Chimney Plan” called for industrial polluters to be taxed and publicly shamed by having their smoke stacks painted stark white, and the “White Chickens Plan” proposed turning police officers into social workers, carrying first aid kits and buckets of fried chicken. Their best known and perhaps most successful was the White Bicycle Plan (Witte Fietsenplan), which consisted of painting old but useable bikes white every night at midnight and leaving them around Amsterdam for anyone to ride.

The humanistic view of the city from the scooter survives commodification

Provo, as both an artistic and political movement, self-destructed in 1967 after winning a seat on the Amsterdam city council and successfully removing both the mayor and police chief from power after an investigation into the suppression of anti-war demonstrations. They had gone from surrealist fringe to the mainstream, and so they deliberately announced the end of their movement and marked it with a bonfire. They were no longer cool — they were just politicians.

“White bicycles,” once an anarchist intervention in Amsterdam, evolved into docked bicycle systems like New York City’s Citi Bike; and now e-scooters, a billion-dollar industry in the United States. Found with a phone app, and rented for just a few dollars, e-scooters blossomed across the country last year. When put side-by-side in a list, e-scooter rental companies are only a preposition or two away from a Lewis Carroll poem: Gotcha, Yellow, Lime, Bird, Skip, Scoot, Spin, Grin, and Jump. Their bright colors and joyful brand names suggest they’re only good for carefree weekend romps, and their Silicon Valley origins make them an easy target for derision as harbingers of gentrification.

Scratch the surface and familiar enemies of public transit reveal themselves: Lyft now operates e-scooters in 15 cities (and in 2018 bought the company that operates Citi Bike and other bike sharing programs from DC to Portland, Oregon). Uber owns Jump and is invested heavily in Lime, as well as another bike sharing company with folksy-sounding operations from Charleston, South Carolina (Holy Spokes!) to Toledo, Ohio (ToleGo). However, the humanistic view of the city from the scooter survives commodification. The act of renting scooters contains within it a bit of the radical tradition of democratic city governance — and if a city were built to more fully accommodate e-scooters it would be a serious, even radical, intervention in urban infrastructure. A city of scooters could show us what we’ve collectively ignored in our landscapes for the past century.

Communal bikes and scooters are not the first counterculture idea that Silicon Valley has appropriated for profit. Everything from communes to carpooling have been reimagined as capitalist ventures in the guise of WeLive and Uber. These companies tend to strip out the social and ecological benefits and retain only a handful of conveniences that may eventually become profitable. Instead of bringing friends closer and using less resources by collectivizing shelter and food, WeLive’s corporate communes sell you on a pre-selected and vetted roommate, furnished bedrooms, and stocked kitchens. Uber strips out the fuel savings of sharing a car trip and instead competes with public transit by running a cheap taxi service thinly veiled as “ride sharing.” Both are clearly destined to be services that cater to the rich as they raise their prices and innovate exclusively at the top of the market.

No one should ever underestimate the ability of the tech sector to squelch the humanity from a product. But for now there is reason to be hopeful. The economics of scooters seem much more straightforward than the business models of ride sharing. In their first year, Bird made more revenue than Lyft made after five years in operation. And while there’s always a way to take something that should be affordable and bill it as a luxury good — think Fiji water or designer flip flops — more durable scooters and efficient batteries seem to be where the industry is headed. This is markedly different from co-working, ride-sharing, and food delivery systems that rely on poverty wages, data extraction and high rents to make a profit.

Unlike these projects, the introduction of e-scooters has been welcomed by those with relatively little money. “Among income brackets,” reports Wired, “those making between $25,000 to $50,000 a year are the most into the idea, and those making above $200,000 are the least.” The reasons for renting a scooter or bike over owning are plentiful: While a bike is much cheaper than a car, it is also easy to steal; no one can steal your subscription to a rental service. Renting also means you don’t have to take your bike or scooter on to the bus or train. Lime reports that, “in U.S. cities, a rider using Lime products in conjunction with public transit would pay, on average, 80 percent less than the cost of owning and operating a personal vehicle.” And unlike a pedal-powered bike, an e-scooter doesn’t leave you sweaty when you get to work. Standing on a scooter is easier than pedaling in tight-fitting clothing and heels, which may help overcome the gender gap that has been recorded in some bike sharing programs. Scooters are the closest thing to moving while standing still.

Ride hailing companies had always claimed they would reduce the amount of cars in the city by having them constantly recirculating and picking up multiple riders like a bus; but in their recent IPO they finally came clean that they are competing with “public transportation, which typically provides the lowest-cost transportation option in many cities.” E-scooters, at least in Portland, Oregon and San Francisco, appear to be replacing car trips between 30 and 50 percent of the time depending on whether you’re a local or a tourist. For most people bicycles and scooters are a good solution to the so-called “last mile” problem of transportation: Mass transit might get you to the right neighborhood, but to get to your final destination requires a bit more legwork.

Scooter and bike rentals don’t create a new traffic problem, they force the question of car supremacy

That last mile can be treacherous. The car has made an indelible mark on all cities, but newer American cities are built exclusively for them. The area where I grew up in Florida, despite the year-round sunshine, was not conducive to bicycling. The danger of cars zipping down the gridiron block pattern of our working class (signs there now call it historic) Florida suburbs was enough to dissuade me from riding my bike, but I may have been more willing to take the risk if I had somewhere to go. When you build for cars you build at their scale, with miles of houses followed by miles of shopping plazas with nothing but parking lots and highways connecting them. Riding a bike or walking is possible, but by no means pleasant.

According to the Miami Herald, over 5,000 pedestrians were killed by cars in the last decade in Florida. The reason has less to do with the pedestrians, cyclists, and drivers themselves and more to do with the environment they must navigate. Designed for speed, blocks are long and the lanes are wide, making for rare crosswalks that you have to sprint across if you want to beat the light. Bike lanes are often nothing more than a couple feet of asphalt next to a fifty-mile-an-hour highway with a solid white line separating the two. Disinvestment in public infrastructure and lower car ownership rates mean that the elderly and anyone in a poor neighborhood is more likely to get hit by a car.

According to Streetsblog, e-scooter deaths are about as frequent as bicycling deaths when accounting for average trip length and usage rates, so scooters don’t seem to present much danger in and of themselves. It is the surrounding streetscape that is dangerous. The e-scooter company Bird defended itself against mayors’ calls to ban their products for safety reasons with a message that would be familiar to most urbanists: “Class action attorneys with a real interest in improving transportation safety should be focused on reducing the 40,000 deaths caused by cars every year in the U.S.”

Rather than see scooter and bike rentals as creating a new traffic problem, we should see them as forcing the question of a much older issue of car supremacy. A city built for cars is only good for cars, whereas “a city made for scooters” writes Alex Davies in Wired, “is a city ready to embrace a cornucopia of mobility options that don’t require sitting in a car, clogging the streets, and choking the planet. A city made for freedom.”

In a widely and deservedly panned article in the Atlantic, Peter Wayner suggested that the New York City subway be replaced by smooth asphalt upon which “an open marketplace for autonomous fleets would encourage innovation and evolution.” The R-160a train car would be replaced by hoverboards, scooters, full cars, and whatever else gets invented: “Perhaps the public would like fat, overstuffed chairs on wheels in some years and tiny hoverboards in other years. Who knows?” Replacing trains with roads shared by cars and scooters is a profoundly bad idea, but replacing cars with trains and scooters is a great idea.

Thanks in part to their respective decisions to go public, Uber and Lyft have finally revealed their monopolistic strategies: their road to profitability rests on, as Jalopnik reports, selling rides at a loss “until we reach sufficient scale to reduce incentives.” Left unabated, it is all but guaranteed that anything Uber and Lyft owns will suddenly rise in price as soon as all other viable alternatives have faded away. So perhaps the real question, if we take a lesson from urban and inter-city railroad history, is what sort of transportation network do we want to nationalize when the Uber-Lyft monopoly has gone too far? Do we want to seize scooters, or the sub-prime lease contracts on a million Toyota Camrys?

A city — a society? — built for scooters would be both a technical and humanistic achievement. Replacing surface parking and car travel lanes with bikes, scooters, and whatever else would be a great start, as would increasing the availability of public transit for longer hauls. Creating hard barriers between what few cars are allowed to remain and human-powered transportation is even better. As less space is given over to the storage and spatial reasoning of cars, human settlement patterns may get denser as businesses and homes huddle close the convenience of transportation hubs. But what might constitute the biggest transformation would be in how the city is experienced: the way access is opened up, and the parts of the landscape we start to notice.

When it comes to democratizing the street for all sorts of transportation, the hardcore cyclist and the e-scooter commuter will have very similar demands

The work of the urbanist Kevin Lynch is receiving a well-deserved revival 30 years after his death. His work melded social psychology and urban design in a way that was both intuitive to the average person and useful to the practitioner. His “cognitive mapping” exercises, where he asked a wide range of people to sketch their home towns, found that children and adults map very differently. Children pay attention to the different textures of surfaces — their landmarks are as diverse as trees, lighthouses, and painted doorways, and they are keen to pick up on pieces of forgettable infrastructure: telephone switch boxes and fire hydrants. But as car-driving adults, the world turns into a series of highways and roads. Lynch describes the maps drawn by adult Los Angeles residents as highly detailed around home or work, but outside of these familiar places city maps were of mountain ranges or the ocean. The middle range, outside of work and home where the rest of society exists, “structure and identity seemed to be quite difficult.”

Driving a car is a singular experience; it provokes both a confrontational and simplistic view of the world around you. Other people become idiot drivers in your way, and the cityscape’s landmarks — the parts you remember on your morning commute — are the grey slopes of the exit ramp, not the green of street trees. Without romanticizing too much, it is easy to imagine that the view over the handlebars going five miles an hour on an urban road has more detail, texture, and exposure to the elements than the panoramic view framed by the car’s windshield barreling down the highway. Even in the depths of a subway there are other people and a good book.

In 1981, at the height of car-oriented urban design — where the overarching logic of planning was efficiency, speed, and specialized uses — Lynch wrote, “To have everything instantly available is no more desirable than it would be to live in an infinitely adaptable world.” Lynch is pointing to an essential fact about urban design’s relationship to humans. When everything is available, nothing is special; standardization and monotony prevails over the unique and diverse. Buildings become hazy and boring, either because they really do look the same, or because they’re blurred by speed.

The instant availability of everything, brought initially by the car, becomes an impenetrable cage if you cannot use a car — being too young, too old, or otherwise incompatible with the physical and mental demands of the automobile makes you a second-class citizen. The car also becomes a point of control, so that the drivers’ license suddenly becomes a de facto license to participate in society. The struggle over issuing drivers’ licenses for women in Saudi Arabia and undocumented immigrants in the United States are two clear examples of this. When transportation itself is diverse, the rest of the society follows.

The Provos were leaving bikes around Amsterdam, a city that was slowly bending itself to the will of the car but was, and still, is a densely populated environment where the bike is wholly welcomed with dedicated lanes and a popular culture that supports it. In America, where bike advocates have had to fight tooth and spoke for every inch of lane, a particular kind of rider has emerged: One that is passionate about the bike itself and places it at the center of a counter-culture, rather than treating it as a piece of boring mainstream infrastructure. Laura Portwood-Stacer, in her ethnography of lifestyle anarchists, notes that the bicycle is part of a “consumption-based resistance against the automobile-centric transportation industry and its influence on mainstream social norms around personal physical mobility.” To care for the bicycle and power it with your own body is an act of defiance, albeit one that both assumes a fairly healthy body and a life that lets you be sweaty and dirty.

The distinctly normie feel of standing on an electric scooter may be the keystone that unites the American mainstream with the activists struggling for a less car-centric city. The anarcho-cyclist, the Provo, wants to remake the city in the image of the bike, sweat and all. The resulting society, they imagine, is more just, more ecologically sustainable, but less comfortable. It’s a particular kind of leftist asceticism that has little chance of becoming a mass movement, but can be a valuable ally in a burgeoning coalition against the car. When it comes to democratizing the street for all sorts of transportation, the hardcore cyclist and the e-scooter commuter will have very similar demands.

When the United States Congress passed the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990 it gave people who use wheelchairs much more opportunities to participate in public life. Suddenly public and many privately-owned buildings were navigable. One seemingly unexpected additional benefit was the ability of parents with strollers to also go up ramps and through wide doorways. Something similar could be expected from a city made for scooters: where people like me feel a bit more comfortable trying a bicycle again, children and the elderly can live with more independence, and the city air is cleaner. What may be more rewarding than the view from atop a scooter is the view from your apartment, looking at the city the scooter made possible.

David A. Banks writes about cities, technology, and society from Troy, NY.