Commentary: Scooters Another Sign of Big Tech Colonizing Public Spaces

Two Lyft scooters block the sidewalk on Wazee near the 16th St. Mall. Streetsblog file photo by Andy Bosselman
Two Lyft scooters block the sidewalk on Wazee near the 16th St. Mall. Streetsblog file photo by Andy Bosselman

The Los Angeles Times originally published this opinion piece by John Tinnell. He is director of digital studies at the University of Colorado, Denver.

Denver’s scooter pilot program ends in August. Boulder and Aspen have banned the vehicles.

Summer is here and the electronic hum of scooters is filling city sidewalks all over the world. From L.A. to D.C., many American downtowns have hit their one-year anniversary with scooters, and European capitals have begun to allow them.

The benefit is obvious: Scooters provide on-demand, affordable mobility to any able-bodied smartphone user. As the vehicle’s fan base grows, however, so do the frustrations that provoke other urbanites to detest them — abandoned scooters left on walkways and even scooter-pedestrian collisions. Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo says escalating tensions are leading to “anarchy” on her city’s boulevards and footpaths. And an even bigger issue looms over arguments for and against this revamped child’s toy. Scooters may well be the Trojan Horse with which big tech colonizes the world’s public space.

Scooters (and dockless e-bikes) inhabit cities like few other consumer products ever have. Through location-tracking and app-based transactions, scooter barons oversee their business from a distance while storing their entire inventories on our streets and sidewalks for next to nothing. When in use, scooters generate revenue for Bird, Lime or some other “micro-mobility” company. When not in use, they just sit there, wherever there happens to be: a bike lane, a doorway, a neighbor’s front yard. Citizens have no lawful recourse, leading some to resort to micro-vandalism.

A Lime scooter parked in front of the main entrance to Union Station.
A Lime scooter improperly parked in front of the main entrance to Union Station. Streetsblog file photo by Andy Bosselman

Scooters’ success in spite of the persistent backlash is a warning about whether tech can succeed in leveraging public space. A playbook seems to be taking shape. First, identify a point of friction in urban life (such as “the last-mile problem” in public transportation). Next, develop a profitable solution and deploy it in cities and ask for permission later. When people howl, let your early adopters fight the battle for you — use them as a shield whenever critics speak ill of your business model. Finally, push aggressive expansion while voicing support for sensible regulations that are essentially unenforceable.

Like Uber and Airbnb before them, scooter companies aim to satisfy their customers with little regard for how their businesses affect our cities’ ecosystems. All three services tamper with neighborhood norms in ways that are annoying at first and deeply disturbing upon further inspection. Via Airbnb, for instance, a quaint bungalow surrounded by family homes suddenly becomes a bachelor party pad replete with fresh groups of drunken idiots each weekend. Annoying. But what’s far more worrisome is recent data indicating that Airbnb is worsening the housing crisis in cities like Los Angeles and New Orleans. Landlords love Airbnb: Why lease a place to lower-income tenants for $900 a month when you can earn double by renting it out here and there to well-off tourists? When residential units are converted into the equivalent of chic motels, the pool of long-term housing decreases and rental prices rise.

As for Uber and other ride-sharing apps, originally framed as a solution to urban congestion, they are instead putting more cars on the road, making traffic worse. A San Francisco study found that bumper-to-bumper delays soared 62% from 2010 to 2016, and roughly half of this increase was caused by ride-sharing vehicles. Very few riders are choosing to share trips with other passengers and rates of car ownership in the city remain steady. The big loser has been public transit, particularly buses, whose ridership has decreased nearly 13% — a drop that presents grave challenges to a service that is both more affordable and energy efficient than Uber’s fleet of vehicles.

Now, as big tech monetizes curbs and doorways and sidewalks, we’re seeing the marginalization of non-motorists who, by choice or necessity, traverse the city on their own power. Scooters at rest and in motion create barriers for parents with strollers, frail elderly pedestrians and especially the disabled. It is perturbing for a jogger or cyclist to come upon an abandoned scooter blocking their path. That this happens regularly to wheelchair users and the visually impaired is unconscionable. Decades of activism and legal battles to secure ADA accommodations in the built environment are being causally brushed aside in the name of enhancing mobility for those who can easily walk.

Granted, it’s early days for scooters; perhaps a solution will emerge. But soon it won’t just be scooters anymore. In Amazon’s office parks and Google’s test towns, drone services are being readied to pick up and drop off items at a slab of concrete near you. Even Georgia Tech’s library is using drones to fly books around campus to students too busy to swing by the stacks. Eight states have recently passed legislation that will allow delivery robots to roam the sidewalks. Meanwhile, wannabe Zuckerbergs that no one yet knows about are learning from scooters and dreaming up the next big thing they can plop all over the place.

The scooter experiment proves how difficult it is to establish a retroactive ban after some residents have already fallen in love with a new disruptive gadget. Absent better laws anticipating the takeover, the next battles, too, are likely to be lost on Day 1.

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  • sf in sf

    I’d be more sympathetic to this line of argument if our public spaces were not already so thoroughly colonized by cars — a greater evil, to which scooters present a possible solution.

    We have streets that are not safe to cross on foot. We have buses that can’t reliably get us to work and school because they’re stuck behind private car traffic. We have ugly lines of parked cars everywhere. Our children are going to the hospital wheezing because of motor vehicle air pollution.

    The key question about scooters to me is whether they mostly complement transit, like a lot of us naively used to think Uber and Lyft did, or cannibalize transit, like we have since learned Uber and Lyft actually do. If they’re complementing transit, biking and walking, then let’s make them work better by creating more car-free spaces, like protected “bike” lanes people will also feel safe scooting on, so they don’t have to use the sidewalk.

    Preliminary evidence seems to indicate they’re complementing transit. A report from San Francisco’s MTA for example found that in a scooter pilot, “Scooters induce transit trips at roughly four times the rate that they replace transit trips.” Unless we start seeing evidence to the contrary, let’s try to resolve conflicts between scooters and other sidewalk users in a way that works for everyone, rather than see scooters as the enemy.

    • garbanzito

      interesting point that cars have colonized streets, though i see a big difference between the companies inserting scooters into the streetscape and the private individuals who own vehicles; the comparison to “ride sharing” seems more apt, and is made directly in the essay

      personally i’m seeing other “colonizations” of the streetscape as part of this trend; e.g. sponsored recycling containers placed in spots where almost no one will use them but which get a lot of exposure for the advertising thereon; and repeated postering by big disruptors like Apartment List on the windows and walls of vacant business buildings

      • John French

        The colonization of the city by cars was far worse. It took away the idea of the street as a public space and has caused countless deaths. And it was intentionally wrought by the automobile industry.

        In the early days of cars, public sentiment in cities was strongly against them. They were rightly seen as too dangerous, and many cities contemplated requiring governors that would limit speeds to under 20mph. It took a coordinated effort of astroturf campaigns funded by car companies to redefine city streets as a place for cars (“look both ways before crossing!”)

        I highly recommend Fighting Traffic by Peter Norton. It’s a fascinating read.

    • John French

      Scooters replacing transit isn’t necessarily a problem. Many transit lines are already at or above capacity at rush hour, and don’t have the funds to increase service. Scooters and bikes offer an alternative that doesn’t slow down the bus as Uber/Lyft do.

  • How about super glue as a micro vandalism tactic to be used on scooters abandoned blocking sidewalks?

    • p_chazz

      No. Property damage is never an acceptable response. .

      • nodolra

        Never mind property damage. I tried to ride a bikeshare bike a couple months ago and discovered as soon as I set off that the front tire was completely flat. I only barely managed to safely bring it to a stop. I found every bike in the dock had a flat – the tires had been knifed.

        That “micro-vandalism” could kill someone.

  • crazyvag

    Sure, they use public space for free, but have huge costs due to vandalism.

    On the upside, a scooter takes up little space and can be used by many people. What about cars? They take up much more space and frequently aren’t shared.

    The SF traffic argument doesn’t hold much water either. Muni is long behind in creating dedicated bus lanes where there isn’t traffic impact. Blocking intersections isn’t ticketable offense either. Light rail doesn’t have signal priority. Traffic lights are set to provide a long cycles for highway ramps at expense of everyone else.

    And sure, congestion is higher, but it really impacts those who don’t take transit anyway, so regulating Lyft and Uber is just another way transit, bicyclists and pedestrians are ignored.

    • Jame

      But all the extra congestion slows down Muni as well, which is already quite slow.

      • crazyvag

        This one is easy. Buses should remain in dedicated bus lanes – not just when we call it BRT – but anywhere bus might be impacted. I’d bet it would have a greater impact than a 3% surcharge SF is proposing only on Lyft / Uber rides.

  • DrunkEngineer

    In the lead photo, the sidewalk space has been “colonized” by a cafe sign and table. Parking meters have also colonized the sidewalk space. But no, let’s complain about two scooters instead, because big bad tech…

    • The cafe sign/table in the photo may or may not have been colonized public space. In some cases, there is ‘private property in front of businesses in which they put their tables; in others, there may be agreements with the city to allow tables in the public space–in most of these that I have seen the business is not allowed to kick anyone off the seats/tables, but most folks don’t realize this.

      As someone who is 6’3″, I am bothered by the umbrellas that often are lower than six feet. If I were blind, I would have many bumps and bruises on my head.

  • Linda

    You might have noticed how Big Fossil Fuel Auto has colonized far more space. I love when people point at a scooter on the sidewalk as an obstacle and there are dozens of cars parked in the public way.

  • Frank Silady Locantore

    Unbelievable that to some a light-weight scooter is more concerning than a 2,000 pound vehicle going 4 – 6 times faster. I’m kinda speechless that we’re having this conversation. I will say that if we just provided space for scooters as we do for cars, this so called “problem” goes away. Cars and all the space afforded to them at the expense of public spaces for all is the problem. Can we keep our eye on the ball, please?

  • internetpoints

    This is a really strange article from Streetsblog. Anything to get people out of cars is worthwhile! The problems/learning curve of scooters is manageable and many cities are doing a nice job.

    I thought the article might be describing the use of our data from the scooter companies. I am concerned that these apps are harvesting more data than necessary to allow us to use their scooter fleets, and I would appreciate further research/publicity.

  • Emmeaki

    If there was more reliable transportation in Denver, then we wouldn’t need these scooters. I live downtown, but I usually just walk everywhere in the surrounding areas because by the time you walk to a bus stop, you might as well just walk to your destination because it’s damn near the same distance. The buses and trains take you near thing, but not TO most things. They’re building a gazillion apartment buildings around the city. If every occupant of each new apartment has a car (or more than one car), where are whey going to put them?

    Also, zoning leaves people loiving in the middle of a bunch of houses with no grocery stores, drug stores, or business nearby. If you don’t have a car, the scooter is the best option.

  • LazyReader

    The failure of the transit industry to economically provide a means of transportation led to the proliferation of scooters. Scooters replacing transit isn’t bad, the devices are smaller, the environmental foot print reduced and it fosters people to be outside.

  • bobthebuilder

    Add more bike lanes and bike racks. I live in downtown but if I ride my bike I know there’s not going to be an efficient place to park it 50% of the time – so I will have to look for a light pole or a random public object to lock it up to. Scooters I don’t have to worry about parking or anyone stealing it because once I’m done with it, it’s not my concern.

    If you added more bike lanes and racks to share amongst scooters and bikes, maybe people would park the scooter more appropriately. As of now there isn’t anywhere to park them. How about remove some of the street parking and replace them with bike lanes and replace the parking meters colonizing the sidewalks with places to park your scooter or bike…heck even allow an extra 12 inches to the bike lane for street parking. Create an ordinance that if you are witnessed parking your scooter outside of one of these designated zones they will receive a hefty ticket.

    Adding street lights for bikes & scooters would be at a minimal cost compared to the street lights needed for cars. Imagine if a city like amsterdam didn’t accommodate to bikes and 90% focused on automobiles…I can’t imagine the uproar you’d hear from pedestrians and drivers how bikes are bogging down traffic (since bikes wouldn’t be the preferred option) and littering the sidewalks hurting the less-abled. While those same people would complain about how bad traffic and pollution are.

    • bobthebuilder

      At the end of the day, the argument of scooters should be used to help increase bike infrastructure – not put on a level worse than automobiles. IMO Denver doesn’t see the need to put big big $$ in bicycle infrastructure because not enough people ride bikes. It seems to me they are focused more on improving the safety of current bike lanes.

      If you add scooters + bikes together – show how many are using both and the safety hazards they face for themselves and can cause to others because of the lack of infrastructure I think you can get Denver’s attention. Yes, the bike lanes need to be safer, but we also need much, much more of them. But Denver is not going to expand a highway or add new roads if there isn’t any traffic. So rather than try and ban scooters, use the data to show the high volume of traffic (bikes and scooter) and the need for more “roads).