Maybe one day I’ll try an e-scooter, but for now, after spending weeks reading about their sudden emergence in cities across the U.S., with writers everywhere gushing about how, actually they’re cool, and that they could develop into a viable business and ease congestion, I’ve concluded that I absolutely hate them. Fuck scooters.
Is this an annoying take from someone who hasn’t experienced the joys of zipping down the road at 15 mph, like my pro-scooter west coast colleague Andrew Collins got to experience?
Maybe it is, for you. I’m content with my perspective.
For me, it boils down to championing new-age tech ideas, like ride-hailing, bike-sharing, fucking scooters as a solution for public transportation failures. Time and again, ever since Uber barged into the room but probably before that, Silicon Valley has trotted out some form of the argument that so-called “mobility” options will be more environmental-friendly than transportation systems of yesterday, and, more notably, rein in soul-sucking congestion.
None of this, to date, has been proven true. And now with e-scooters barreling into the public limelight, scooter-renting startups are offering up the same ham-fisted official line. Instead of adequately funding public transportation, they’re effectively saying, try this shiny new toy.
In a recent piece about his transformation into a scooter devotee, Kevin Roose, a writer for The New York Times, tossed in this line (emphasis mine):
They’re lightweight and emission-free. They don’t require bulky docks or parking lots, and they’re perfect for trips that are too long to walk but too short to justify driving or hailing a car. If they take off, they could alleviate congestion and become a low-cost way of getting around cities without robust public transportation systems.
Holy shit, do I ever disagree. It reminded me of a story I heard a couple years back while I was living in Detroit.
In the general election that year, voters headed to the polls to cast ballots not just for the president, but a measure that would’ve created Metro Detroit’s first ever regional transit authority. If passed, it would’ve commenced the creation of a robust Bus Rapid Transit network, established more cohesion between the city and suburban bus systems, and, finally, put the region on some sort of path to beefing up its historically god-awful public transit system.
Voters shot it down. A friend shared their story about a voter in an outer-lying community who explained why they rejected it: It’s not just a waste of taxes, this person said. Low-income folks could just use Uber, they said.
Mind you, a bus pass there costs roughly $50 per month, and while Detroit’s transit system is a disaster, that’s a more affordable fare than daily roundtrips via Uber. Hell, you could hit $50 in a day or two taking Ubers and cabs. And I find it highly doubtful that subsidies for Uber and Lyft could lower the price enough for a low-income resident.
That’s the thing: Scooters cannot beef up transit options in places like Detroit. No Detroit resident’s going to pick up an electric scooter to get to their job in the suburbs. (Though imagining David Tracy picking up a scooter at the airport and riding along the I-75 service drive for two hours, backpack full of Jeep parts, to his home in the suburbs, is funny to consider.)
I’m not offering this up as some lame Luddite response to a new mode of transportation—there should be a platter of options to get around town. But my chief concern is that mobility solutions, like e-scooters, are being used and championed as an excuse to not adequately fund public transportation, which can actually move a mass of people at a high rate of speed.
Maybe that’s a very basic criticism, but the implicit premise of Mobility, certainly as Silicon Valley has been using it, is anything but actual public transit. Tech is the savior, the solution, the gospel, but when it comes down to it, if public transportation was adequately funded, a robust network of trains and buses could actually alleviate congestion and cost issues.
And here’s the thing. I can’t find a reasonable argument one way or another if e-scooters will one day turn a profit—which is a common criticism levied against the idea of governments funding the operations of public transit systems. Instead of the government, now we have rich venture capitalists bankrolling, controlling and subsidizing Mobility, and I’m not sure how to view that as being anything but a detriment to, uh, a much, much larger swath of the population.
Can e-scooters make money? Typically that’s something a business takes into consideration as a long-term goal. So I posed the question on Twitter yesterday, after news broke that e-scooter renter Bird reached a valuation of $2 billion, about whether it has the ability to eventually make a profit. The answers I got in return were all over the place.
Someone pointed me to Brad Stone in Bloomberg, for example. After running some rosy numbers, he concluded:
If you can deploy 10,000 scooters in a city, per our math, you have a business easily generating $100,000 a day in revenue, $3 million a month or $40 million a year—per city!
Seems optimistic, when you consider there’s numerous players vying for the e-scooter market right now.
And in Bloomberg, not even a week prior, a separate writer concluded:
If you figure that Bird might make around $2.50 per ride in revenue, there are some estimates that Bird might make $14 million a year. But after paying for maintenance, charging and overhead, there might only be $1 million left.
Not such a pretty picture!
Here’s another response:
All over the goddamn board. Everyone can put together a model, but the upshot is, it’s a total guess, just like Uber guessed it could artificially suppress the prices of taxi rides with its massive amount of funding, and snap up enough market share to start turning a profit. But nearly a decade after launching, it’s still just bleeding cash.
Could scooters work inside a wealthy Bay Area city like San Francisco? Maybe; I’m not arguing against that. But it’s so tiresome to see Silicon Valley ideas placed on a pedestal, when in reality, you could fund a standard set of public transit options—trains, buses, subways—and benefit more of the living, breathing public.
I’m sure someone’s winding up right now to point to New York City’s subway and all the bitching we do about it, but the complaints stem from the fact that an objectively sound, effective, good public transit system is falling apart from poor funding and management. When it works (and it does work!), it’s a marvelous achievement to behold. Other countries can do it. There is no reason America cannot.
Rather than float solid proposals to beef up and improve existing public transit systems, though, policymakers and the tech-adoring public flock to the possibilities of our mobility future. So, we get scooters—or, another example, projects like Elon Musk’s new hyper-speed train for Chicago, which won an actual contract to build a system that’ll be able to move as many people in total in a single hour as one train on the New York subway train. Musk has never built or operated a public transit system in his career.
Are scooters fun? That’s what everyone seems to think. That’s cool. Is it an actual solution to ease congestion and provide more affordable modes of transportation to people across the U.S.? No.