One weekend morning toward the end of 2017, I woke up at home in Venice, CA and took a walk, only to see something entirely new: people on electric scooters. And I mean lots of people on electric scooters. Literally overnight, a new company called Bird, founded just two miles away in Santa Monica, had launched an app and dumped thousands of dockless scooters all over the place. A few things happened very quickly after that:
- Bird Scooters became litter. Freelance chargers, or “Juicers” as Lime would later call their not-employees, would do their best to place the scooters in an orderly fashion, out of the way in common areas. But since people only have respect for a.) things they, themselves personally own or b.) are locked down or are being watched, kicking, destroying, throwing them in the ocean, and more turned into Venice’s favorite new sport. The other morning, I watched someone line up a dozen or more scooters neatly, get into their van, and drive off. Not 10 seconds later, someone used a shopping cart as a bowling ball, turning the whole thing into some kind of bramble.
- Everyone wanted to compete with Bird. Lime was next, with its fun, fruit-themed livery. Bird and Lime were the new disruptors, and the OG disruptors, Uber and Lyft, wanted in on that sweet, sweet last-mile dollar. So those two started dropping their own scooters all over.
- E-Mobility Scooters have absolutely decimated the bike rental industry in Venice. Enterprising bike rental shop owners began to moonlight as scooter chargers or repair facilities. Some bike rental shop owners began buying and renting out their own scooters. Now, just 18 months later, on any given weekend, well over 50 percent of the wheeled traffic on the Venice bike path is battery powered.
- There were injuries. Lots of injuries. Anecdotally, I regularly see people wiping out and getting hurt on mobility scooters. It happens enough that I have made something of a pastime watching a specific corner on the bike path near my house. Business Insider reports over 1,500 injuries serious enough to record in the U.S., in 2018 alone, plus four fatalities.
For the record, I sympathize with local residents who resent them taking up sidewalk space in front of their home, hate them for becoming litter in a neighborhood that often has too much of that already, and who have to deal with yet another way for dumb, lost tourists to be dumb and lost.
I’ve found scooters blocking my own front door or garage on several occasions. And folks tend to want the best of all worlds while riding one: they want the rights of a pedestrian, the rights of a bicycle, and the rights of a car, all at the same time, which is an incredibly dangerous mindset.
Also, for the record, I have found some extremely convenient uses for the scooters when I need to get somewhere that is just out of walking range, or to “run to the store to pick up some forgotten ingredient” while a recipe is in the oven. I have used every brand of scooter at one point or another, with extremely mixed results. I will factor in previous experience into my rankings.
The Test: My goal was to find out which mobility company provides the best motoring experience for the rider, for their money. A showdown, for which scooter is best.
For purposes of this piece, we will not be discussing company policy, only the scooter itself, and whether or not you should get down with it when you come hang out with me on Venice Beach.
Allow me to introduce you to The Mobiliring: a 3.4-mile handling circuit featuring a variety of surface changes, corners, crags, obstacles, sand, and people.
You begin at the Venice Beach Parking lot at 2100 Ocean Front Walk, with the densest population of scooters around. Proceeding straight across the parking lot to the bike path, you go north on the bike path over a winding way made of slatted, rough, sandy concrete, all the way to the Santa Monica border, where you turn back south because mobility scooters can’t be ridden on the bike path at all in the city of Santa Monica.
You ride south on Speedway, basically a decaying alley full of potholes, but appropriately named, as it was LA’s first paved road. Take Speedway south to Windward Avenue, the heart of Venice, and turn right, weaving across the freestyle dance skating grounds, through the throngs of tourists, and back to the bike path where it meets the legal graffiti area. Continue south on the bike path until you get to the Venice pier, then turn left on Washington Blvd and an immediate left to go north on Speedway, taking you right back to Start/Finish.
This course is approximately 60 percent unlimited-speed bike path and 40 percent public roads, and in order to successfully complete a lap, you must pay attention and obey all posted road signs and laws.
(Before you ask, Yes, I bought the Mobiliring domain name. Yes, I will be inviting you to post your own lap times.)
The Contenders: We’ve restricted our entrants to scooter-type vehicles (as opposed to e-assist bicycles) available on the street for rent in Venice, CA as of May 13, 2019. For this test, that means Bird, Lime, Lyft, Jump (Uber), and Wheels are in the game. Now let’s see how they did on our handling course.
Jump, along with Lyft, uses the Segway / Ninebot ES2 scooter with 19 miles of range and a claimed top speed of 15 mph. This scooter also uses two independent braking methods: regenerative via a toggle on the handlebar, and direct friction via a pressure plate on the rear tire. But, as with shared platforms in cars, the difference is often in the fine tuning, and here, the tuning mattered a lot.
Our test started well. I picked up a fully charged and seemingly brand-new Jump scooter a few road blocks from the Mobiliring’s Start/Finish line. On the road, it seemed reasonably well made and stable, and reached the claimed top speed of 15 mph relatively drama-free. Then, just after starting off my official lap time, I hit the bike path, and it told me “no.”
This is important. You see, the Venice bike path is exactly what it sounds like: a dedicated path for bikes, separate from cars and pedestrians. How each of these scooters deals with the bike path, as we will learn, is a defining factor in their Mobiliring time. The bike path and some of the surrounding pedestrian areas, a few of which are on-course, are “restricted” for some scooters, but not for others.
While each scooter company deals with the bike path its own way, Jump has elected not to deal with it at all. The scooter refused to move, the app told me to take it back off the path, and into a “parking zone,” to lock it up and end my ride.
I pushed it back where I found it, and even though my phone knew where I was, the scooter disagreed, and I was penalized for $5 for, ultimately, parking it legally.
Lime, the second scooter brand on the scene after Bird, has just released a heavier-duty version of their scooter, called the “Gen 3.” It features an underfloor battery for better stability, improved front suspension, bigger wheels, and a 30-mile range with all-weather capability.
Unfortunately, since California doesn’t need that as badly as, say, Boston, we don’t get those. Here in Venice, we get the original Lime S scooter, also by Ninebot, but with a 18 mile range and a top speed of 14 mph. The Lime S has the tallest handlebars of all scooters and a single, rear-wheel bike-style cable and disc brake.
In my previous experience, I’ve found the Lime S to be the fastest of the stand-up scooters, regularly exceeding the claimed 14 mph number, but also with the twitchiest handling in part because those handlebars are so high up and with a column full of heavy batteries in the front. Allegedly the handling issues are solved in the new scooter, but I will have to wait to see on that.
Lime has decided that an appropriate speed for the Venice bike path should be 3 mph. Now, I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to operate a two-wheeled vehicle at 3 mph, but it’s actually quite a lot of work. Three is just barely enough speed to keep a two-wheeled vehicle standing up. It’s slow enough that I was passed by old people walking.
It’s so slow, that you really can’t keep it in a straight line, which means the ride takes that much longer because you have to cover more zig-zaggy distance, and have I mentioned you’re going three?
I was openly mocked, to my face. I realize how mean-spirited you need to be to mock someone to their face for doing nothing besides silently riding a scooter very slowly on the bike path, but honestly, no one has just randomly mocked me on the street really ever in my lifetime. That’s how embarrassingly slow Lime wants you to go on the bike path.
To make matters worse, Lime’s GPS calibration is so bad that, not 20 feet away from me on the pedestrian foot path I was passed by a dozen Limes going full-tilt, weaving between pedestrians, while I was a rolling chicane on the bike path, being passed by folks going slower than my own top speed.
As I noted earlier, both Lyft and Jump use essentially the same Ninebot ES2scooter, painted different colors. But the difference between Jump’s DNF and Lyft’s podium finish? The software.
Jump uses a basic LED display with a speedometer, whereas Lyft just has five little lights to indicate battery status. You could say that makes Jump better, but in fact it makes Jump worse, because there is nothing worse than looking at a powered vehicle’s speedometer and seeing a number lower than where you’d set the treadmill during cool down.
Lyft’s “Prince Purple” and black livery also features a metal cage surrounding the column-mounted auxiliary battery pack, Mad Max style. I guess they follow @BirdGraveyard.
I actually tested the Lyft before Lime and Jump, so when I hit the bike path and got stuck with a 5 mph limiter for the first mile and a half, it was bad. I thought that was, at the time, as embarrassed as I could be on a motorized vehicle, traveling barely faster than a walk. The thumb throttle, remained fully depressed for a solid 20 minutes, and my right hand began to cramp. I suddenly realized that, if the other scooters were this bad (they were worse) the test was actually going to take all day (it did).
In unrestricted zones, the electrons flowed like a burst dam; the combination of power delivery and incredibly cheap, low-grip tires mean that you can actually get wheelspin on the sandy stuff – man this thing is fast. Maybe Lyft doesn’t put a speedometer on the handlebars because they are hiding the fact that their scooters are massively juiced up? Maybe it’s like Japan in the 1990s where everyone says their car makes 276 horsepower, and this is the R34 Skyline actually pushing 450?
Southbound on Speedway, there were sections where I couldn’t use full throttle because it was just way, way too fast. With these tiny wheels, and this amount of power, when you hit the pavement head first (your only option when the front wheel “pivot point” of a crash is 4” in front of your toes), your head will explode like a Gallagher watermelon.
The regenerative braking system on these Ninebot scooters is really cool, except, like most cheap regen systems, it stops working at low speed. So you really do have to use the friction brake on the rear wheel to come to a full stop.
Considering the speed, you do not want to be standing on your toes on your back foot, which means you have to do a mid-brake foot shuffle to get that back foot planted on the brake to stop it. It seems like a good idea, and probably adds to the range to use regen as much as possible, but in a panic, complex braking systems are not good.
Nevertheless, the bike path clearly took a lot away from Lyft’s time here, and so if you live in a city without restricted zones, commuting on one of these could be faster than you think. Wear a helmet.
Bird is the Kleenex of mobility, the Google of mobility, the iPod of mobility. They were the first on the scene and made everyone else play catch-up. The original Bird scooter was a modified Xiaomi unit (sidebar: the guy who modified it is super interesting on his own and races a very fast and aero-fied Nissan GT-R in the Global Time Attack series), which proved not to be durable enough to stand up to the abuse put forth by Americans handling items they don’t own. So they first did a stint with Ninebot before developing their own in-house scooter, the Bird Zero, which is what I rode.
The Zero has the widest deck of any standup scooter available, making it the most comfortable and stable to ride. (EDIT: New “Bolt” Scooters in LA have wider decks, but were not online at the time of my test). The handlebars fall between Jump and Lime height, so right in the middle, and between your hands is a speedometer and battery indicator.
Though Bird says the Zero will go 25 km/hr (15 mph), the onboard speedometer would stop at 11.5 mph, and if you actually hit 12 mph (like on a small downhill), it would kill power until you dropped down to 9 mph, an incredibly annoying bug.
It has larger wheels than the Ninebots used by Lyft, Jump and Lime, and what appear to be grippier tires. At 11 mph and change, you feel like you’re moving along pretty good, but it’s not sketchy fast, and the combination of (slightly) larger wheels and a basic front suspension mean the cracks in the sidewalk aren’t so jarring. The only brake is a bicycle-style cable disc brake on the rear wheel. The cable is exposed, so it’s vulnerable to tampering, but it’s intuitive and effective.
(Side note: Yes, people are constantly messing with the brakes of these scooters. I regularly find cut cables, and on a few occasions, have started riding only to find out while in motion that the cables have been cut or removed entirely. Check any scooter before riding for functional brakes.)
I took my first lap ever around the Mobiliring on a Bird, figuring they would be the one to beat, and frankly, Bird is the gold standard for a reason. The Zero is unrestricted on the bike path, and maintained its top speed for the entire first twisty section. The handling is predictable, and there is more grip than other scooters, right up until it gets sandy. Turning southward on Speedway at the north end of the course, the Zero absorbed many of the bumps and ruts in the road better than other scooters. Because I didn’t bump up on any stupid limiters, the entire lap was quite pleasant and relaxing.
Having tried all three generations of Bird scooter, the Zero is a vast improvement from the first two, and if you’re going to scoot on your feet, not on a seat, Bird is probably the one to ride.
“Wheels” is the newest mobility company on the scene; their miniature bicycles only appeared in Venice a few months ago. These bikes are, frankly, genius. In theory, they go up to 35 km/hr, (21.7 mph), though I never saw more than 33.5 on the display.
Because they are the first mobility option with hot-swappable batteries, the bikes themselves never go out of service during daytime hours. Wheels “Transporters” pick random bikes from where they are left, swap the batteries, and return the bikes to “hubs,” where, in my experience, you can pretty much always find at least one.
The fact that they are more like bicycles than Razor scooters is, itself, a major advantage. Sitting, rather than standing, means stability. It means your knees and ankles aren’t a suspension component. It has 14-inch wheels with pneumatic tires. It uses dual disc brakes from a high-end bicycle. It has a twist-grip throttle, like a motorcycle. And it has Bluetooth speakers, so you can play your music from the bike itself, freeing you from having to dangerously (and in Santa Monica, illegally) ride on the street wearing headphones.
A Wheels has enough power that you don’t have to push-start it, real tires so you can ride confidently on sandy tarmac, and the kind of brakes you’d want on a vehicle capable of keeping up with, and passing, folks on geared bicycles, or even cars in urban traffic. The kind of bumps that would sail you headfirst into a parked car on a traditional scooter are mere inconveniences on a Wheels.
I knew it would be faster than the scooters on specs alone, but honestly, it was also so much more fun. Every single scooter is kinda terrifying, because a crack or a bump can come up so quickly, with really bad consequences. Even while having fun, it’s virtually impossible to escape this train of thought. Especially since right when you do, that’s when you crash.
A Wheels is like riding an electric Honda Grom. The bike path, unrestricted on a Wheels, might as well be Angeles Crest Highway. I was taking apexes, leaning it down, balancing the brakes, and leaning into the throttle on exits. You can actually look up and around, rather than four feet in front of you, because you aren’t terrified of uneven pavement anymore.
Best of all, because it looks more like a bike than a Razor scooter, many folks are riding them in more appropriate places than sidewalks, because they no longer see themselves as pedestrians.
And the speed, Lord, the speed. It completed the Mobiliring a full five minutes faster than Bird, in half the time of Lyft, 1/3 the time of Lime, and for less money than all of them—after all, you’re literally renting these things by the minute, not the mile. Time is money.
Downsides? Admittedly, there are two: First are the exposed brake cables for the dual disc brakes. During the single day of this test, I found three Wheels with intentionally cut brake lines. Someone not as vigilant as myself might not notice, which, considering where they were cut, I believe was the sadistic intent.
Secondly, 20 mph is fast enough to have a crash where you can get hurt pretty badly, and Wheels is getting awfully close to moped territory; those do require helmets. While you’re no longer worried about pavement quality, you are going fast enough to misjudge things and just, crash. I hate to say it, but helmets should probably be mandated. And if I’m nit-picking, a height-adjustable seat would be nice, although not having to pedal negates most of the negative effects of a fixed seat.
When scooters first arrived in Venice, I rolled my eyes and said to myself, “Great, at last a substitute for walking.” And in some ways, I was right. These scooters do expose us at our most slovenly, both in how we treat them when no one is looking, and in how tourists do actually use them, right in front of me, every day: as a walk you don’t have to walk; as a bike you don’t have to pedal.
But they also do give mobility to people who don’t otherwise have it. 30 miles in LA is a pretty long way; you could ride a Wheels from Venice to Beverly Hills and back, for less than an Uber or Lyft, and without having to be a sweaty mess when you got there. Bird scooters and their ilk are good for short trips that are just out of walking distance, as long as you don’t have to deal with restricted zones and the surface is good.
A Wheels is good for that too, but it can also be a bicycle. And frankly, it’s safer. Wheels wins this one by a mile.
But as I write this, some three more e-scooters are coming to Venice in the next month. I guess the Mobiliring’s work isn’t done yet.