A couple months back I declared that, despite having yet to try one out, I hated e-scooters and, more specifically, the idea they could supplant other modes of transportation in some cities. Well, I tried out a scooter from one of the many scooter startups, Bird, while in Detroit last week, and now I’m here to dial back my initial critique—slightly—at the risk of taking a heaping load of egg to my face: Scooters are fine, but, man, they need to be parked somewhere.
I took plenty of heat for the blog post in June because, hey, who am I to talk about something I’d yet to try? But I still feel they divert attention away from trying to solve solve key issues with public transportation. Sure, they’re a fine last-mile option, and, yes, e-scooter companies don’t have a mandate to fix bus systems or train routes across the U.S. But I don’t think we should focus on solving micro-mobility problems when we can’t even resolve standard mobility problems.
That’s particularly pronounced in a city like Detroit, which has a needlessly complicated bus system that makes it stressful and difficult for residents without access to a car to get to work. And when the majority of the city’s residents work in the suburbs, they need a car to make that happen; a scooter won’t suffice. Scooters and mobility options like Uber give anti-public transit folks a leg to stand on, as if it could replace bus systems entirely.
(Think I’m full of shit? A super conservative anti-transit activist in Macomb County, which sits just northeast of Detroit, is paying for a recount of a recent ballot proposal that passed by 39 votes and would provide funding for a regional bus system. His argument? Use Uber or Lyft instead.)
I already made this point in June, though. So what changed?
E-scooters are indeed fun, just as my colleague Andrew Collins helpfully explained before.
On a lovely summer day, I found a Bird scooter sitting along Sixth Street in Detroit’s Corktown neighborhood, just outside downtown. I needed to get to a courthouse downtown, a prime opportunity to see how a scooter could work.
I took a couple steps to push off, jammed the scooter’s thumb throttle and woosh, off I went and ... then my hat flew off, actualizing all the fears I had of looking like an awkward dweeb on my first e-scoot excursion.
The weather was pristine, as I zoomed along down Fort St. toward downtown. It was—fuck—fun! My main hangup is that Detroit’s roads, and sidewalks, are trash, and it’s hard to decide whatever the hell seems better suited for the Bird to ease into flight.
Detroit’s still in the process of laying out a more robust network of bike lanes, so it’s a bit of a trick to decide what’s a safer route. Take the sidewalk, and you’re weaving in and out of pedestrians—something Bird advises against—while riding in the road leaves you open to, well, drivers wondering what the hell you’re doing on the road.
A Bird spokesperson offered up a generalized response when I asked what’s the best option for riders in this kind of situation:
Safety is our top priority at Bird, and we are committed to partnering with all cities to ensure that the community, and its visitors, safely embrace our affordable, environmentally friendly transportation option. We strive to improve and enhance the well-being of our riders and communities through concrete action, including: posting clear safety instructions on each Bird about not riding on sidewalks, providing an in-app tutorial on how to ride and park a Bird, restricting the maximum speed of the vehicles, and requiring riders to upload a driver’s license and confirm they are 18 or older.
But it certainly made the trek into downtown far easier. When I lived in Corktown, I’d take a ride-hail car when I needed one, and that could cost north of $15 round trip. A Bird ran me $2.35 one way.
And then you can just drop it where you stop. Which brings me to my other main complaint: These things need a home.
An annoying example—one, I know, of many across the U.S.—of where someone placed a Bird on the first night I was in Detroit, just outside of American and Lafayette Coney, near downtown.
This was after the 9 p.m. cutoff time, when Birds take a rest overnight, but without any sort of parking spot for Birds to nest in overnight, this’ll continue to be something the public just has to deal with.
After receiving a string of complaints over scooters clogging up sidewalks, Santa Monica introduced designated parking spaces for devices like e-scooters, according to the area’s ABC affiliate.
It’s reportedly going to be available to bikes and scooters, and it’s apparently garnering interest from other cities as well.
Which is good! The dockless model strives for convenience, but it’s not exactly convenient to have to force pedestrians to avoid tripping over a scooter planted in the middle of the sidewalk. That’s what leads to Birds and other scooters getting destroyed.
But yes, the e-scooters are fine, and they’ll make a 20-30 minute walk much more enjoyable by reducing that to a few minutes on a breezy electric-powered ride. I just hope a solution for parking comes along, soon.