In February, I spent a weekend in Santa Monica, Calif. I couldn’t walk half a block without bumping into an electric scooter. Literally. They blocked sidewalks and doorways—they were everywhere. I wasn’t sure what they were or how they worked; I rented a bike to get around.
In March, in San Francisco for the afternoon, I again found myself dodging electric scooters, both parked and in motion. They weren’t such a mystery anymore, as stories about skirmishes between city officials and scooter companies had started to hit the press. I eyed them with interest, but saw more parked than in use.
Just last week, I finally took the leap—and used one of the electric scooters to get from the San Francisco train station to an event at the Exploratorium. It was rush hour, and considering the other transportation options—Uber, taxi, or bus—a scooter seemed like it would get me there fastest at a reasonable price. And with most of my route along the safe, flat, and wide Embarcadero bike path, conditions were optimal for learning to ride the thing.
Photo: Tekla Perry
I walked from the train station to the Embarcadero, and strolled a few blocks north until I found a neatly parked row of Lime scooters. With just a little encouragement from an experienced rider about to scoot away, I signed into the app, accepted a few rules, scanned a QR code on my scooter of choice, and hit a button in the app to unlock it. Then it was just a matter of flipping up the kickstand and moving out onto the bike path. A couple of foot pushes got me going.
From then on, I accelerated by pressing down a tab on the handlebar with my right hand and braked with a squeeze of my left. Both acceleration and braking were smooth, though I’ll admit that as a first-time rider facing the occasional pedestrian on the shared path, I didn’t take it to the full speed of 15 mph. At the end of my trip, I walked the scooter over to park it alongside a building, and pushed the end button on the app. That was it.
The whole trip cost me an intro price of US $1.20 (the normal rate of $1 to unlock and 15 cents a minute should have added up to $2.20), cheaper and likely faster than any of the other transportation options I considered. Also, did I mention that it was fun? I’m sold (at least where there are wide bike paths, I’m not interested in dodging traffic).
Three companies—Lime, Bird, and Spin—are currently competing with each other and with cities that are moving quickly to regulate them. In Santa Monica, Birds seemed to dominate; in San Francisco, I rode a Lime, and the Lime-to-Bird ratio of the scooters I spotted seemed to be about two to one. I have yet to see a Spin scooter in the wild.
Anyscoot.com displays currently available scooters and bikes; clicking on an icon displays the scooter’s battery life. This screenshot was captured last week, before the city of San Francisco insisted that the scooters be temporarily removed from the streets. Image: Anyscoot
Already, an app that helps you manage the scooter apps is available: Anyscoot tracks all the available scooters and bikes in an area on one map; each company has said it has several hundred scooters in its San Francisco fleet.
These companies aren’t on a smooth ride. While I was happily cruising along the waterfront, elsewhere in the city, protestors angry about housing prices were gathering up scooters and dumping them in front of tech buses, two symbols of the tech takeover of San Francisco.
And this week, the scooters are off the streets; the city of San Francisco launched a permit system and informed scooter companies that it would impound any scooters it spotted until those permits are granted. The city had already been impounding scooters that were obstructing sidewalks or roads. The permit applications were due Wednesday, and decisions are expected by the end of the month.
Around the country, cities are passing similar laws and, in some cases, fining scooter companies for starting operations without permission.
A City of San Francisco Public Works employee removed shared electric scooters from the city’s streets on 2 May, 2018. Photo: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg/Getty Images
It’s clear that the electric scooter companies are disrupting city transportation and irritating a lot of people, and that regulations will have to scramble to catch up. It’s a mess, but it’s a mess that’s likely to get sorted out. After all, it wasn’t so long ago that Uber and Lyft were banned in many cities.
And scooters are clearly a disruptive technology. Venture capitalists love a disruptive technology because it isn’t just competing for a small niche of, say, the bicycle rental business. It aims to change the entire market.
Bird raised $100 million from investors in March, and Sequoia Capital is reportedly putting together an additional $150 million in funding, valuing the company at $1 billion—that’s unicorn territory. Lime raised $132 million as of February, and is now raising an additional $500 million, according to Axios. And Spin has raised $8 million to date.
Uber, for one, is clearly worried. It bought dockless bike company Jump in April; it’s a short leap from that technology to dockless scooters.
The scooter wars have already spread outside California—to Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Missouri, Nevada, New York, North Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Washington, Washington, D.C., and, most recently, Colorado.
Lime is already in Germany and Switzerland. And Bird is getting ready to launch in Europe.
Tekla S. Perry is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum. Based in Palo Alto, Calif., she's been covering the people, companies, and technology that make Silicon Valley a special place for more than 30 years. An IEEE member, she holds a bachelor's degree in journalism from Michigan State University.