Today’s University of Texas at Austin publication, The Daily Texan, has a front-page story about the scourge of rentable so-called “disruptive” technology being dumped on our streets and the campus. See “Dockless scooters temporarily removed: New city ordinance suspends dockless scooters until companies obtain proper permits.” Basically these companies came in like Uber and Lyft and started operating illegally (or quasi-legally at best), and then the City of Austin had to play catch up and regulate them. We the citizens of Austin chased the ride-share companies out of town after an election, even though they cynically spent over $8 million.
As for rent-a-bikes, I don’t have as many problems with them, because that’s a big part of the point of this blog: more people can and should use bikes. But when they or scooters are clogging up the place, people dump them, vandalize them, or they obstruct lawful bike commuters and pedestrians, they’re a safety hazard to the operators and to others. So I have a few words about this. I’m like an antibiotic ointment: I’m topical!
Scoot on Down, Scoot on Down the Road
I do like the “last mile” approach, that plugs gaps between our sub-standard public transit system, Capital Metro (which some people like to call Crapital No-Show) and people’s destination. But the goodwill people like me with skin in the game (literally, if one of them causes a wreck), the obvious disdain for government regulation that dockless scooter and bike companies Lime Bike and Bird showed is reprehensible. “Being a good corporate citizen” has been Trump-ed by greed and these companies’ desire to rush their product to market without considering the deleterious effects so doing causes. I think this quote sums up a good bit of the frustration.
“Please consider the damage done to local companies who have patiently waited, who have patiently been working with the city, to enter the market at the right time, in the right way.”
–Michael Schramm, owner of local dockless scooter company GOAT
The lack of transparency and democracy seems to be in vogue for companies nowadays. But it comes at a cost. Bird was fined heavily — $300,000 – by the City of Santa Monica, California, for deploying the scooters without approval. For that and more background, check out this article from Austin Culture Map. I will add that in their defense, at least in word,
“Bird’s S.O.S. pledge includes picking up scooters for inspection, maintenance and repairs every night; increasing the supply of scooters on the street only if those already deployed are being used at least three times a day; remitting $1 per vehicle per day to city governments for building more bike lanes; and promoting safe riding.”
—Source: WTOP article
Disruptive Bad, Innovative Good
There’s also an element of class and race to this. I haven’t studied the locations they’re deploying them; you have to download the app to get any information out of these companies. From what I’ve seen, the scooters have been mostly dumped by the university where the users are college students (of varying races) and downtown, where I’ve mostly seen white people use them. I’m not saying scooters are racist, or that people of color don’t use technology! I’m merely pointing out that sometimes technology tends to highlight racial disparities and class-based privilege. I’m hopeful it will be an affordable way for people to move around that is accessible across those barriers.
The big gripe I have about the scooters is safety risk. Aside from just leaving them wherever people want is the fact that most users are not carrying helmets with them. Granted it’s a shorter fall if knocked over or you lose your footing. Considering that most users will be around campus and downtown, it’ll be amusing to see how many people get hurt scootering while drunk. I’ve come across a few scooterites demonstrating their haughty millennial lack of awareness cluelessly obstructing bike lanes. Or worse, operating in bikes lanes, and not knowing how to do so courteously.
Safety First, and More Safety Second
Sure, it’s better the scooters are not on the sidewalks mowing down pedestrians, but to me it’s the variation of size, speed and visibility that’s cause for concern. People can just hop onto them and dart into a bike lane, and that is a big concern. Also, not having to work at it to travel is great. Maybe I’m a little jelly of them. Any day now, someone’s going to give me a free car, and I will graciously accept and use it as needed. I’m not anti-car; I’m anti-cars that pollute, hog the road, and maim and kill cyclists and pedestrians.
But back to my main point: the fact is scooters are disruptive because they are so easily maneuverable, and that is deadly for bicyclists. I’m not saying ban them, but I applaud the City for making the companies play by the rules and register and permit them. That won’t require training, and any idiot can use one. So I predict that some amount of damage will be done by the scooters. Eventually we’ll adapt, and either they’ll fall out of favor, or something else will come next that’s even more disruptive. As for the bikes, I hope they are also well-regulated and don’t clog up the streets and bike lanes.
We cyclists have enough to worry about with cars and trucks and buses (oh my!). After all, as Citylab said in an article quite well about cyclists and pedestrian advocates:
“They argue that scooter crackdowns are a distraction from the real threat to street safety: #CarsKillingPeople and #CarsAreTheProblem.
So, can’t we all just get along? Time will tell. And OK, maybe scooters will turn out to not be that horrible. (By the way, doesn’t dockless sound alot like another word that you can’t really say in a mostly family-friendly blog?)
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