a photo of a woman on an electric scooter
An electric scooter co-existing with pre-electric scooter urban fabric. Jeff Chiu/AP

The argument over whether electric scooters belong in Old Town Alexandria reflects an age-old rationalization against change.

Neighborhood change can be a frightening thing for longtime residents. A proposed mid-rise threatens to blot out someone’s cherished view. A new bus stop might bring fears of future parking troubles. And a scattering of dockless scooters may herald the rise of a new generation with different priorities—one that’s happy to sacrifice some sidewalk space to get around without a car.  

For example, see a recent tussle over dockless electric scooters in Old Town Alexandria, a district of the Northern Virginia city that has been designated as historic since 1946. There, a local vigilante has been slapping “Save Historic Alexandria” stickers on Lime, Bird, Jump, Bolt, Skip, Spin, and Lyft two-wheelers that are apparently violating the area’s colonial-era aura.

There are all kinds of legitimate reasons to criticize scooters—left dumped on the sidewalk, they impede wheelchairs and strollers, and the devices don’t have the greatest safety record. But historical incongruity is not one of them. Did you know, for example, that the original scooter craze struck in the 1910s, when motorized foot-vehicles (which looked remarkably similar to their contemporary counterparts) were a hit with socialites and suffragettes? Aviator Amelia Earhart was a fan, long after the initial “Autoped” craze wore out. And if that episode happened far too long after the Revolutionary War for Alexandrians, note that the scooter-stickerer was reportedly seen driving off in a Lexus sports utility vehicle. Last I checked, those weren’t around in General Washington’s day.

The point is that this particular cry to “Save Old Town” is transparently self-serving. Instead of engaging in a good faith debate about what’s best for the public, this resident decided to come up with her own criteria for what counts as “historic” in order to impede change, as Joanne Tang wrote in Greater Greater Washington this week. Alexandria, it turns out, has a history of employing suspect “historic preservation” defenses, Tang writes: For example, in 2010, a resident opposed a restaurant’s application for outdoor alleyway seating by saying that it was important to “preserve Alexandria’s seaport history.” As if sailors never dined al fresco!

Why do people do this? Part of the answer is that opposing new things in your community by saying “I find change scary” isn’t likely to get you very far in city halls. As Wendy Sarkissian, a veteran city planner and author who has studied the psychology of NIMBYism, recently explained to me, it’s more effective to use language that bureaucracy can understand. Hence, we find people rejecting a low-emissions bus line on environmental grounds, battling new affordable housing with concerns about parking or traffic (even though a higher population tends to liberate more funding for transportation projects), and jousting against aesthetic alterations with the old chestnut of “preserving neighborhood character” or its variants.

Other recent entries in this genre include a nondescript Washington, D.C. parking lot that got tied up in a battle to keep an mid-century shopping center, the old-timey streetlamps on San Francisco’s Van Ness Avenue that became a delay tactic on a new bus rapid transit plan, or the camp of opposition to a proposed network of running and cycling trails on Olmsted-designed parkways in Baltimore, even though Olmsted himself had originally envisioned them.

Historic preservation must be one of the most challenging domains of urban planning, since what counts as “historic” is inevitably subjective. It’s also a field full of experts who are trained to make those types of calls in difficult and sensitive circumstances that require them. But that doesn’t stop homeowners and neighborhood groups from deploying the concept in order to protect the narrowest possible interpretation of history: their own recent memory of a place. Of all the NIMBY-ish rationalizations, this one is often the easiest to invoke—and also, at times, one of the most difficult to unmask.

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