David Zipper is a Visiting Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School's Taubman Center for State and Local Government. He writes frequently about the future of urban mobility and technology.
You might have noticed that electric scooters have a remarkable ability to spark rage across a large swath of urban residents. More than 100,000 people follow Bird Graveyard on Instagram, sharing all the creative ways that an e-scooter can meet its demise. The profile page of another popular Instagram account, Scooters Behaving Badly, reads “Don’t park or ride your scooter like an asshole. Or better yet, don’t ride one at all.”
Popular hostility to e-scooters is puzzling when one considers that the vehicles take up less public street space than automobiles and don’t pollute as much as they do. The more thoughtful e-scooter critics often point to safety concerns, with some justification: The CDC recently concluded that about one in 5,000 e-scooter trips in Austin resulted in a rider being hurt.
But such safety fears should be put in context, as riders seem to pose minimal risk to anyone other than themselves. I’m not aware of a single pedestrian in the United States being killed in an e-scooter collision since Bird and Lime launched two years ago; for comparison, in 2018 alone, automobiles killed over 6,200 pedestrians in this country. And yet, a columnist in The New York Times decried e-scooters for “wreaking havoc,” calling on mayors to flex their regulatory powers “like a sober parent” in order to keep citizens safe from them. When automobile drivers recently killed four e-scooter riders in Atlanta, local leaders responded by swiftly imposing a nighttime e-scooter curfew—but not restricting automobiles.
The pushback against e-scooters is even more striking when compared with warmer popular attitudes toward another new mobility mode: ride hail. Vociferous opposition from taxi drivers and some local policymakers not withstanding, there has never been much of a popular backlash against ride hail—even as researchers publish a growing stream of studies showing that companies like Uber and Lyft worsen congestion and undermine public transportation.
In other words, urban residents seem to collectively shrug our shoulders at a new mobility mode that’s damaging our transportation network, while freaking out over another new mode that seems far less threatening—especially to non-riders—and perhaps even beneficial to the urban environment. What gives?
The answer could be rooted in our innate preference for the comfortably familiar over the jarringly new.
When ride hail burst on the scene a decade ago, it offered an almost magical ability to summon a vehicle by tapping a smartphone app. As novel as that was, an Uber car picking up a passenger or driving down a street looks and acts pretty much the same as a taxi always has. If you were an automobile driver or a pedestrian, there was very little mental or physical adjustment necessary to accommodate ride hail’s emergence.
That’s not the case with e-scooters, which resemble nothing commuters are likely to have encountered before. When e-scooters arrive in a city, an automobile driver must suddenly share road space with a vehicle in an unfamiliar shape, moving in unfamiliar ways—which is stressful. Pedestrians, too, must adapt their behavior when e-scooters show up, keeping an eye out for a rider zipping along the sidewalk or an unused device blocking their path.
Limited urban street and sidewalk space play a role as well. Tara Goddard, a professor at Texas A&M, has observed how scarcity of public right of way can lead individual commuters to self-identify within a group such as bicyclists, pedestrians, or drivers, seeing the others as rivals. No group is going to be thrilled when a new competitor like e-scooters suddenly arrives and requires its own space to move on a crowded street.
What does seem apparent is that popular sentiment toward ride hail and e-scooters does not reflect what we currently know about their effect on cities. Even Uber and Lyft now acknowledge they have worsened congestion, and transportation researchers have repeatedly shown that ride hail contributes to falling transit ridership. But there is little evidence that the average urban resident links ride hail to their slower commute or their transit agency’s yawning budget deficit.
Meanwhile, most everyone agrees that e-scooters pollute less and take up less street space than automobiles, and they could potentially provide a so-called first mile-last mile solution to help commuters reach public transportation. To be fair, carelessly discarded vehicles create serious problems for those with disabilities and other mobility limitations, but solutions like dedicated e-scooter parking and locks can fix that. Still, lots of people wish that e-scooters would simply disappear.
A question, then, is whether this current antipathy is permanent or if it will subside as urban commuters get used to them. Given e-scooters’ potential to improve urban mobility networks, acceptance would be a good thing. Local leaders could help by keeping their cool when enduring the occasional rant from a resident resentful about having to watch out for a new kind of vehicle. Better yet, they could invest in building more protected lanes that both separate e-scooter riders (and bikers) from dangerous automobiles and reduce e-scooter-pedestrian conflicts. Such protections are a rare luxury in American cities today, forcing e-scooter trips to occur on crowded sidewalks or unsafe streets.
If there’s a broader lesson, perhaps it’s that we need time to understand the effect of a new mobility technology on cities. Ride hail has turned out to be more detrimental than most urban leaders initially expected: In retrospect, many of today’s commutes would probably be faster if cities had curtailed ride hail’s rapid growth when it began a decade ago.
There are signs that e-scooters could have a much more positive effect on urban communities, but we will need sound studies to know for sure. One initial analysis from the city of San Francisco concluded that more than a third of scooter trips begin or end at a transit stop, suggesting that scooters could become natural feeders to public transportation. Another from the city of Portland, Oregon, found that 34 percent of e-scooter rides replaced an automobile trip, offering evidence that e-scooters could mitigate congestion. But academic assessments are the gold standard, and though researchers say a number about e-scooters are underway, few are complete.
We should heed those studies’ findings when they are published. They offer a much better basis for urban policy than the knee-jerk reactions of commuters responding emotionally to a new technology hitting the streets.