A LimeBike and LimeBike-S are pictured.
Andrew Small

While you’re still trying to figure out dockless bikes, there’s a new two-wheeler to share around town. It could be a bigger deal than you think.

Hold onto your glasses, nerds: The scooters are here.

As cities around the U.S. still try to figure out what dockless bikesharing is, a leader in that nascent industry is betting that some urbanites are already ready for the next big thing—scooter-sharing. LimeBike, one of several firms operating docklessly in Washington, D.C., unleashed a fleet of electric-assist scooters in the nation’s capital this week, marking the scooter-share’s East Coast debut. (They first hit the streets last month, in San Diego.)

“Cities are craving solutions to downtown congestion,” LimeBike’s strategic developer Maggie Gendron told me as we rode on some of D.C.’s quieter streets. “It may be a bike for one, a scooter for another, but we are trying to create opportunities for residents to commute or reconnect to their downtown.”

For at least some people, it might help that they connect to a bit of the past, too. The new scooters look like a souped-up electric version of the folding Razor kick-scooters that were a wild fad in the early aughts, and remain tremendously popular with the first-grader cohort. This grown-up version boasts solid rubber tires, a kickstand, and—perhaps most importantly for adults—an electric-assist throttle on the handlebars, which allows riders to zip alongside their pedal-driven brethren at speeds of 10 to 15 mph. A smartphone app handles location, unlocking, and payment.

It’s with a mix of novelty and familiarity that companies like LimeBike, Bird, and Waybots hope to usher in a gritty and grown-up reboot of the 2001 Toy of the Year. They have a hunch that the market goes beyond Millennial nostalgia, and in a boom time for mobility innovations, they might be right. Adults might not be buying these next-generation electric scooters in droves (the consumer versions retail for about $400), but maybe they’ll shell out a buck or two for one they stumble upon on the sidewalk.

As LimeBike chief program officer Scott Kubly tells it, this could be an important step in the goal of more multimodal cities. Having a new toy on the block might lure customers out of their cars, he says, and they just might surprise you and become “complete streets” constituents along the way.

“[Scooters] could end up changing what people think of as a ‘bike lane,’” says Kubly, who was the director of Seattle’s Department of Transportation until last month. “The bigger the constituency you have, the easier it is to get infrastructure like that installed.”

Even on a short ride, it’s not hard to see how this fills a gap. The electric glide’s stand-up stance is easier on business attire, compared to a traditional bicycle. Comfort feels less tied to the weather, with electricity lending a hand against the heat or wind. Before joining LimeBike, Gendron worked as staffer with Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont. “I couldn’t imagine biking to work with my old job wearing a dress, but I can definitely see it on a scooter,” she says.

Taken together, that could all make it a real contender to solve everyone’s favorite mobility cliché: the first- and last-mile problem.

But does it have an image problem to overcome? Does a grown-ass man on a scooter look any more or less foolish than one on, say, a Segway, an electric unicycle, a “hoverboard,” or any of the other comical conveyances that the 21st century has foisted on us? It’s too early to tell if scooter-shares will be conspicuous. On my own trial run, passersby turned their heads as I rode by, but I have a feeling it’s because it’s brand new; it didn’t feel like virtue or fashion statement like an early bikeshare, or even my old Razor scooter. There’s less room on the frame for the flashy colors that make dockless bikeshare stand out; it even feels a little camouflaged by design. Personal scooters aren’t nearly as common as bikes; it seems the more this quiet vehicle says “this is easy” instead of “this is my dork-mobile,” the better its chances for scaling up.

Screenshots of the LimeBike app.
Screenshots of scooter usage in the LimeBike app.

LimeBike is pulling some of its 400 dockless bikes that have been rolling around D.C. since September as part of a trial by the District’s Department of Transportation. The company says it will replace some of them with scooters, to somewhere between 50 and 100 by the end of this week. (DDOT confirmed that Waybots, another scooter-share, is authorized to operate in the city, though they have very few scooters online so far, and haven’t responded to requests to comment.)

LimeBike doesn’t have useful scooter ridership numbers yet, but its scooter-only competitor, Bird, claims to have logged about half a million rides on more than a thousand scooters in less than six months of operating in parts of Los Angeles. A very generous, but admittedly rough estimate would put those scooters at an average of 2.7 rides per day. Compare that to findings by the app Transit that calculated 1.6 daily trips for D.C.’s dockless bikes, or 5.3 daily rides for Capital Bikeshare bikes since the dockless trial began. Bird hopes to launch in 50 markets, including Washington, D.C., this year, after raising $100 million on a $300 million valuation.

“We think electric vehicles can help solve this chicken-and-egg problem [of road space], because we know cities don’t necessarily want to carve out lanes to take away from cars,” says Bird CEO Travis VanderZanden. “But if we see massive adoption, now there's evidence for cities to make an investment to make more bike lanes now that there’s another mode. Making dedicated lanes is easier than boring tunnels underground.”

Kubly, who also worked for DDOT back in 2009, says the closest feeling to the current optimism and skepticism about dockless bikes and scooters was when D.C.’s Capital Bikeshare launched out of the very small 10-station SmartBike pilot.

“I remember a friend saying, ‘No way, those crappy bikes that nobody uses?’” he says. “It might be the same with the scooters—until you experience it, it’s hard to figure out how big it’s going to be. But once you’re on it and you realize how fun it is, you think, ‘Why didn't we think of this before?’”

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