Sarah Holder is a staff writer at CityLab covering local policy, affordable housing, labor, and technology.
Two decades ago, a Swiss inventor laid the foundation for the big mobility innovation of 2018.
Like so many inventions, the scooter was a child of necessity: Specifically, the need to get a bratwurst without looking like an idiot.
One night in 1990, Wim Ouboter, a Dutch-Swiss banker and amateur craftsman, was “in the mood for a St. Gallen bratwurst at the Sternengrill in Zurich,” or so the story goes. He wanted to get from his house to the brat place and then to a bar, stat, but the stops seemed too far apart to walk, and too close to drive. What he really needed, Ouboter decided, was a mode of transportation that would let him swiftly cover that micro-distance. A bike seemed like too much trouble to take out of the garage. What he wanted was a kick scooter.
Ouboter was a big fan of the mode—he came from a self-described family of “scooter freaks,” and he and his siblings had enjoyed hurtling down hills on clunky wooden kickboards as kids. For a brat-to-beer trip, though, he needed a grown-up upgrade—something durable enough to handle an adult rider, but also small and inconspicuous. “The problem is, if you’re a big guy and you’re riding such a small scooter, people will look at you weird,” he told me. “So you have to make it collapsible in order to bring it into a bar afterwards.”
No such machine existed, as far as he could tell. So he decided to make it himself.
“What was this ridiculous obsession with toy scooters?” his friends asked as Ouboter tinkered away. And yet he persisted, coming up with a low-slung, collapsible prototype with tiny polyurethane wheels, made of polished aluminum and outfitted with foam handlebars—a sleek machine that, he says, had “more sex appeal” than the clunky kids’ toys of yesterday.
These recollections are detailed in a 2003 paper from the University of St. Gallen, “Micro Mobility Systems: Realizing the Scooter Dream,” which chronicled Oubuter’s pioneering role in scooter history. In 1996, he launched a company called Micro Mobility Systems Ltd. (or micro™, for short) to build his zippy creations, which he called “micro-scooters”—or just “micros.” Then, he says, he partnered with a Chinese bicycle manufacturing company, JD Corp, to produce them. In 1999, sales began in Japan.
At this point, the scooter-genesis story gets somewhat murky; some reports, like this 2001 Bloomberg piece, credit Gino Tsai, JD Corp’s president at the time, with the critical lightbulb moment. At any rate, Ouboter says that JD Corp. ended up selling a licensed version of his design as the Razor, and Razor USA was founded in 2000. (Razor USA declined to comment specifically on the who-invented-it question.) A slew of copycat brands quickly joined in, and suddenly the world was seized in a scooter frenzy.
“Maybe you know the Razor scooter in the U.S.?” Ouboter asks me over the phone from a Greek island, where he’s vacationing; he still lives in Switzerland. “A lot of people don’t know that the Razor comes from me—from that Swiss guy.”
The Razor was selected as the “Spring/Summer Toy of the Year” by the Toy Association in 2000; by 2001, 7 million of them were whizzing along America’s suburban cul-de-sacs. But a funny thing happened to the tiny silver machines that leaped from Ouboter’s imagination onto the sidewalks of the world at the turn of the millennium. Ouboter had never thought of his creation as a toy.
“The original idea was not to make a scooter for kids,” he says. The idea was to fundamentally change urban transportation.
Ouboter first intended to market the scooters to adults, as an urban last-mile transportation solution. In 1998, he says, he was in talks with Mercedes-Benz, working on a deal to outfit the company’s Smart cars with scooters, with the notion that commuters would use them to scoot to transit stops or other destinations from distant parking lots. And when his micros swept Japan in 1999, a lot of the first users were urban subway riders.
To hear Ouboter tell it, he saw it all coming, even then: The flocks of Birds overtaking California sidewalks; the Limes fanned out on D.C. street corners; the AirPod-wearing men in suits zipping to work on skinny electric kickboards. Equipped with grown-up proportions, bigger wheels, and battery-powered motors, the electrified offspring of his invention have stormed U.S. cities this year, with nearly a dozen dockless e-scooter rental companies springing seemingly from the ether. Bird, which launched 12 months ago, just hit 10 million scooter rides; Lime users have taken 11.5 million scooter and bike-share trips in the past 14 months. Two ride-hailing rivals, Uber and Lyft, are cannibalizing their own car-ride markets to get in on the scooter-share action. The micro-mobility revolution Ouboter tried to inspire in the ‘90s has begun, just two decades late.
In a sign that the scooter has completed a full evolutionary cycle, Razor, whose kid-focused products kicked off the craze in the U.S. in 2000, has now launched its own dockless rental service, with fleets of e-scooters in Long Beach, San Diego, and Tempe, and plans to expand into more cities this year.
“It’s actually proof that I was right, but nobody was listening to me,” Ouboter says, laughing. “Goddammit, why did it take so long?”
To answer that question, it’s useful to look at another dawn-of-the- millennium transportation revolution that took a weird turn: the Segway Personal Transporter, which made its debut, after months of hype, in December 2001. The self-balancing people-moving contraptions generated plenty of wows upon arrival. Predictions of impending urban mobility disruption were made.
But the PT never found a home as a machine of mass commuting. Expensive and bulky, the first Segway seemed to fall from outer space; today, it’s reserved largely for the Paul Blarts of the world.
E-scooters, on the other hand, arrived on the earthly plane with some precedent—and a built-in prospective ridership: Its cultural cachet as iconic ‘90s-kid street gear has, perhaps counterintuitively, helped pave the way for its current success.
Of course, the kick scooter itself goes back far further than the Clinton administration. Kids in early-20th-century cities would fix roller-skate wheels to wooden planks, add metal pipes as handlebars, and tear off down the street. But when the early-aughts scooter boom took off, there was some question about who, precisely, the vehicles were intended for.
Today, Razor folks say that selling to adults was part of the plan. “Razor scooters have always been connected to active mobility for all ages,” Danny Simon, COO of Razor USA, said in an email. From the beginning, “adults were using them as a last mile solution for their commutes.”
In a 2001 blog post, Paul Holmes, who worked on Razor’s communications team in 2000, wrote that “unless we were talking safety, we never spoke directly to kids and never referred to the Razor [as] a ‘toy.’ … We knew that would kill Razor’s coolness factor with kids.”
And adults did get in on the action. In a 2000 New York Times column, John Leland tells of that first summer of scooters in the city, when “grown professionals” mounted the Razors—“sleek of line, cutting edge in design, of the moment and yet blue-collar practical”—en masse. But his elation soon turned to disappointment:
As a mode of transportation, sadly, the scooter proved the stiletto heel of the two-wheeled set: great to look at, lousy for carrying laundry to the dry cleaner. Do not be seduced, as I was, by images of dapper men and women in graceful glide, cool breezes slicing through the hot city. Scootering is work, especially at rush hour. The small wheels bog down on the city's rough surfaces, and the base rides so low that a bump of any size becomes a potential obstacle.
He’d arrive at work dripping in sweat, hands tense, having been mocked by pedestrians, flung about, and snagged on pavement cracks. After a few trips, he “was ready to get off the razor’s edge.” Leland decided he’d give the toy to his 12-year-old, instead.
The column, titled “Riding a Fad, Hitting a Bump,” summed up those tumultuous early days well: the scooter-as-urban-transpo promise, and its Segway-like failure to live up to it. It was also the year of Razor’s Sex and the City debut, when, in a September episode entitled “Hot Child in the City,” Carrie scoots around with her younger, comic-store-clerking, very temporary boyfriend, Wade. (The subtext: scootering is fun! But also, please don’t date someone who does it.)
But Razor’s T.V. ads from 2000 show graphic-tee-wearing tweens popping wheelies, not lawyers trying to catch an Amtrak. And after the first flush of the scooter fad faded (sales crashed dramatically in 2001), any lingering ambiguity about their intended market disappeared. To keep the market alive, new models were launched: the PowerWing (with three wheels, instead of two) and the Spark (which allowed badass sparks to fly off the pavement if you pressed down on the scooter’s tail). Professional Razoring—a “bone-crunching extreme sport laden with thrills and spills,” according to a 2007 Sunday Herald Sun story—became popular in Australia, propelled by models like the Beast and the Black Label.
During this interim era, you might have seen the occasional urban oddball bombing to work on one of these rigs, but by and large it was little kids who rode scooters, and play that motivated them. Turning scooters into commuting tools for the adult masses would require several technological tweaks.
The first was electrification. Razor strapped battery packs on its first scooters in 2003. (Micro-Mobility didn’t electrify until 2013, due to Switzerland’s stricter regulations). Some people rode the boosted Razors to work, and other people worried, as people are wont to do.
“The kids are out of school. And those motorized skateboards and scooters they’re riding around southern Mecklenburg are drawing a lot of attention,” reads a 2007 column in the Charlotte Observer entitled “Before Your Kids Pop a Wheelie Take Heed.” Under some states’ laws, the e-Razors qualified as “mopeds,” meaning riders had to be 16 to ride them, wear a helmet, and drive on the street, not the sidewalk.
Motors made scooters more useful, but also more expensive. It took the spread of bikesharing, and specifically the GPS-powered dockless bike rental services that popped up in several U.S. cities over 2017, to drop the price barrier. Matt Yglesias, writing in Vox, describes a very 2018-style perfect storm of factors that allowed e-scooters to take over—“the falling price of batteries and GPS trackers, the near-ubiquity of smartphones, and the rising demand for space in central cities.”
For a $1 a ride, an adult could try out a dockless shared scooter. And when they did, they swiftly discovered this mode’s urban virtues. A shared, dockless e-scooter can do what its little-vehicle peers cannot. It’s easy to hop on and hop off, even in a business suit or a skirt. It’s less hefty than a Segway and takes less effort (and skill) than skateboarding or inline skating. And it’s rooted in a pastime Millennials grew up with.
The e-scooters’ arrival in city after city has even inspired a new genre of conversion narrative. First, the skeptical reporter observes this two-wheel fad with ironic detachment—scooters are, after all, a kid’s toy, or worse, a tech-bro gadget. The very term “micro-mobility,” which has lately entered the urban-transport lexicon, is a turn-off: jargony and alienating and Silicon Vallified, its late-1990s roots forgotten. (“It’s just the small mobility, you know?” Ouboter explained, not sure why I asked him to spell out the phrase’s origin.)
Then she hops on, has an absolute ball, and gets hooked. The scooter, she remembers, isn’t a toy at all. But it feels like play. (Albeit the kind of play where she vibrates so violently she feels she might bite off her tongue when careening downhill.) And one by one, individuals start reimagining what these machines could do—if cities can figure out how to harness, and regulate, and rein in their formidable capacity for anarchic fun.
In my neighborhood in Washington, D.C., the kids are trying to reclaim the e-scooters. One preteen exits a corner store with a Coke, and zips away on the Lime waiting for him outside; another tandem pair cling to each other, doing loops and killing time. Searching for an area Bird on the app’s GPS, I wandered around for half a mile only to find the scooter hidden behind a fence, guarded by a group of kids at a neighborhood community center.
Technically, you need to be 18 years old to rent an e-scooter. But like buying cigarettes, this barrier can be overcome. Bird asks you to scan your driver’s license; in many cities, Lime just asks for digital age confirmation. Most scooter models require a credit card and at least a dollar to unlock—feasible for some teens. As mass adoption takes hold and scooters migrate from business districts into residential neighborhoods, kids are finding ways to get back aboard.
In Detroit, 31-year-old Andy Didorosi, who works as a gig-employed scooter-charger, realized that swaths of “dead” (un-charged) scooters were being hoarded in neighborhood housing complexes by teens. Without juice, the scooters’ wheels spin freely; kids idly kick-scoot them around the block. These dead scooters are high-tech Razors made low-tech again—the perfect toy.
Didirosi, who is also the founder and CEO of the Detroit Bus Company, is crowdfunding to buy the community’s kids the scooters (and helmets) they’ve already claimed. “What I’m interested in is how a Silicon Valley startup comes into a city like Detroit—a Rust Belt, poor community lacking in transit—and markets to people of means who have credit cards and can take a fun ride,” Didorosi told the Detroit Free Press. “And leave out all the kids in the neighborhoods.”
A proper fad once again, the scooter finds itself caught in another liminal space; the debate over who gets to ride (kids or adults; techies or everyone else) continues. No longer considered toys, they’re unwelcome on the sidewalks. But they’re not quite recognizable as bikes or mopeds, either, so they’re left without space in the streets.
These blurred boundaries can be dangerous. In early September, a man in Dallas was found dead after falling off an electric scooter (the cause of death remains unknown). On September 21, a driver in an SUV struck a scooter that was negotiating Washington, D.C.’s rush-hour-clogged Dupont Circle; the rider later died in the hospital.
Ouboter has a lot of ideas around how to adapt cities to properly integrate scooters (he’s had a lot of time to think about it). “Make less parking spaces for big, big cars,” he tells me, and create more parking specially for little vehicles. Reduce car lanes, and replace them with designated lanes for slow-moving, environmentally friendly transportation options. Stop driving around in big pickup trucks if you’re just one person. “You know what I mean? This is ridiculous.”
Ouboter’s company, Micro, is still very much a player in this transportation revolution. The Swiss firm sells a large line of 2- and 3-wheeled scooters aimed at both kids and adults, including a $1,000 electric model and this wild rideable carry-on luggage-mobile. Micro is due to launch a bigger product, too—a supermini car called a Microlino. It’s an electric update of the BMW Isetta, a tiny two-seater city car from the 1950s. Ouboter displayed a prototype at the Geneva Motor Show in 2016 and is now taking orders for the production version. Like his original scooter, the Micolino is a stylish facelift of a decades-old product, sleek and sexy and yet somehow at least half-toy.
The dockless scooter boom is lifting his wheels, too: He says that Lyft, which just launched a fleet of electric scooters in Santa Monica, will use his company’s models in deployments next year. (Lyft wouldn’t comment.) He isn’t bitter that the role he played in making the boom happen two decades ago isn’t more well known. He’s just gratified it finally did.
“I cannot explain why, but sometimes it needs momentum,” says Ouboter. “You need to have a lot of other people doing it.”