Why scooters are Silicon Valley's latest misery-inducing 'disruption'

Yet again, a tech innovation taking advantage of little or no regulation has resulted in real headaches for locals dealing with the next big thing.
Image: All over the country, people are riding scooters on sidewalks and streets, zipping in and out of traffic, prompting frightened motorists and pedestrians to dodge sudden doom, broken bones and sometimes even death.
All over the country, people are riding scooters on sidewalks and streets, zipping in and out of traffic, prompting frightened motorists and pedestrians to dodge sudden doom, broken bones and sometimes even death.Chelsea Stahl / NBC News
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By Simon Moya-Smith

It used to be that, when living in a rapidly gentrifying city full of rapidly aging tech bros rapidly losing their hair, the worst thing we had to fear was that their insecurity about hitting middle age would drive them to get behind the wheel of a Corvette. That’s when they proceed to drive erratically, park horribly and, once in a while, they’d slam into a family van while texting (or Tindering) behind the wheel.

But now, the yuppies have a new option to proclaim to the world that they definitely aren’t 40 yet: They can step onto a Bird or Lime or Lyft scooter at midnight on the way home from a bar in places such as Denver, Atlanta, Dallas or Washington, D.C., and relive the glory days of their tween years. And, like the kids they once were, they dart into the road like squirrels or deer with a death wish.

All over the country, people are riding these things on sidewalks and streets, zipping in and out of traffic, prompting frightened motorists and pedestrians to dodge sudden doom, broken bones and sometimes even death.

For example, on July 12, YouTube star Emily Hartridge died after she collided with a large truck at a roundabout in London. On July 17 in Atlanta, a 37-year-old man was pinned beneath a bus and died as a result of his injuries. And in Denver, in June, Caitlin Jacobsen, 34, suffered a traumatic brain injury after the scooter she was riding got snagged on a fence; she landed on the concrete headfirst. She can’t walk, talk or eat on her own, her brother said. Consumer Reports discovered that there’s no reliable tally of injuries to riders, but tallied more than 1,500 since 2017 in a spot check earlier this year.

Folks who ride these scooters are also regularly the cause of injury to others; in a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association Network Open, the authors found that, in two Southern California emergency rooms in a city with scooters, just under 10 percent of scooter-related injuries were to nonriders.

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Some scooters can go over 20 mph despite internal controls designed to limit them to conform with local regulations, when there are any, and there are rarely posted restrictions on their speed. There’s no training or licensing required, which means anyone can take one for a spin — and they do, even when in a state of intoxication that would warrant arrest if behind the wheel of a car or the handlebars of a motorcycle or a moped.

And then people dump them in public waterways, which is enormously problematic and polluting, or leave them on private property, blocking parking spots. Disability advocates are suing in federal court because people leave them blocking ramps and sidewalk cuts regularly.

They’re advertised as replacing cars but, mostly, they seem to replace bikes, bike rentals and public transit usage, partly because they rent at comparable rates and appeal to tourists and environmentally- or cost-conscious consumers.

Yet scooters aren’t a thing in New York City because they’d be regulated in the five boroughs — and the companies pushing them are deliberately going to cities where they are not heavily regulated, if they are at all. That’s why you see them in places such as Denver, San Diego, D.C., Dallas, Atlanta and Austin, Texas. (Even San Francisco had to put a temporary moratorium on them.)

As with Uber and Airbnb before them, the business model is seemingly predicated on finding ways to avoid government regulation at all costs, and the reliance on the idea that humans are somehow fundamentally good and will behave appropriately — against all evidence.

This is all part and parcel of Silicon Valley’s “disruption” strategy: Find a way to get around regulation to peel money out of investors, while ignoring the broader or long-term consequences for actual communities. Sure, Uber and Lyft have made taxis easier to hail, but with pretty significant costs to existing taxi drivers and while creating communities of workers who don’t make living wages. And Airbnb has made it easy for people to find cheap places to stay on vacation, at the cost of rising rents and gentrification for long-term residents who are the heart of what makes any city worth visiting.

But, perhaps more to the point, the Silicon Valley model of disruption, from Facebook and Twitter to ride-sharing and vacation rentals, are predicated on the idea that most people will engage in the marketplace (of ideas and otherwise) as honest actors and ignores the reality that humans, in fact, are all kinds of crappy and self-centered and will do the easy, selfish thing instead of the good thing -– especially on vacation.

And that’s why my problem isn’t really with scooters, per se: They’re environmentally sound because they’re not gas-guzzling automobiles and, used appropriately, could make significant proportions of any downtown area more accessible and livable to residents. But, as currently conceived — sans regulation, licensing or oversight — it seemingly has the effect of making people behave as if there are no rules, even tacit ones, giving them a sudden rush of privilege that irks the living hell out of me and everyone else that has to deal with them.

If people were better, kinder and more courteous than all of human history, modern civilization and literally every moment on the internet suggests, then scooters would be an amazing idea; we’d reduce pollution in the air and congestion on the road. But we are not (though, for some misguided reason, I do hold out hope that, someday, humans will evolve into better beasts).

In the meantime, the end result is death, destruction and pollution — or what economists call “market failures” and suggest are a good reason for some regulation here and there. In Denver, as a result of Jacobsen’s scooter accident outside of Coors Field where the Colorado Rockies play, the ball club instituted a new policy requiring that anyone on a bike, scooter or skateboard to dismount and walk within a two-block radius of the place.

But all it takes is a stroll by the baseball field to see that some people really don’t care about public safety — even their own — and they really don’t care when they’re liquored up. I’ve even seen a pothead too high to operate a scooter at all but try anyway; he thankfully eventually gave up and slowly sauntered toward a nearby pizza joint.

And maybe that’s the solution to the scooter problem: Get high and walk away. Or at least be a better person and, if you are going to operate a scooter in a bustling city, then wear a helmet, look out for unsuspecting people, follow the safety rules and leave the thing in place where no one else will trip over it, have to swim past it or have difficulty maneuvering a wheelchair or walker around it. (And if you’re an insecure, middle-aged man, get a therapist instead of a Corvette.) Everyone else thanks you.