Democracy Dies in Darkness

Innovations

The life of an electric scooter: Nasty, brutish and often short

July 27, 2018 at 1:07 PM

Dockless scooters stand on a sidewalk in Providence, R.I., on July 20. (Jennifer McDermott/AP)

Once an electric scooter has been released into the urban wild, its life might best be likened to that of a medieval serf — backbreaking labor followed by the strong possibility of an ignominious end.

Scooters that reach their expiration date after being worn down merely by inclement weather, overuse and hazardous potholes are the lucky ones. Many others can expect their final moments to be undeniably barbaric.

Some face death by bonfire, and others are flung into the ocean or tossed from the top of parking garages and bridges, shattering on concrete sidewalks or disappearing into murky waters below. Scooters have also been intentionally run over by trucks or torn apart — limb by electronic limb — by angry drunks and rage-filled teenagers screaming abusive epithets.

At one point, a San Francisco repair shop was inundated with as many as 100 scooters a day, forcing owner Michael Ghadieh to hire three new mechanics.

“The angry people, they were angry,” Ghadieh told CNET. “People cut cables, flatten tires, they were thrown in the bay. Someone was out there physically damaging these things.”

Related: Electric-scooter companies conquer with a simple strategy: Act first, answer questions later

Ghadieh said scooter vandalism has slowed in San Francisco, but it appears to be continuing as scooter companies parachute into cities across the country ahead of regulations, often taking the public and local officials by surprise. Euwyn Poon, co-founder of the scooter company Spin, infuriated critics in a recent on-camera interview with Vice when he described this strategy as “innovating on the regulatory side."

For the past month or so, all manner of scooter executions have been catalogued by “Birdgraveyard,” an Instagram account whose 14,000 followers relish — in mob-like fashion — the destruction of the battery-powered contraptions.

Posts regularly generate hundreds of likes and more than 10,000 views.

Scooter haters claim their destruction is a form of righteous rebellion. The scooters are not “last mile” transportation solutions, they argue, so much as the greedy tentacles of Silicon Valley brands wrapping themselves around public sidewalks. Others consider the scooters symbols of a troubling shift from public to “private” transportation, a change that places important decisions about how cities operate in the hands of multibillion-dollar companies thousands of miles away.

For still others, destroying scooters offers a nihilistic release.

“Smashing scooters is just funny,” the account administrators of Birdgraveyard told Vice. “It’s amusing when people come to the page and do not get why it’s funny. If you can’t laugh at a ride-share scooter being lit on fire at a house party, that’s a problem with you. There’s nothing in the Constitution that says we all have to respect and love brands.”

Related: Electric scooters might revolutionize urban transport — if it wasn’t for humans

Not surprisingly, scooter companies disagree. Although companies declined to release data about the average life span of their products — which differs depending on terrain, market and usage — they say they do applaud when people report vandalism of their products and when law enforcement investigates.

“We do not support the vandalism or destruction of any property and are disappointed when it takes place,” the scooter company Bird said in a statement. “Nor do we support the encouragement, celebration or normalization of this behavior.”

Lime, another scooter company, said its bikes and scooters are equipped with GPS mapping technology, making it easy to track their location if the company suspects a scooter has been stolen or vandalized. Lime noted that its products also contain sensors that are able to track when someone is trying to tamper with the device.

Related: Review: LimeBike’s new dockless scooters are a whimsical ride but not a practical one

“Lime does not tolerate vandalism of any kind,” the company said in a statement. “If anyone witnesses a potential incident of vandalism, we ask that they please immediately report it so our team can take the appropriate measures.”

“Out of the 35,000+ scooters and bikes Lime has across the country, only a few have been vandalized, which is consistent with the low rate of vandalism and theft — less than 1 percent — we experience nationwide,” the statement added.

Yet, scooter companies may not need their products to live a long life to make money off them. Spin told Reuters that the company “recoups the cost of a scooter in two to three weeks.”


Peter Holley is a technology reporter at The Washington Post. Before joining The Post in 2014, he was a features writer at the Houston Chronicle and a crime reporter at the San Antonio Express-News.

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