Angry, red-faced emoji are popping up in the comments section on my neighborhood’s online social networks. Blood pressures have spiked. Nobody’s dog is peeing on another neighbor’s edible herb garden. What’s dominating the Facebook and Next Door rants is a new fad for getting around town: scooters.
Someone smeared dog poop on the handlebars of a row of scooters parked along a sidewalk. Another neighbor confessed he was tempted to throw scooters in our local wetlands pond — as some residents have done in other cities.
The animosity astonished me, even though I wasn’t a huge scooter fan myself at first. For a while, I viewed scooters the way I thought of snowboards back in the 1980s: a swarm of irritating new toys ridden by reckless teenagers who put skiers in danger. But it didn’t take long to realize my preference for gliding downhill on two planks wasn’t any more or less important than another’s preference to go down on one. The key is to share the mountain safely.
Even so, as a runner and a walker, I was wary of scooters when I heard a pilot program had been approved for Alexandria, Va., where I live. Scooters had already invaded nearby Washington, where six companies have provided nearly 4,000 of the electric vehicles for zipping around, according to the District Department of Transportation.
And I knew that even as they may present an inventive new opportunity to cut down on traffic and offer inexpensive transportation, they have also raised public health questions.
One evening last year, I set out for a peaceful, prayerful walk toward the Tidal Basin by the Jefferson Memorial. I said the words “God!” and “Jesus!” all right — just not the way I planned. When I stepped ever so slightly to the left, a scooter nearly knocked me down. The rider had rocketed out of nowhere from behind. The same thing happened to one of my co-workers.
“It’s not like I walk around with a rearview mirror attached to my head!” she said.
Because they’re quiet, and fast for sidewalk traffic (about 15 mph), I never knew when I’d have to dodge another one. Scooters come under criticism even when nobody’s on them. Their dockless feature means some people leave them in illegal places, such as blocking service ramps, or irresponsible places, such as in the middle of the sidewalk. Even when riders park them properly — upright without blocking rights of way and not on private property — scooters can fall over in the wind and end up where they don’t belong.
But on a work trip to Austin, I needed a quick and easy way to maneuver around the city. “Try a scooter,” my colleague suggested. The app on my phone had an icon of a frame and two wheels that showed me where the nearest one was. I used the app’s prompt to scan the QR (matrix bar code) on the handlebars, which unlocked the scooter. A flip of the kickstand, a couple of pushes off the pavement, a slight press on the throttle, and I was off — and hooked.
With wind flapping my hair, I had the sense of floating as I zoomed around downtown. It was as if Isaac Asimov’s vision of accelerating strips, his road and sidewalk conveyor belts, had come true, except even better, since I could control exactly where to go.
Back in Alexandria, I began to use scooters for short trips: to pick up a forgotten item at the grocery store; to attend a local meeting; to swing by the smoothie place. The idea of driving a three-ton vehicle two miles in excessive traffic and circle city blocks looking for metered parking suddenly seemed foolish and impractical.
Scooters are nifty for sightseeing. They’re readily available and don’t take up much space. They’re cheaper than other forms of transportation, and they have a low carbon footprint. You can roll right up to a light or stop sign as cyclists do instead of waiting behind a line of cars.
“They’re freakin’ fun!” says Jim Joseph, a friend who, like me, tried a scooter for the first time in Austin.
After business meetings, Joseph used a scooter to hop to a restaurant to eat with colleagues.
“At dinner, I remember thinking, ‘I can’t wait to get outta here so I can ride that damn scooter again,’ ” Joseph says.
He acknowledges riding scooters comes with a risk. “There’s no air bag on those things. If you hit a squirrel, you’re going down.”
One investigation published in JAMA Network Open showed that nearly 95 percent of scooter riders don’t wear helmets. Another study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Austin Public Health reported that, out of 936,110 scooter rides over a three-month period in Austin in 2018, 190 riders sought emergency care for scooter-related injuries.
Nearly half were head injuries and, of those, 15 percent were traumatic brain injuries, such as concussions and brain bleeds. Only one of the 190 injured riders was wearing a helmet at the time of the accident.
“The reason why helmets are such an important thing is that your brain is located in your head,” says Chris Lang, an Inova Fairfax Hospital emergency room physician who has treated many scooter injuries.
“You can repair a broken bone, but a head bleed can result in a death or near-death experience,” Lang says. “There’s also slower bleeds that can cause long-term effects, like memory and speech loss.”
I do wear a helmet. And I try to stick to the emptier back roads.
I also always ride alone, another safety tip Lang recommends.
“We see a lot of issues when there is more than one person on a scooter. Two or three go on top of them.”
Lang has treated head trauma, broken bones, shoulder dislocations and hip injuries. “Wrist fractures are the most common. People fall on an outstretched hand,” he says.
Here’s another problem: Where, exactly, do scooters belong? They’re viewed as a nuisance on the sidewalks because of the potential for collisions with pedestrians, yet cruising in the streets with traffic doesn’t seem ideal either because distracted drivers may not notice them and scooters aren’t sturdy enough to protect their riders.
The rules can be confusing. Scooter riders are often told to ride with bikes, but scooters aren’t allowed on my local bike trail or on Alexandria’s sidewalks, even though bikes are allowed on most of the city’s sidewalks. Miami permits scooters on sidewalks. Atlanta forbids it. In Nashville last month, Mayor David Briley decided to postpone dealing with the tension by recommending a ban on scooters.
Whether on streets or sidewalks, situational awareness is essential, says Bonita Banerjee, an emergency physician for Kaiser Permanente’s Tysons Corner Medical Center. “Recognize that drivers and pedestrians alike aren’t used to seeing you. Be prepared to slow down.”
Phil Jones, senior director of East Coast government relations for Lime, a scooter company, agrees that riders need to learn how to conduct themselves properly. This includes “parking, riding, and knowing the rules of the road and obeying traffic signals,” he says. Renting scooters requires taking an in-app tutorial, which offers parking and safety information. But who knows how many riders swipe through it dismissively? And some tutorials may not cover critical material such as the proper way to make a left-hand turn across a four-lane-divided thoroughfare.
Arlington resident Cindy Phoel was taking her dog to the vet last October when she drove down such a road. She was in the far right-hand lane and noticed a mail carrier walking across all four lanes of traffic from the left. Phoel yielded to the mail carrier. Next, she took her foot off the brake. Then: a collision. She saw a man’s hand pinched between her car and a pair of handlebars.
“I got T-boned by a scooter!” she says.
The rider had run into the left side of her car while crossing the four lanes of traffic.
“He seemed as baffled as I was,” Phoel says.
From what she could piece together, the rider, scooting in the opposite direction from her, turned left to try to follow the path of the mail carrier. Nobody was seriously hurt. A nearby police officer determined the rider was in the wrong.
Phoel apologized. The rider apologized. Both were shaken.
Phoel isn’t a fan of scooters, but she now believes drivers need to be educated about how to share the roads with them.
“I have a feeling if you become a serious scooter person, you will learn how to use a scooter. How do you get the mom in the minivan to know how to handle you? Nobody has said, ‘Treat a scooter like a bike.’ ”
Jones says that one way to educate people is for scooter companies to partner with cities to improve infrastructure. Building more protected bike lanes for scooters to share seems like a start. A paper published in June in the Journal of Transport and Health showed a strong link between good biking infrastructure and lower fatality and injury rates for both bikers and people in cars. The Netherlands, a biking country which has one of the highest road safety levels in Europe, has separate cycle lanes so that bikes aren’t in traffic with cars.
I’d love to see scooters, bikers and walkers replace lots of cars in my neighborhood. If enough people use them, scooters could significantly improve traffic congestion. What we need, along with a willingness to share the roads and sidewalks, is more effort to figure out how to accommodate these new circumstances.
J.D. Dolan, 34, who works for a leadership and management consulting firm, used to roll his eyes at scooters on his commute from Annapolis to Washington. “I’d see these D.C. professionals that are working, making major decisions of strategic impact, riding on kids toys. It seemed ridiculous.”
But when he relocated to Blagden Alley in Northwest Washington, a mile from his office, he tried a scooter one morning. “There’s no impact. You’re not sweating. You’re not crinkling your suit. And it was super cheap. It was $2.50 or $4, way less than an Uber.”
He loved it so much he bought one.
I just might join him.