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The electric scooters swarming our city won’t solve our commuting calamity

Young professionals weave their way through Washington on rented electric scooters.
Young professionals weave their way through Washington on rented electric scooters. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

What we really want are jet packs and flying cars, okay?

We need to George Jetson and Marty McFly our way out of our traffic and commuting calamity. Light rail, Mag-Lev, even a reliable Metro would work, too.

The electric scooters swarming our city this summer?

Not the answer.

They’re like what happens if my son’s fifth grade squad took over the city planning commission and PeeWee Herman was their board chairman.

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve tried the scooters, and they’re totally fun, cheap and effective. They are perfect answer to what used to be a sweaty, five-block walk in between meetings in downtown D.C.

But many of the 65 or so U.S. cities — from Washington to San Francisco — are confounded by what to do with the traffic newcomer. Should the motorized scooters be regulated like cars? Bikes? Or pedestrians?

More shared scooters are coming to D.C.’s streets

Government folks, who love a good committee hearing, are miffed by the way the new economy goes about these things. The main scooter companies — born in the West Coast’s tech sector — soft open their product by dropping the scooters in cities, then negotiating with frazzled city councils later.

It’s the ethos borrowed from one of the tech world’s earliest disrupters, computer programmer and Rear Admiral Grace Hopper, who famously said “It’s easier to ask forgiveness than it is to get permission.”

So here they are, thousands of whizzing electric scooters, dropped on cities with little planning. Drivers hate seeing them flit into streets, pedestrians get jangled when one whizzes by close enough to ruffle arm hairs.

They are various shades of legal just about everywhere.

New York City is trying to regulate them before the companies release them into the wild.

In Maryland, Montgomery County launched a preemptive bill to avoid the guerrilla launch that is the hallmark of the dockless ride industry.

In Virginia, Arlington County was forced to draft something last month when the scooters showed up without warning. D.C. has a pilot program allowing a certain number of the dockless scooters that ends this week.

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

I’m not cheezed off they’re being left in the middle of sidewalks and streets, though Twitter is filled with photos of folks unhappy Washington suddenly looks like my living room. I have boys, so I’m constantly dodging flying objects and stepping over things.

And this isn’t another old-person rant about being buzzed by one on the sidewalk — though that did happen to me three times in one 10-minute trip last week, first by a scooter, then by a dude in a black helmet and a motorized skateboard, then by a guy on something that looked like a Robotic vacuum cleaner he rode like the cave man in the B.C. comic strip.

That’s not my beef with these things. Here’s my problem: the variety of devices on our streets — combined with the epic and enduring bikes-versus-pedestrians saga — will keep sucking the air out of a transportation conversation that has to become more urgent.

Scooters are a tiny solution for a tiny population.

The very first scooters I saw were flying manbuns.

The method of transportation is largely the arena of the hoodie and backpack crowd, though I have seen more tourists jumping on over the past few weeks.

A recent survey of 7,000 scooter riders in 10 cities showed the scooter crowd is growing a bit more diverse, with women renting scooters more than they used bike shares and low-income folks becoming more frequent users, according to transportation think tank Populus.

Maybe. But the way it looks from the road, they are primarily being used by mobile, agile young folks who can no longer be bothered with Metro or bus schedules or walking. They’re not taking a car off the road, they’re taking a rider out of public transportation.

And who could blame them? I’ve ditched Metro dozens of times because I needed to be on time. To make massive scooter use feasible, we need California weather 365 days a year and infrastructure — lanes — to safely support all those riders. Isn’t it more humane to work on bigger solutions instead?

The world of electric scooters does little for the construction workers, hospitality workers, janitors, maids and nurses who live in cheaper housing outside the city and have to crawl through pre-dawn gridlock to drop the kids at day care and get to work or take three buses each way to their jobs.

I don’t see secretaries from Germantown, teachers from Bowie or paralegals from Falls Church solving all their commuting woes by scootering to work.

Great fun and hoorah for a whole generation of young workers who will never know the experience of being groped or hounded on Metro, but the personal wheels are a zero for real change.

Stop comparing D.C. to Disney

This debate began years ago with Segways. Then people lost their minds over where to put BikeShare racks. Here we are, a decade later, bickering over scooters on sidewalks while Metro still struggles.

The energy spent on micromanaging the street toys of the young needs to go into real infrastructure and development.

We used to be a nation of builders, of movement and innovation. Our decaying public transportation is becoming a joke while cowboy entrepreneurs — Uber and Lyft among them — come in with innovative solutions that fix a hole, but do little for an entire system.

“The change reflects deliberate choices in public policy. During the Obama years, Republicans fought fiercely against any increase in public investment in mass transit and advanced rail systems,” wrote Ronald A. Klain, a former Obama and Clinton White House adviser in a Washington Post opinion piece in June. “In 2016, decrying the crumbling state of our public infrastructure, President Trump promised that he would pass the largest infrastructure bill in U.S. history during his first 100 days in office. More than 500 days into his presidency, the bill still hasn’t even been drafted.”

Instead, we’re supposed to fix traffic with techbro scooters at 15 cents a minute.

Twitter: @petulad

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