The whimsy of the idea appeals to me: a city dotted with scooters, beckoning to anyone who fancies a ride to work with a side of childhood nostalgia.
But in reality, I’m not sure when I would ever want to use a dockless scooter, the latest entry into the District’s growing menu of transportation options. I’m not sure when anyone else would, either.
My review, after sampling the scooters recently dropped on D.C. sidewalks by the private company LimeBike with the District Department of Transportation’s blessing, is that the sleek green and black scooters suffer from flaws in design. More significantly, LimeBike and other scooter companies haven’t made the case for when exactly an adult would use a scooter for regular transportation, and how a scooter ought to fit into the traffic patterns of our crowded streets and sidewalks. And for a dubiously useful trip, the price is surprisingly high.
Let’s start with the scooters themselves, 50 of which LimeBike parked last month in the District. Companies Waybot and Bird are also testing dockless electric scooters in Washington. On a recent morning before 6 a.m., LimeBike’s app showed scooters available in every quadrant: scooters awaiting riders from 16th Street Heights to Cathedral Heights to Georgetown to the Arboretum to Deanwood to Southern Avenue, and two outside the District in Crystal City.
They’re quite sturdy. On the sidewalk, they stand on their own, thanks to a small kickstand, taking up less space than a dockless bike. On the move, it’s easy to stand with both feet on the elevated platform. Balancing is no problem.
While I wasn’t worried about falling (though it can happen), I was somewhat worried about breaking an ankle. The platform feels higher off the ground than the childhood scooter I remember. Every time I wanted to push off the ground, I had to really bend my knee, not just dip my foot down. Do that when you’re moving very fast, and it’s easy to imagine hitting at the wrong angle.
That Razor scooter of my childhood also had another advantage over the LimeBike scooters: the handlebar was adjustable to a wide range of heights. The LimeBike handle comes at only one height, which for me, a fairly short person at 5-foot-2, seemed a bit too high. For a tall person, on the other hand, I would imagine holding onto the handlebars would require hunching.
Where the LimeBike scooter aims to elevate the childhood Razor to valid adult transportation is in one very significant addition: a motor.
On the one hand, this is a dream. With just the pressure of a thumb, you can chug along with ease, blazing downhill and moving fairly steadily uphill without ever needing to propel yourself by foot unless you want the extra momentum.
On the other hand, it’s not perfect. The motor protests, in a whine, throughout uphill legs. The brakes screech, too, and don’t allow a rider to apply much variable pressure. There’s no gradual slowing down on this scooter; either you’re riding, or you’re suddenly braking.
The scooters, which for some reason include a tiny electronic screen telling you how fast you’re going, say they can get up to almost 15 miles per hour. But the lack of control over speed strongly suggests to me that you should never consider riding one of these in a crowded bike lane. The bike lanes are already frustrating enough for cyclists, with cars and pedestrians frequently using them in ways they’re not meant to be used. Someone puttering along on a scooter, unable to speed up or slow down, rightfully would drive most cyclists crazy. The bike lanes are for bikes.
Riding one of these in the street with cars also seems incredibly foolhardy. So that leaves the sidewalk — which basically rules the scooters out for most trips downtown, even though LimeBike has been leaving plenty of them on street corners there.
The first trip I took on one of these seemed like an almost perfect case for using a scooter. In a typical day for a religion reporter, I had taken Capital Bikeshare to the Museum of the Bible in Southwest. Then I took a Jump electric bikeshare bike up the Metropolitan Branch Trail to meet some Mormon missionaries in Edgewood. I grabbed another Jump to head over to Washington Hebrew Congregation, five miles west, but decided to stop for a few minutes at my house in Mount Pleasant.
When I came back outside, the Jump bike that I had locked there was out of service. Apparently it was low on battery.
What to do? I had to get to the synagogue fast. There wasn’t a reasonable bus route or a very close Capital Bikeshare station, and it was too far to walk in the time I had. I checked the Transit app on my phone, hoping one of the four dockless bikeshare companies would happen to have a bike nearby. I was in luck: Just a block away, there was a little green dot, a rarity in my residential neighborhood. I raced over, assuming I’d be pedaling a LimeBike to the synagogue.
To my surprise, I found not a bike but a scooter. With no time left to question my choice, I put on my bike helmet and hopped on, giggling a bit as I pushed off and started rolling down the sidewalk.
It took 26 minutes, about the same amount of time it would have taken to bike. The entire route was either along Park Road NW, which has good sidewalks, or on residential streets. There couldn’t be a much better route for a scooter — a trip too long to just walk, that doesn’t offer a reasonable bus or Metro route, that doesn’t start or end downtown. (How many of your daily trips match all three of those? For many of us, not a lot.)
And yet even in near-perfect conditions, I still wouldn’t be inclined to do it again — in part because listening to the motor whine and worrying about bothering the pedestrians on the sidewalk for 26 minutes wasn’t entirely fun, and in larger part because I think, at some point, I would break my ankle, and in largest part because of the price.
Capital Bikeshare and Jump generally cost $2 per half-hour; the other bikeshare companies, including LimeBike, generally charge $1 per half-hour. The scooters charge by the minute. I let someone else try out the scooter for two minutes after I arrived, so my 28-minute trip came to $5.20.
That’s a fine price for a fun spree, and perhaps these scooters will become mostly joyriding vehicles for tourists. But it’s far too high above the cost of a bike or a bus, if LimeBike expects Washingtonians to choose scooters for our daily commutes. To keep the cost of a scooter ride under $2, so it’s not more expensive than the base fare for Metrobus, you’d have to keep your scooter trip under seven minutes.
I’m all in favor of the expanding range of transportation options in the District. But I’d recommend that LimeBike use the 400 vehicles allotted to it by the District Department of Transportation mostly on bikes rather than scooters. The apparatus is better, and the infrastructure exists for it.
And flying down the road on a bike can make you feel just as much like a kid.