I was leaving my favorite food cart in downtown Portland, Oregon when out of the corner of my eye I saw what looked like part of a bicycle frame lying flat in the middle of the sidewalk. “Wow, someone’s definitely going to trip over that,” I thought, stuffing a taco in my mouth. Suddenly, a man walking with his face deep in his smartphone approached the object, set it upright, and, after a couple taps to his phone screen, rode off on it down the sidewalk.
I was mystified. The object I had seen was not a piece of trash, but an e-scooter, the newest technology attempting to disrupt public transportation. I decided in that moment this was something I didn’t like, and continued on my way.
Before long, I was noticing the scooters everywhere — standing outside cafe doors, propped up against trees in the park, clustered around bike racks, casually blocking entire walkways. I soon learned that e-scooters were a new addition to Portland, having arrived in the city on July 25, beginning with models from the mononymed companies Skip, Bird, and, Lime (and perhaps more to come), as part of a four-month trial period.
Listen to Ann's audio diary through Portland on The Outline World Dispatch.
Currently, there are 2,049 e-scooters on Portland’s streets as of August 23, each company having 683, as a spokesman for the Portland Bureau of Transportation confirmed to The Outline, with a maximum total allowance of 2,500. All are banned in city parks. Each company charges a flat $1 fee to unlock the scooter and then $0.15 for every minute that you ride it — though Lime, somewhat annoyingly, requires customers to purchase ride time up front in packages of $10, $20, or $50 with an option to auto-reload. With this last charge structure, Lime, more than its competitors, is the company most pushing for riders to make e-scooters a regular part of their lives.
The biggest distinguishing characteristic between the companies are their models of scooters. Bird’s are light and zippy, but were also the model on which I felt the least stable; Skip scooters are heavier and have a wider base. Meanwhile, Lime scooters felt the most stable, though their payment model really did annoy me. Each of them list maximum speeds at or just below 15 miles per hour, their maximum legal speed in Portland, though reporters at Willamette Week found that some can go faster.
Competition between the three companies is fierce. Each has put hundreds of scooters on the road in an attempt to dominate the market. Skip has even gone so far as to bad-mouth the other companies’ recycling practices in city permit applications. This is no small slight, as “environmental friendliness” is one feature the companies are using gain the approval of users and city officials. Lime, for one, tells you how much carbon you saved after you complete a ride (0.4 miles worked out to 128 grams of carbon). Another plug is contributions to non-car city infrastructure. Bird, which is currently operating in 29 American cities and Paris, pledged in March to give $1 per vehicle per day to the cities in which they operate “so they can build more bike lanes” and recruited four other bike- and scooter-share companies, including Lime, to do the same.
Recently, Skip proposed a program in Portland that would recruit people experiencing homelessness to ride scooters to charging stations "in exchange for a drop-off fee and, at certain times of the day, a hot meal,” according to a transportation application attained by Willamette Week. Additionally, the companies tout themselves as ways to make some extra money in the fragile gig economy. People can sign up to be “juicers” for the startups, collecting scooters at night when service ends, and charging them at home for up to $10 each. Obviously, e-scooters are marketed to the most privileged of us, non-physically disabled people with access to bank cards, smartphones, and the funds required to pay for it all. But the city requires that each company have a “low-income fare option.” and encourages that they offer cash payment options as well.
I’ll always be skeptical of any tech company claiming it can single-handedly bring convenience and equity to a city for a low, low price. But talking to others about the scooters made me question my assumptions about who was actually using them. One coworker told me he had ridden one all around Los Angeles on a recent visit. For him, it was a fun activity that saved him time and money in the car-reliant city. I saw another discussion on a friend’s Facebook page in which one user hailed the scooters for bringing a low-cost, convenient transportation option to their diverse, working-class neighborhood on the outer edges of the city.
I started to think I had been too harsh, that perhaps I, too, could learn to embrace an alternative transportation method woven into the fabric of the modern city’s infrastructure. I resolved to spend a whole day relying only on Portland’s e-scooters to get around.
“Oh my god,” I realized looking down the straight, steady decline. “I’m going to die on an e-scooter.”
On my designated scooter day, I decided to ride one to one of my favorite cafes about 30 blocks, or a 15-minute bus ride, away. Before leaving the house I downloaded the apps for the two other dockless e-scooter share companies in town. All have basically the same rules they make you agree to: that you’re over 18, that you have a driver’s license, and that you’ll wear a helmet at all times. Only one app, Bird, asked me to scan my driver’s license, which I did without thinking twice, and only feel uneasy about now that I’ve typed that sentence.
Finding a scooter took me a bit longer than waiting for the bus would have. The closest blip that showed up on the company’s locator map seemed to be located inside someone’s house, and the next closest one was a few minutes out of my way. Before I hopped on, the app gave me a crash course in operating the scooter that basically applied for each model I tried that week: step on with one foot, push off twice with the other, use your right hand to control the throttle and speed up, your left hand operates the single brake. Easy enough. I was wobbly at first, but I soon caught my groove, zipping along with my bicycling pals through their flat, low-traffic, nicely -paved neighborhood. I felt airy, light, free and wondered if maybe my day on a scooter would be easier than I thought.
But soon enough on my journey I was overwhelmed by longing. I couldn’t help but feel like I was betraying a minor but still important part of my identity: I love public transportation and my bike. For some reason, riding the e-scooter felt like a step too far, chaotic and smug in its whirring electric ease and docklessness. I mulled this over as I watched the bus I would normally take pull away from its stop and head down a hill, the steepness of which I had never really considered before. “Oh my god,” I realized looking down the straight, steady decline. “I’m going to die on an e-scooter.”
(Now is perhaps a good time to mention that, despite multiple warnings and accepting the agreement I didn’t bother to read, I wasn’t wearing a helmet. Stupid, I know. Pre-ride reminders on the apps and stickers on the e-scooters themselves are all very clear about the requirement of wearing a helmet under city law. Public safety and the future of the dockless, e-scooter share industry depends on consumer compliance. Nevertheless, I only saw two e-scooter users wearing them the entire two weeks I was in the city.)
It wasn’t so much the speed and angle of descent that was worrying. It was my brakes. They’re strong, and could instantly stop a scooter hurtling downhill at an incredible speed, but they could do nothing to stop my upright self from flipping over the handlebars and smashing my face into the back end of my beloved bus. I could do nothing more than continuously start and jerk to a stop as cars attempted to avoid hitting me.
I became a combination of the types of commuters I abhor most: people who don’t signal and people who ride on the sidewalk. I lacked the balance and core strength needed to lift one arm off the handlebars to signal a turn, something I can do without thinking on my bike. I took my time slowly turning off onto side streets that all led me back to the busy hill. After about 15 minutes of this, I passed a cafe I knew was mediocre but stopped anyway, ordered a bagel, and settled in. Just before lunch I found the scooter right where I had parked it, rode it up the hill back home, and left it standing on the curb outside.
One of my concerns in relying on a e-scooter to get around was that I wouldn’t be able to find one when I needed one, as they tend to end up clustered in the busiest, most commercial parts of town. The scooter I parked outside my friend’s house remained there for the entire three hours I was there — convenient for me, but not a testament to a healthy sharing program, or so I thought. That afternoon, I returned to the scooter to learn that no one had taken it because I had forgotten to end my previous trip, and would be charged $36. I took this as a symbolic punishment (that became more of a strong warning after a company representative agreed to refund me the full amount of the entire trip) for abandoning normal-commute life in exchange for this more futuristic, capitalistic one.
I’m not alone in my ambivalence. Scooter-mocking is already a national trend. @PDXscootermess, @ScootersBehavingBadly and @birdgraveyard are three Instagram accounts dedicated to highlighting general e-scooter sharing disfunction. Another, @deadbirdsofla, documents tipped over Bird scooters like crime scenes, complete with chalk outlines. More and more similar accounts are bound to pop up. In Portland, there is even a site established to record (anecdotally) how many scooters have been thrown into the Willamette River, which runs through the city.
Here is the part where I admit I didn’t spend all day on a scooter. A kind person (photographer Leah Nash, who took photos of me riding scooters for this story) offered me a ride to my next destination — a Northeast Portland bar 3.7 miles of busy streets, intersections, and hills away — as well as a chance to charge my phone (crucial to scooter life) in her car. I didn’t like the idea of giving up on the scooter, but only for about two seconds. My ankles were weirdly achy, my mind was exhausted from worrying about injuring myself, and I wanted to just get where I was going instead of calculating the relative safety versus expediency of every possible route. The moment the blast of her car’s air conditioning hit my skin, I felt happier than ever to half-ass something.
Later that day, I set out to find another scooter and failed. I walked five minutes to a Bird one that was listed as available only to find that it was “under maintenance” and couldn’t be rented. The rest of that company’s closest scooters were about a mile away, so I switched to the Lime app and located a scooter a couple blocks in the other direction. That one politely told me it was out of battery. Finally, after going a quarter-mile off my route, I found a lone Skip scooter sitting outside of someone’s house. I met my friend for the drink, avoided talking about scooters the whole time and, unable to scooter five-and-half-miles home in the dark, I took a rideshare, feeling guilty only that I didn’t take the bus.
At the end of the day, I spent an hour and 46 minutes on electric e-scooters at a cost of $20.90 (not counting my $36 mistake and the $10 prepay to Lime that I never made full use of). For someone who takes a rideshare everywhere, an e-scooter could be some sort of money saver, but as a bike and bus devotee, I couldn’t see it that way.
When they’re not terrifying, e-scooters are undeniably fun. They’re fast, simple to use, and feel youthful and playful in a way my beloved bus never does. Still, despite the feeling of freedom I got while riding them on smooth, protected multi-use paths, I also felt beholden to my phone, traffic, and the game of continuously hoping a scooter is relatively nearby and adequately charged. Right now, e-scooter shares are nice, like a whimsical donut or a fancy beer. If you don’t have a bunch of stuff to carry or a long way to go, they are absolutely better than cars. There’s no evidence yet that they are any more or less dangerous than bicycles. And still, I can’t bring myself to fully embrace them, bracing for the requisite seedy underbelly moment that complicates any simplistic narrative of the earth-saving tech company crusade.
The next morning, I sipped a latte at a coffee shop’s picnic table on the hill that almost wrecked me the day before and watched two teenagers on a single scooter launch down the street, the boy in the back holding both arms wide like Kate Winslet at the helm of the Titanic. They zipped down the road and up onto the sidewalk and met up with a third teen before all heading uphill on the wrong side of the two-way street. The boy alone on his scooter somehow managed to jump up over the curb and land on the sidewalk only to hurl himself back into the opposite flow of traffic again. “Wow, that looks really unsafe,” my friend said to me. “Yeah, they’re not even wearing helmets,” I replied.