A city is never its stereotype, and just as you can ride the New York subway without stepping into a pile of rats, and order a slice of pizza in Chicago that does not come in the shape of a doorstop, you can walk around Los Angeles, like people do anywhere else. Nonetheless, there are hindrances to crossing the City of Angels by foot. The hills wreak havoc on your ankles; the blocks somehow last forever; the cars constantly zipping by remind you that you could be traveling so much faster, if you just sucked it up and opened Uber.
I was recently in L.A. for a week, and on my second day there found myself exhausted by the prospect of an hour-long walk down Sunset Boulevard in order to reach a bookstore I’d read about in order to buy another book I did not need, yet reluctant to hop into a car. Then, on the sidewalk, as if by fate, appeared a humble solution: a Lime electric scooter, a ridesharing mode of transportation that has become an increasingly popular form of transit across the country. My L.A. friends rolled their eyes when I brought it up to them later, saying that using one marked you as a tourist; some of them even said they’d begun to hurl them into the trash on sight.
Even so, I was a tourist, and I had somewhere to be. I downloaded the Lime app and registered for an account. I dutifully read the instructions — get a running start, okay, push the button on the right handle to accelerate, got it, squeeze the left handle to brake, seems fine — and hopped on. This was the vacation experience I’d been craving — accessible speed, the wind blowing through my hair! I unlocked the scooter, and pushed off.
This is how far I made it:
Let me explain. The scooters are engineered to accelerate quickly, toward a max speed of around 15 mph, so even though I’d delicately pressed the “go” button I still shot down the sidewalk like a dog yanking its owner by the leash. I immediately braked, which required me to push off again as I gave the acceleration a second try. My less-judgmental L.A. friends told me you could scoot on the sidewalks, even though you’re not supposed to, but Sunset was decently crowded, and I soon braked again as I encountered the insurmountable obstacle of two people walking side-by-side.
Two options presented themselves: 1. Slow the scooter down to walking speed in order to weave around the passersby (thus negating the point of using a scooter), and 2. Use the scooter in the street, as intended by the manufacturers. But Sunset was crammed with traffic, the bike lane seemed inoperable, and I didn’t have a helmet (not that I would’ve worn it, but still). Too scared to adjust to the street, and too morally conscious to insist on navigating the busy sidewalk, I stopped at the end of the block, parked the scooter, and closed my session. I was still a tourist, I was out a few dollars for my trouble, and I hadn’t gone far at all.
Many cities are already infested with scooters. L.A., Austin, Portland, Chicago. New York is going to follow, though not in Manhattan, and the city was just blessed with the Revel moped rideshare app. Like Uber, their legalization will bring a speedy adoption; soon, the streets and sidewalks will teem with scooters in all their colors and variants, manned by users who, if they have an ounce of self-awareness, must know they’re hated by everyone on foot.
There are benefits. A few hours after my aborted trial, I decamped to a quieter, bourgeois stretch of L.A. and unlocked another scooter. With no cars on the street, I glided along the asphalt carefree; when a car did appear, I turned onto the unoccupied sidewalks, slowing down only to avoid a crack. What might have been a 50-minute walk turned into a 22-minute scoot, costing just $4.30. Through the week, whenever I found myself in a relatively quieter area, I freely used the Lime and Lyft (which offers scooters in participating cities, in addition to cars) apps to find a nearby ride, so that I might cruise along. One morning, I readily used a scooter to visit something called “Eggslut.” The walk would’ve taken 15 minutes, but with the scooter was just seven — efficiency I could literally put a price on. (It was $2.05.) They’re also more forgiving for people with physical limitations, as they require less effort than bicycles.
Still, the clutter. Beyond their active use, there’s also the unsightly presence of inactive scooters dotting every street — which, even if they are not flat out discarded and kicked over, obscure the path for walkers. Yes, many cities are already covered with trash, but “adding more trash” is a galaxy brain solution to solving it. More dangerous is the scooters’ speed, which turns every person into a makeshift weapon. Even if helmet use could be prescribed and enforced, they wouldn’t protect the human on the receiving end of a 15-mph battering ram. During my inaugural, three-minute ride, I became convinced I was either going to kill myself by veering off the sidewalk at an unmanageable speed, or kill someone else by veering into them.
More worryingly about this is the fact that you don’t need any training or certification in order to sign up for Lime — just an active state ID and a credit card. When you see someone riding a scooter, it’s possible they’re doing so for the first time, and are still mastering the quirks that come with each brand. In that sense, we’re deputizing an entire city of people, all with their own unique characteristics that may or may not enable them to easily learn how to use a scooter, into hurtling down the streets and sidewalks at the killing speed. Accidents and accidental deaths have already happened. The scooters are accessible at any time, everywhere, by almost anyone — including me, who doesn’t have a drivers’ license.
Scooters are pitched as a disruption of the car economy, as well as the activity of, uh, walking. Their popularity may also force some hard conversations about how we design cities, and who we design them for, as some smart writers have pointed out. It’s possible that in a few years, all cities will modernize streets and sidewalks into scooter-friendly spaces. Maybe better bike lanes, too! The odds are against it, given what anyone with two brain cells knows about the political process, but it’s possible.
I’m not concerned about laws and spaces, however; I’m concerned about people. In L.A. every single person who rides a scooter on the sidewalk — including yours truly — is ignoring the law and social convention, despite what my friends told me. The scooters say not to do it; the app says not to do it; still, people do it. You’re not supposed to use them on the boardwalk along the beach, either, but I saw people doing that, too. They got nasty looks, but still they kept going. The pointed abdication of civic responsibility — to abide by either the established social or legal norms of a shared space, in order to maximize pleasure for everyone — is hardly unique to scooter users, but the rapid adoption of the technology will make for an awkward learning curve.
Scooters ask the user to actively consider how much of a social inconvenience they want to be; how much they want to force other people to walk carefully, lest a speeding scooter nudge into them, or step to the side when they see one approaching. But the only penalty for doing so is shame, which just isn’t enough of a deterrent. The worst part— and I found this to be extremely true, as I continued to use them — is that they’re so fun and convenient that it just doesn’t matter what other people are thinking about you as you blow past them.
In the empty parts of the city — literally, when I didn’t see another person for blocks — the scooters were a blast. Around people, I eventually concluded that they were a scourge, both on the street and the sidewalk. They take me where I want to go, faster than I thought was possible when just on foot. They take me farther away from other people, too. I know what you’re thinking: Who cares about other people? But the tradeoff might not be worth it and walking, after all, is free.