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Scooting In South Florida

Bird electric scooters parked on a sidewalk.
photo by Tim Evanson

On a trip to Los Angeles this summer, I noticed something odd: a huge number of electric scooters parked on curbs, seemingly at random, throughout the city.

I asked my Uber driver if all these scooters belonged to local residents. She explained that they were available for rent to anyone who downloaded an app. Her explanation led me to ask a flurry of other questions: You can just leave the scooters anywhere? What happens when the battery dies? What stops people from stealing them? She answered the first two: “mostly” and “the company employs people to pick them up and charge them,” respectively. As for the third question, an internet search suggested that there’s little to keep you from taking the scooters, but that they aren’t very useful if you don’t pay to unlock them with the app.

While my first encounter with the phenomenon was in August, electric scooters have appeared in major cities and on college campuses since early 2018. Scooters powered with electric motors have been around for a while, but the recent innovation is the technology allowing for short-term rentals. Like many other startups, notably including ride-hailing services like Uber, scooter companies have largely opted to ask forgiveness rather than permission from new locations, dropping scooters on sidewalks sometimes seemingly overnight. This has led cities and states to scramble to try to fashion rules that balance the needs of pedestrians, drivers and potential scooter renters.

Bird electric scooters parked on a Fort Lauderdale sidewalk.
Photo by Jeffrey Howard.

Electric scooters rolled into my hometown of Fort Lauderdale, Florida in November, along with rules from the city regulating their operation. The Transportation Division will allow up to four operators to maintain initial fleets of between 150 and 500 dockless scooters, bikes and e-bikes (a technology that has faced its own legal challenges in other cities). Three of those four operator slots are currently occupied by businesses that rent scooters: Bird and Bolt, which are strictly scooter companies, and Lime, which also offers rental bikes and e-bikes. In just a few weeks, electric scooters had become popular enough that our office’s landlord sent an email to tenants explaining where we should and should not park scooters, complete with photo do’s and don’ts.

I figured that if I planned to write a blog post about e-scooters, it was only fair that I give one a try. I grabbed my colleague Jeff Howard, who grabbed his camera, and we headed out to give Bird a try.

I found the Bird app inclined to glitch when I first tried to set it up. Users need to scan a QR code on the scooter’s handlebars with their smartphone, but I had trouble getting the app to read the scan. Then I tried to enter the code manually, but the app would not accept that attempt either. Eventually, I restarted my phone, which seemed to solve the problem. I also needed to scan my driver’s license, since you need a valid one in order to use the service. The license serves as proof of age too, because Bird only rents to users 18 years old and older. The app found scanning my license as difficult as scanning the scooter’s QR code, but eventually it accepted one of my attempts.

After I got the scanning sorted out, I agreed to the rental agreement’s terms and conditions, and I e-signed a waiver and release of liability. Then I was finally ready to get underway.

I familiarized myself with the scooter’s stop and go levers, and was almost immediately cruising up and down the street. While the app was frustrating to set up, the scooter itself was simple and enjoyable to use. Now that I have an account, I look forward to using Bird scooters in the future; they are certainly a fun and convenient means of transportation. For short trips around downtown Fort Lauderdale, scooters are more convenient than driving and the subsequent hassles of finding and paying for parking. They will also beat walking on very hot days, especially if you don’t want to arrive at your destination looking as if you’ve just finished 90 minutes of hot yoga.

The cost for riders is reasonable, too. Bird users pay a $1 flat fee, plus 20 cents per minute of ride time. My ride lasted nine minutes, for a total fee of $2.80. Bolt and Lime price their electric scooters similarly. While I doubt I would ever spend hundreds of dollars on an e-scooter of my own, I can easily see spending $3 for a 10-minute trip fairly regularly.

During our scooter test run, Jeff and I met a “charger” – one of the people Bird pays to collect scooters that are low on battery power. He was unloading scooters from his car and parking them neatly along a sidewalk. The charger was happy to talk to us, and he explained that Bird provides him with battery chargers that he can use at home. He makes the rounds, picking up scooters with low batteries (identified in Bird’s app), and charges them overnight. Once the scooters are charged, he parks them in various areas within the city. The process seemed simple enough, and he mentioned that it was a nice way to earn some extra income.

Shomari Hearn posing with Bird electric scooter.
The author on a Bird scooter.
Photo by Jeffrey Howard.

While I came out of my initial experience a scooter fan, electric scooters have caused controversy in many of the places they have arrived. Many of these concerns center on safety; some critics worry that pedestrians will inevitably suffer at the hands of riders zipping along sidewalks at up to 15 mph, while others point out that few scooter riders will bother with helmets, leaving them vulnerable to injury from falls.

Like any other form of transportation, riders need to act responsibly. Before you get on a scooter, familiarize yourself with both the company’s rules and any regulations in place for your city or state. For example, in Fort Lauderdale, e-scooters are allowed most places that bikes are allowed. In areas where the speed limit is 35 mph or less, scooter riders are encouraged to use bike lanes where they exist. In most places here, you can ride on sidewalks, though Bird reminds users that they must always yield to pedestrians. Other locales ban sidewalk trips at all times. Both Fort Lauderdale and Bird recommend, but do not require, that riders wear a helmet; some cities, including Santa Monica, California, have made this mandatory.

Parking is also a matter of being polite and using common sense. In Fort Lauderdale, parked scooters must leave 4 feet of clearance for pedestrians and must be kept clear of various obstacles such as building entrances, fire hydrants, handicap-accessible ramps and bus stops. In order to ensure that riders are playing by local rules, many scooter companies now require that you end your ride by taking a photo of your parking job; if you park poorly too often, you may lose your scooter privileges, at least with a particular company.

Operating any motor vehicle while intoxicated is a very bad idea. This goes for scooters as much as for any other method of transportation. I can see people convincing themselves that renting a scooter is better than driving under the influence, and then becoming a danger to drivers, pedestrians and themselves in consequence. You can also get a DUI citation, even on a scooter. As always, if you have been drinking, you need to let someone else do the driving, at any speed.

Still, even with these caveats, I think the electric scooters will be a boon for cities and colleges that allow them to stay. I look forward to scooting around downtown Fort Lauderdale myself, and I hope other Floridians also make the most of this new option.

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