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15th of August 2018

Automotive



Not Just Tech Bros: E-Scooter Fans Are Surprisingly Diverse

You’ve seen the viral photos, heard the viral stories. E-scooters with clipped brakes; e-scooters drowned in lakes. E-scooter in a tree; e-scooter with graffiti. E-scooters caked with poop; e-scooters flown the coop. The backlash against the goofy, electric-powered, but also sort of trendy (?) first mile, last mile option has, by now, reached city halls. There, senior and accessibility groups, plus a strain of anti-elitist, anti-tech politics have worked to characterize scooterers as young, well-heeled wheelers, and out-of-touch and on-the-sidewalk bros.

But city overlords have another, perhaps quieter, constituency to satisfy: scooter lovers. According to a new, multi-city study of residents’ perceptions of electric scooters, this group is actually quite larger and less tech bro-y than its critics might assume.

“You see a lot in the news about electric scooters and cities’ concerns around visual clutter,” says Regina Clewlow, a longtime transportation planner whose new data-crunching startup Populus wrote the report. “It has become a narrative, but it’s not supported by facts.”

The study, which surveyed 7,000-person in 10 cities, found that over half the population in every place studied had a “positive opinion” of scooters in the period between May and July of this year. In some cities—Atlanta, Austin, Denver, Chicago, Washington, DC, and Los Angeles–over 70 percent of residents feel good about scooters. (In San Francisco, though, only 52 percent of respondents supported the things, which might explain all the feces.

Among income brackets, those making between $25,000 to $50,000 a year are the most into the idea, and those making above $200,000 are the least. (One theory, from UC Berkeley transportation researcher Susan Shaheen: lower income urbanites who can’t afford cars appreciate the mobility of scooters, and wealthier residents who do drive find them a street-clogging nuisance.)

And, more women reported a positive perception of scooters (72 percent) than men (67 percent). Populus’s data also indicates that women might be adopting e-scooters more quickly than they have bike-sharing. That may surprise researchers who have spent decades tracking the “gender gap” among cyclists, which shows men are much more likely to use bikes as a transportation option than women. (A Populus analysis of data provided by some bike-share systems found men account for three-quarters of trips.)

This is the first hint that women might see scooters differently. Populus’ data doesn’t say why this is the case, but here are a few theories: E-scooters are easier to ride in restrictive clothing like heels and skirts, the sort some women have to wear to work. Also, women who don’t have access to showers at work might appreciate that e-scooters require very little physical exertion. This appears to be the standing theory of the e-scooter-share unicorn Bird, which did not respond to a request for data on the gender breakdown of its ridership, but wrote in a statement that “Bird scooters are perfect for anyone who wants to replace short car trips with an affordable and fun way to get around—that doesn't entail working up a sweat.” (Its competitor Lime said it could not provide information on the gender of its riders because its data is anonymized, but said a recent survey of bike- and scooter-share users in major urban markets found that over half live in households earning less than $75,000 a year.)1

Jennifer Dill, who studies transportation decision-making at Portland State University, has another theory, based on her and others’ research into what has kept more women from becoming cyclists. She speculates that women are comfortable riding these scooters on the sidewalks, safely separated from cars. “The biggest barrier to riding bicycles for women is concerns about traffic safety,” she says. “This idea of riding something on the sidewalk—women might feel more comfortable with that.”

If that’s true, it creates a problem for cities, where the needs of enthusiastic scooter riders have to be balanced with the needs of other sidewalk users, like those pushing scooters and those who use wheelchairs. In Santa Monica, where Bird scooters first hit the streets, the police department has taken to posting hokey YouTube PSAs dissuading the populace from riding on sidewalks—and threatening to aggressively fine those who do.

The answer to getting more people out of cars and into this sort of active, less emissions-intensive could be more dedicated cycling and scootering infrastructure: dedicated parking, protected bike lanes, even wider sidewalks. Don’t banish the scooter—design the city around it! But building infrastructure takes time, money, and—in communities with small but vociferous opposition—a ton of political capital.

Which is why cities and private companies need more information about who’s using what sorts of transportation. (And why Populus’s broader goal is to provide more specific transportation data and analytics for those who want it.) And the parties want that info fast. The so-called mobility space is stuffed with cash, moving so quickly that everyone is having a hard time keeping track. Electric scooter-share, led by newborn unicorns like Bird and Lime, only started expanding beyond southern California this year. Regulators and private companies have a multitude of questions, the answers to which should help them provide better and more equitable service for everyone. Who uses this new mode of transit? Are scooters sufficiently accessible to everyone? How many scooters does a city need for them to be useful? Are scooter rides actually replacing car rides, as their providers claim? Are they reducing greenhouse gas emissions?

Of course, there are a few caveats here. For one, as anyone who’s ever bought a gym membership can attest, liking something in theory and doing it in practice are different things. It could be that women and low-income people feel great about e-scooters, but don’t end up adopting with them as much unbridled enthusiasm, either because they don’t get around to it or come up against barriers to entry, like not owning a cellphone or a credit card. (Both Lime and Bird have launched programs for low-income households in the past month.)

For two: This study of public feelings around scooters is just a snapshot in time. “It’s early in the deployment of micro-mobility services,” says Clewlow. “Things will change, obviously.” Better keep up.

1Story updated, 7/24/18, 3:30 PM EDT: This story has been updated with additional data from Lime on its bike-share and scooter-share ridership.

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