You have to travel around a bit to discover the astonishing way the dockless electric scooter has transformed urban life in America. Where I live in Atlanta, Georgia, their presence is growing by the day, so that they can actually be used as a reliable means of daily transport.
Right now, there are six outside my office waiting to be used. Another six are sitting within one block. In this area of town, there are literally hundreds. And that’s just the ones available, while hundreds more are currently in use.
It’s made a big difference in reducing traffic clogs in midtown Atlanta. You can actually be in a car now without being in stand-still traffic. For the users of scooters, it’s a godsend. No waiting for buses. No hailing cabs. No having to wait for your Uber driver. Instead you just hop on and go.
And I just spent the weekend in Palo Alto, California. Scooters were everywhere, buzzing from place to place. I pointed this out on Twitter, and people started chiming in from all over the country. Scooters are transforming transport in America, in unexpected ways.
Think about this. There was no legislation that passed with great fanfare. There was no headline in the local paper about it. There was no enabling regulations that were debated by legislators and urban planners. One day they were not there and then, suddenly, they were there.
AIER has already run two articles on this topic from last spring. In the meantime, most markets have been penetrated by competitive companies. Bird and Lime are working in most cities. They are both profiting handsomely.
What I admire most is how these companies are responding to market signaling. They know where their scooters are picked up and where they are dropped off. They know when there are too many at one location and not at another. Their supply is responding to the demand, on a day-by-day basis, meeting the needs that consumers demonstrated on a daily and hourly basis.
And look how quickly all of this is taking place! A year ago, hardly anyone could have predicted that our cities would be flooded with electric scooters that work through mobile apps, are not docked in any particular place, and are available to anyone with a smartphone. Lots of things had to come together to make this possible but it is finally here.
I’m delighted by technological shifts that change our lives that are not anticipated by intellectuals or central planners. This is a good case in point. It’s a paradigmatic case of permissionless innovation. It is especially delightful to consider that the science of urban planning, complete with central plans for how everyone should get around the city, has been a professionalized field of study and practice for the better part of a century.
In my lifetime, experts have busied themselves with all kinds of ideas for collective transport as a means of getting people out of their cars and behaving more like the hive. These have included mass transport schemes involving trains and buses, rules concerning vehicle occupancy, rewards for carpooling, and every conceivable scheme for discouraging individuals using their own cars to buzz around the city.
Billions in tax dollars have been spent to realize these plans. But they have all met with limited success at best. Americans love their cars, the claim has been, and nothing will ever change that.
What scooter entrepreneurship realized is that it’s not really about the car as such. It’s about the control the individual has over his or her own transportation experience. It was Uber that provided the great breakthrough technology, enlisted average people to be drivers for other average people, with user and driving ratings as the governing source of order.
The scooter turns out to provide something similar, an individualized experience that takes care of most of what you need to do during the day in the city, whether it is getting lunch, going to the museum, swinging by the bank or Fedex office, or running various sundry errands. You are the master of the tool. You pick it up, you drop it off, and you control the payment system.
What’s striking about the prevailing ethos is how much average people seem to be willing to inveigh against the whole phenomenon. People talk about how scooters are ruining the city, how dangerous they are for drivers, how annoying they are for pedestrians, and why we desperately need intense regulations on these things. Virtually anyone you talk to about these scooters will immediately tell you one of the above things.
Meanwhile, it’s very clear that consumers themselves love these scooters. The whole thing is absolutely delightful. They are arriving in random cities in the middle of the night. You wake up in the morning and there are 500 of them strewn everywhere. People download the app. Within hours, people have found a new way to get around and have fun. It takes months for the legislators and regulators even to figure out what’s going on.
Public officials are panicked. “They just appeared,” Mohammed Nuru, director of the San Francisco Public Works, told the New York Times. “I don’t know who comes up with these ideas or where these people come from.” Spoken like a man who believes that nothing should go on in a city that doesn’t have his direct permission.
To be sure, scooters are not without problems. People can use them in a rude way, rushing pedestrians. They can buzz through intersections without considering the alarm they cause drivers. They can fly through driveways without taking precaution. That said, it is remarkable how few injuries and accidents they have caused given how new they are.
Every new technology arrives without settled norms governing its use. Remember when people used to answer phone calls in restaurants and speak loudly in a way that disrupted the dining room? That doesn’t happen as much anymore because people learned how to use them properly. It will be the same with scooters.
And there is no question that this movement is going somewhere, even to the point that there will be more scooters on the road than cars. Who knows? The beauty of this revolution is that the market is driving it, which is to say that its future depends entirely on the wishes of the consumer rather than the plans of some powerful urban planner.