Tell me if this has happened to you. You are in your car in a big city, moving at a snail’s pace. You see someone walking and you think: would I be better off doing that? But traffic starts moving again. Fifteen minutes later you are stopped again and you see the same walker, now fully a block ahead of you. There must be a better way.
Uber has been a solid option to driving your own car. It has shattered the taxi monopoly and that’s wonderful. It has been an exciting source of income for people who are between jobs or just discovering that gigging around is a better life than being chained to a desk. But New York City is now dealing with the reality that this solution is imperfect. Uber is still a car. It still needs the roads. Some people claim that ride sharing could make matters even worse.
Here’s what amazing. Right now, on the street in midtown Atlanta, there are little electric scooters sitting around. I have a mobile app that tells me exactly where they are. I can walk outside the office and walk up to one. I scan the QR code on the machine. It unlocks. I step on it and push a lever, and zoom! I’m flying down the street, passed traffic and toward where I’m going. I get to a restaurant or whatever and park it. Someone else comes along and snags it and does the same. So on it goes, all day, even all night, all over town.
These wonderful scooters cost $1 to ride and then 15 cents per mile. A single charge on a machine will go 15 miles at 15 miles per hour. You can sign up to become a charger and make between $5 and $20 hour just for plugging the thing in. How is it that they aren’t stolen? If you try to move it without app authorization, the bike lights up and locks. These things go nowhere that the company cannot follow.
I personally find the whole thing amazing. Already, the company in question, Bird, has taken many cities by surprise by dropping hundreds all over town. There are two other companies doing the same (Spin and Lime). They are in San Francisco, Nashville, Austin, Atlanta, Santa Monica, Silver Spring, Washington, D.C., St. Louis, Charlotte, and so on. The companies are competing with each other for first-mover advantage. It makes sense for them to air drop the scooters before crawling to city officials to beg for permission.
And, yes, just as with Uber, there is already a pushback. People are upset that scooters are zooming all over sidewalks when they are supposed to be in bike lanes (if they exist). The sheer newness of the thing, as well as the thrilling fun of riding, is likely causing people to be rather ostentatious with their riding technique, thus annoying some people. Mostly some city governments are upset that no one came begging for the planners to plan before the business began operations.
Nashville, for example, put out a cease and desist order on a company. “Bird scooters have been observed by employees of the Metropolitan Government obstructing the public sidewalk,” Metro attorney Theresa Costonis wrote in a letter to Bird’s government relations director. How terrible! Plus some riders are leaving these things in strange places, mucking up pretty areas of town.
Just as with ride sharing in general, the ethos of “move fast and break things” doesn’t sit well with everyone. But you have to admire the way the companies are proceeding here, perfectly aware that they have more to lose by failing to act than they do from getting in trouble with Councilman Joe and his bureaucratic cohort.
It was Uber who first rattled city administrations with the tactic of act now and deal with permissions later. Many other companies got the message. Despite all the PR and media frenzy, the tactic worked. Governments move much slower than markets. If you want to be a player, you have to act with courage and innovate with speed. Sometimes that means having to disrupt entrenched establishments.
This Is Part of the Solution
It is incredibly obvious once you try this out that this can be an amazing part of the solution to the problem of urban transit that has been part of city life for generations. What’s fascinating here is the method by which the solution is being found. Countless attempts have been made in every city to plan from the top down with new rails, high-occupancy lanes, tolls, carpooling mandates, buses, and so on, but the problem has persisted.
Then came the Internet. Then the app economy. Then the possibility of using them to arrange transport via new companies with new solutions. Then ride sharing. Then micro-rentals. Crucially, we have international trade (China’s Ninebot is a major supplier of the hardware). And now these dazzling little electric scooters popping up all over town. And as is typical in the private sector, the solutions are economically efficient, consumer friendly, effective, and fun too!
Actually, I didn’t like typing the word “private sector” there. It makes no sense. This is a public solution, whereas the typical “public sector” solution feeds the selfish interests of politicians and bureaucrats. Really the words should be switched because the market benefits the public whereas government solutions so obviously benefit private parties. We use the terms as we do simply because market solutions are rooted in private property, but that property benefits everyone.
The rise of the city scooter as part of the app economy is a fantastic example of how markets generate solutions in the face of intractable problems. The more people tool around on these wonderful scooters, the lighter the traffic, the cleaner the city, and the happier people are. Note that no central planner came up with the idea. It has emerged out of discreet forms of market-based innovation using the best of modern technology combined with a perceived solution of a genuine use case.
Now on my scooter, I’m thrilled to buzz right past not only the guy walking but, incredibly, even the drivers on our crowded city streets. Be patient. The market will find a solution to our problems.