I’m not going to lie. I’m a country bumpkin. A hick from the sticks, you might say. In my hometown, there are no shared electric kick scooters. In the biggest city regionally, El Paso, they’re just getting them. For those of you who live in places with scooters on the sidewalks everywhere, this is probably old news, but my habit of living in the hinterlands does give me a unique perspective on the scooter phenomenon. I do ride one from time to time, but then I’m away from them for months at a time. When things change, I don’t experience it gradually.
My first experience with shared scooters was in 2018 when they rolled into Tempe, Arizona. A dynamic college town in the Phoenix metro area, they were willing to allow Bird to operate there before more cautious cities in the area were. My first ride was kind of cool, but less than impressive.
The scooters of the time were mostly based on the Xiaomi M365. While beefier than the Razor kick scooters that were popular in the late 90s, the scooter was still small and somewhat unstable. Cracks in the sidewalk, places where tree roots had lifted a segment, and uneven pavement in bike lanes all felt pretty iffy. After several test rides, I could see why people were afraid to take them anywhere but the sidewalks, which is where most of the problems with them happen.
My most recent experience with scooters in Los Angeles (November 2019) was quite different. After reports that the old basic scooters were breaking too quickly to turn a profit, the scooters companies introduced much beefier scooters. The decks are bigger, the wheels have larger diameters, and everything is thicker. The Bird and Lyft scooters I rode were a far better experience.
Looking at the mechanics of it, the larger diameter wheels is probably the big thing making a difference. With more rotating mass, there is a greater gyroscopic stabilizing effect. Also, larger diameter wheels make the harshness of bumps comparatively smaller in the same way a 29er mountain bike goes over terrain better than a not-that-much-smaller 26″ bike. This time around, I wasn’t afraid to use the bike lane when renting a scooter, because cracks in the sidewalk didn’t make me feel like I was about to fly over the handlebars. Taking off, and more importantly stopping, were all so much more comfortable.
But then I got in a situation where I had to use the sidewalk on Figueroa. The app didn’t warn me that going into certain geofenced zones would virtually hobble my scooter. As I passed by a larger building and the GPS signal quality degraded, the scooter thought I was in the convention center grounds and limited my speed to 5 MPH without so much as a warning or beep.
Even more strangely, my partner was renting a scooter from the same company and hers didn’t get gimped by the same geofence. When I suddenly lost power in front of her, she almost rear-ended me, nearly crashing to avoid driving over my rear wheel.
Once we stopped next to the convention center and tried to park them, the app forced us to park the scooter across the busy street, adding another 4 minutes to our ride and costing us each another dollar.
It will probably be another few months before I rent a scooter again, but I hope these scooter companies continue making progress. I’m impressed with the better hardware, but the software is still lacking. They could further improve by:
- Adding some buffer to the city-mandated geofence scooter-hobbling zones
- Giving some warning that there are low-power zones nearby when you rent one
- Working with cities to make sure there are scooter parking zones on both sides of the street
I look forward to seeing how things improve next time I’m visiting a larger city!
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