Gig Economy

Electric Glide

By Andrej Mrevlje |

Sitting behind the wheel, stranded in a mass of cars waiting for the red light to turn green, a mirage appeared before my eyes: a skinny and elegant female figure molded as if by the hands of Alberto Giacometti, swinging among honking cars, gliding into the center of the crossing. She zipped among the moving obstacles, made a sharp right turn and vanished. Everything happened fast, silently, her figure upright on a small scooter, her long hair waving goodbye to drivers trapped in cars.

It was this image of youth and recklessness, joy and immortality expressed by free, fast movement, that impressed me. The maneuvering of a scooter that looks more like a toy than a vehicle, and her upright posture gliding through a space common to all commuters in this gadget economy was an incredibly elegant image to behold.  

The scooters run on electric battery, zipping among the pedestrians, cars, bicycles; they storm the sidewalks, bike lanes, zigzagging left and right, effortlessly, as if transfigured by some cosmic power. The riders are girls, students, young government employees, with their computer bags across their shoulders. They all have the same posture, dressed elegantly, their neckties and hair fluttering at 15 miles per hour. And they all look happy, superior even.

Is this the reason why many scooters are under barbaric attack, as the Washington Post reports:

“Some face death by the bonfire and others are flung into the ocean or tossed from the top of parking garages and bridges, shattering on concrete sidewalks or disappearing into murky waters below. Scooters have also been intentionally run over by trucks or torn apart — limb by electronic limb — by angry drunks and rage-filled teenagers screaming abusive epithets.”

CNET.COM also reported on the guerrilla war being waged on these new urban invaders:

For weeks, I’d been seeing trashed electric scooters on the streets of San Francisco. So I asked a group of friends if any of them had seen people vandalizing the dockless vehicles since they were scattered across the city a couple of months ago.

The answer was an emphatic “yes.”

One friend saw a guy walking down the street kicking over every scooter he came across. Another saw a rider pull up to a curb as the handlebars and headset became fully detached. My friend figures someone had messed with the screws or cabling so the scooter would come apart on purpose.

A scroll through Reddit, Instagram and Twitter showed me photos of scooters — owned by Bird, Lime and Spin — smeared in feces, hanging from trees, hefted into trash cans and tossed into the San Francisco Bay.

“I’m going to go back and live in the 1850s, and I’m going to hitch up my horse somewhere and see how the scooters like that,” said Sherrie Matza during a hearing about the scooter scourge at San Francisco’s City Hall, in April.

Ms. Matza’s desire to return to the mid-19th century on the back of her horse is akin to European opposition to the railway, people who consistently said that rail lines break up and desecrate the countryside. We know how that story ended, but are electric scooters as revolutionary as the telegraph and railroads that industrialized the globe?

Perhaps it is not a coincidence that the former Chief Operating Officer at Lyft became the VP of International Growth at Uber, then current CEO of Bird, the biggest American scooter-sharing service. Has Travis VanderZanden, Bird’s founder, taken aim at cars, as Information.com suggests? Or has the ever-experienced Vander Zanden seen in scooters another business opportunity built on a similar platform as Uber and Lyft? In less than a year of its existence, Bird has raised $300 million in new funding that would value the company at $2 billion, according to the New York Times.  

“I don’t see a world where major transportation [services] are aggregated into one small app. The last-mile problem and the e-scooter solution is such a big mode of transportation it makes sense to have a custom app experience just for that,” said VanderZanden, who is convinced that electric scooters will soon become more than just a joy for the young, brave and skinny generation, but a necessity of last-mile urban transportation, carrying commuters to the last corner of the urban jungle, where the subway, bus, taxi, and Ubers are having trouble getting to because of traffic.

But is it realistic? While the battery life of the present time electric scooters–presently 15 miles–is not an issue, I see the difficulties of electric scooters becoming the central means of transportation beyond the millennial population. First, the tiny and fragile scooters cannot carry more than about 250 pounds (120 kilos), which may prove an obstacle for an obese America.

Secondly, the fact that even the American population is growing older, and scooters with small wheels and boards do not fit the middle-aged and elderly generation’s capacity for keeping balance and depending on reflexes. However, while the backlash against the goofy, electric-powered vehicles has triggered a debate in city halls, the strain of anti-elitist, anti-tech politics have worked to characterize scooter riders as young, well-heeled wheelers. But, as Wired observes:

…the 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.

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.

Feeling good, however, about it is not equal to putting a middle-aged generation on scooters. I swear that in my driving around the city of Washington, I have not found a single person who would look for and ride these little gadgets. In the last few months of my Uber driving,  I haven’t encountered any dangerous situation involving electric scooters in spite of their regular breaking of the traffic rules. The riders seem to have good reflexes and good judgment, but the exponential growth of the number of riders adding to already busy traffic will no doubt bring quite nasty accidents in the future. Perhaps this will be a time to reflect and redesign the grid city streets, as Curbed.com explains:

By the end of this year, renting bikes and scooters will be a mainstream transportation option readily available to tens of millions of people in over 100 U.S. cities with the tap of a finger—and offered as part of trip-planning itineraries that include bus, rail, and ride-hailing.

The need for safety infrastructure was already urgent—but it’s especially urgent now. The U.S. streets that have not adequately planned for bikes for decades—most of them—will soon welcome even more types of wheeled vehicles. And the sidewalk—which has become the flashpoint in these conversations—is already far too narrow and poorly maintained in most cities to accommodate the needs of most walkers, let alone scooter operators afraid to ride in the street.

Whether the vehicle is docked, locked, electric, pedaled, shared, or owned, there is clearly a growing group of Americans who want to use their streets in a new way, right now. Cities have spent years chastising Uber and Lyft for increasing congestion. Now, these companies are proposing solutions to get their users out of cars—and cities need to work quickly on the necessary changes to make this new urban geometry work.

Personally, I am pessimistic that the cities involved in the current scooter revolution will be able to manage major infrastructural changes to accommodate this new breadth of transportation. Besides the regulations that will have to reinforce safety measures, I am sorry to say they will also limit what now seems to be the absolute freedom of cruising with this silent and, yes, ecologically friendly device. Just the other day, I was crossing the street on the pedestrian crosswalk and for the moment I found myself caught in a crossfire between the car turning right on a red light (a legal choice in some American cities) and a bike coming from the opposite side without stopping, and then – where the hell did he come from ? – a scooter zoomed by, only half a yard from me on a green light?

 

In most cities, the scooters, owned by the three major companies competing for the expanding market, are resting during the night. They have to be recharged and perhaps repaired for the coming day of commuting. But, on the contrary, these companies don’t take care of their little birds come nightfall. What most riders don’t realize is that the scooters themselves are charged by a contract workforce at night. These people are known as “Bird hunters” or “chargers,” and they’re growing exponentially in number, as the Atlantic reports:

Registering to become a charger isn’t hard. Unlike Uber or most ride-sharing services, Bird doesn’t require a background check or any kind of complicated registration procedure. It takes a few simple steps including registering your address and providing personal information, tax information, and bank account information so you can get paid via direct deposit. If your application is approved, within a matter of days Bird will mail you three charging packs to get started. Charging a Bird doesn’t require a ton of electricity, so minus the labor cost, charging a few scooters overnight is essentially free—especially if you live in a large apartment building and can do so in your bike room.

These are the kind of jobs that the new gig-economy provides. Most of them are precarious, but they are still jobs. They will remain until this world finds a solution for the new distribution of labor and wealth. In the meantime, allowing kids the semi-illusion of freedom may not be the worst thing. But please put helmets on your crazy heads!  

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