Tripping the Bird, or scooter vs. College Hill

In July, there appeared suddenly on the streets of Providence clusters of little black scooters -- electric, urban versions of those chrome kick scooters popular in the early aughts. There was a QR code on top, an app to rent them, and a sudden rash of teenagers whizzing down sidewalks.

Bird, the company behind the scooters, had landed unannounced. The city, to its credit, did not jerk its knee and took the time to craft a policy covering distribution insurance, and municipal fees (Cambridge and Somerville, on the other hand, responded to Bird with cease-and-desist letters).

I rode a Bird once. I was walking briskly, a few minutes late, and came across a scooter parked on the sidewalk. How convenient. I hastily downloaded and installed the app. But scanning the QR code only brought up a message that this scooter was damaged and couldn't be rented. That repeated for two more scooters further along the street. I was more than halfway to my destination when I finally found a rideable one.

Now I was off for College Hill. I tried to take a direct route up South Court Street. The Bird's motor whined, slowed, and them stopped, its LED headlamp flickering. Too steep. I dropped my leg off the riding platform and kicked vigorously, working myself into a sweat just to crest Benefit Street.

I turned left on Benefit and zipped past 18th-century homes lit phosphorescent orange by street lamps. I turned right onto Olney Street, which ascends the hill at gentler grade. The Bird was taking the slope without needing my help, but at a lamentable pace. The tiny wheels meant it was hard to steer without wobbling, and you felt every bump and crack in the Providence pavement.

I finally made it up to Hope Street. It was an odd and not very comfortable feeling to be standing upright, only a couple inches taller than you usually would be, and yet moving in the same right of way as cars and bikes. It was much more fun to cruise campus walkways vacant on a summer night. But after returning the Bird via the app, i realized that the journey had saved me no time versus by original two-footed mode. Bumper sticker idea: “This scooter just barely climbed College Hill.”

A month later the Birds were gone. They came back a few weeks ago (with a competitor, Lime) to join Jump bikes in Providence's mix of “micro-mobility” (the users of this new term apparently don’t share the image I get from it.)

Urban areas that combine wide streets with flat topography, longish distances and a mild climate are perfect fits, in theory, for scooters, so it's no surprise to find them in places like Portland, OR; Southern California, Texas, Atlanta, DC and Baltimore. They're also in several small-city college towns like Athens, GA; Bloomington, IN; and Columbia, MO. The challenge in New England is that its cities have compact, hilly geographies and increasingly unpredictable winters.

We also have pedestrians, cars, and bikes already competing for scarce travel space. None of the riders cruising blithely (and illegally) own the sidewalk were wearing a helmet, because it turns out most people don't walk around with bike helmets tucked under their arms, and the ones who do have bikes parked nearby. Bird's CEO responds to safety concerns by correctly pointing out that cars are hardly safe, killing 6,000 pedestrians a year. This argument assumes that scooter rides are replacing car trips, but I don't see a lot of middle-aged suburbanites on scooters, and I do see plenty of students who would otherwise walk or bike.

A scooter commuter, after all, could just buy their own. A model identical to the one Bird uses, the awesomely named Swagtron Swagger, sells for $400 online. That's about the same as you'd pay for a good-quality commuter bike. If you took two 10-minutes rides each workday at Bird's rates, the scooter would pay for itself in four months.

Just stay off the sidewalk, please.


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