Not since Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds” has an infestation been so fowl. The offenders are marketed by various brands—Bird, Lime, Spin—but essentially they’re the same: dockless, stand-up electric scooters that can be rented, via smartphone app, for as little as $1, plus 15 cents per minute. Seemingly overnight, they’ve descended upon metro areas from San Francisco to Minneapolis to Washington, D.C. But the plague may well be at its worst where I live in West Los Angeles. From Santa Monica to Westwood, you can’t walk so much as one block without ducking a swooping Bird.
Come to L.A., and you’ll see them: dorks whizzing to and fro on their skinny scooters at speeds up to 15 mph. Almost all the riders are teens and 20-somethings (legally, you must have a driver’s license to ride), and every one wears the same smug, self-satisfied, “My smartphone and I are gliding into the future!” look on his or her face. Of course, 90 percent of them are zooming along amid pedestrians on sidewalks. Many times I’ve yelled, “You’re supposed to be in the street!”—that’s the law in California. Exactly zero riders have given a flying fig. Usually, as they rush by, I get a bird from the Bird.
Given my profession, it’s obvious I love automobiles, especially for recreation. That said, I’ll be the first to admit, after a few hours dealing with the horrors of L.A. traffic, I also love putting the car away and taking a good walk. Most days, I try to get in 3 to 5 miles. You notice and appreciate things on foot you simply can’t while being attentive at the wheel: an artfully landscaped home, a red bloom of narrow-leaf fuchsia, the enticing aromas emanating from a sidewalk espresso stand. Walking is a respite from the tensions of the road.
Or was. Just the other day I was crossing the pedestrian mall of the UCLA campus—where signs specifically prohibit riding bicycles, skateboards, and scooters. I saw a flash out of the corner of my eye and instinctively stopped short. A blink later, a very tall girl on a Bird whooshed past at top speed a mere inch away. Avoiding me, she lost control, leapt off the scooter, and, after a few awkward skips, managed to land on her feet. The Bird crashed into a bank of bushes. The girl uttered not a word and merely turned to untangle her mount. “What are you doing!” I demanded. “You’re gonna break someone’s legs—or worse!” Without so much as looking at me, she remounted her Bird and, as she zipped away, turned and yelled, “Kiss my ass, jerk!”
Even at a standstill the scooters are a blight. Riders can find Birds via GPS using the app, so they can pick up and drop off the scooters anywhere. And I mean anywhere. Walk in West L.A., and you’ll see flocks of Birds on their kickstands in the middle of sidewalks. Or in front of business doors. Or blocking crosswalks. Or jammed into shrubs. Sometimes riders don’t even bother with the kickstand and simply drop the Bird on its side right where they get off. The scooters are just another sorry manifestation of human self-absorption.
Birds and their ilk are answers to a question nobody asked. Devotees will tell you, “With a scooter I can get to class 15 minutes earlier,” or, “This takes care of the last mile from the commuter train!” Uh, right. How did you survive six months ago? The average person can walk a mile in around 16 to 17 minutes. How much time do we need to save? Do we really need another device to rescue us from the “chore” of putting our sorry bodies to actual use?
And Silicon Valley thinks it’s playing savior. Scooters are environmentally friendly! They’re not cars! They’re yet another reason to use your phone! But it’s a sham, basically just another “breakthrough” startup that aims to build a ton of hype and, whether it ends up working or not, reap a ton of capital for its creators. (Bird is already worth $2 billion.) The Bird people even claim users can make money, too—the company will pay $5 for every Bird you pick up on the street and recharge yourself. A writer for Slate tried being a “Charger.” After two weeks and 10-15 evening hours scouring his neighborhood via the app for parked Birds (most of which were gone by the time he got there), he’d made $125.
At press time, San Francisco has temporarily banned e-scooters pending the distribution of permits for a one-year pilot program. Meantime, I’ll be diving right back into my own urban-transport innovation. Feet-first.