What Scooters Were Always Supposed to Be

Today, Razor folks say that selling to adults was part of the plan. “Razor scooters have always been connected to active mobility for all ages,” Danny Simon, the COO of Razor USA, said in an email. From the beginning, “adults were using them as a last mile solution for their commutes.”

In a 2001 blog post, Paul Holmes, who worked on Razor’s communications team in 2000, wrote that “unless we were talking safety, we never spoke directly to kids and never referred to the Razor [as] a ‘toy’ … We knew that would kill Razor’s coolness factor with kids.”

And adults did get in on the action. In a 2000 New York Times column, John Leland tells of that first summer of scooters in the city, when “grown professionals” mounted the Razors—“sleek of line, cutting edge in design, of the moment and yet blue-collar practical”—en masse. But his elation soon turned to disappointment:

He’d arrive at work dripping in sweat, hands tense, having been mocked by pedestrians, flung about, and snagged on pavement cracks. After a few trips, he “was ready to get off the razor’s edge.” Leland decided he’d give the toy to his 12-year-old, instead.

The column, titled “Riding a Fad, Hitting a Bump,” summed up those tumultuous early days well: the scooter-as-urban-transportation promise, and its Segway-like failure to live up to it. It was also the year of Razor’s Sex and the City debut, when, in a September episode entitled “Hot Child in the City,” Carrie scoots around with her younger, comic-store-clerking, very temporary boyfriend, Wade. (The subtext: scootering is fun! But also, please don’t date someone who does it.)

But Razor’s TV ads from 2000 show graphic-tee-wearing tweens popping wheelies, not lawyers trying to catch an Amtrak. And after the first flush of the scooter fad faded (sales crashed dramatically in 2001), any lingering ambiguity about their intended market disappeared. To keep the market alive, new models were launched: the PowerWing (with three wheels, instead of two) and the Spark (which allowed badass sparks to fly off the pavement if you pressed down on the scooter’s tail). Professional Razoring—a “bone-crunching extreme sport laden with thrills and spills,” according to a 2007 Sunday Herald Sun story—became popular in Australia, propelled by models like the Beast and the Black Label.

During this interim era, you might have seen the occasional urban oddball bombing to work on one of these rigs, but by and large it was little kids who rode scooters, and play that motivated them. Turning scooters into commuting tools for the adult masses would require several technological tweaks.

The first was electrification. Razor strapped battery packs on its first scooters in 2003. (Micro-Mobility didn’t electrify until 2013, due to Switzerland’s stricter regulations.) Multiple review sites like MyProScooter released reviews of different models. Some were targeted to professionals, some for kids who are looking to try it out the first time. Some people also rode the boosted Razors to work, and other people worried, as people are wont to do.

“The kids are out of school. And those motorized skateboards and scooters they’re riding around southern Mecklenburg are drawing a lot of attention,” reads a 2007 column in the Charlotte Observer entitled “Before Your Kids Pop a Wheelie Take Heed.” Under some states’ laws, the e-Razors qualified as mopeds, meaning riders had to be 16 to ride them, wear a helmet, and drive on the street, not the sidewalk.

Motors made scooters more useful, but also more expensive. It took the spread of bikesharing, and specifically the GPS-powered dockless bike-rental services that popped up in several U.S. cities over 2017, to drop the price barrier. Matt Yglesias, writing in Vox, describes a very 2018-style perfect storm of factors that allowed e-scooters to take over: “the falling price of batteries and GPS trackers, the near-ubiquity of smartphones, and the rising demand for space in central cities.”

For $1 a ride, adults could try out a dockless shared scooter. And when they did, they swiftly discovered this mode’s urban virtues. A shared, dockless e-scooter can do what its little-vehicle peers cannot. It’s easy to hop on and hop off, even in a business suit or a skirt. It’s less hefty than a Segway and takes less effort (and skill) than skateboarding or inline skating. And it’s rooted in a pastime Millennials grew up with.

The e-scooters’ arrival in city after city has even inspired a new genre of conversion narrative. First, the skeptical reporter observes this two-wheel fad with ironic detachment—scooters are, after all, a kid’s toy, or worse, a tech-bro gadget. The very term “micro-mobility,” which has lately entered the urban-transport lexicon, is a turn-off: jargony and alienating and Silicon Vallified, its late-1990s roots forgotten. (“It’s just the small mobility, you know?” Ouboter explained, not sure why I asked him to spell out the phrase’s origin.)

Then she hops on, has an absolute ball, and gets hooked. The scooter, she remembers, isn’t a toy at all. But it feels like play. (Albeit the kind of play where she vibrates so violently she feels she might bite off her tongue when careening downhill.) And one by one, individuals start reimagining what these machines could do—if cities can figure out how to harness, and regulate, and rein in their formidable capacity for anarchic fun.

In my neighborhood in Washington, D.C., the kids are trying to reclaim the e-scooters. One preteen exits a corner store with a Coke, and zips away on the Lime waiting for him outside; another tandem pair cling to each other, doing loops and killing time. Searching for an area Bird on the app’s GPS, I wandered around for half a mile only to find the scooter hidden behind a fence, guarded by a group of kids at a neighborhood community center.

Technically, you need to be 18 years old to rent an e-scooter. But like buying cigarettes, this barrier can be overcome. Bird asks you to scan your driver’s license; in many cities, Lime just asks for digital age confirmation. Most scooter models require a credit card and at least a dollar to unlock—feasible for some teens. As mass adoption takes hold and scooters migrate from business districts into residential neighborhoods, kids are finding ways to get back aboard.

In Detroit, 31-year-old Andy Didorosi, who works as a gig-employed scooter charger, realized that swaths of “dead” (un-charged) scooters were being hoarded in neighborhood housing complexes by teens. Without juice, the scooters’ wheels spin freely; kids idly kick-scoot them around the block. These dead scooters are high-tech Razors made low-tech again—the perfect toy.

Didirosi, who is also the founder and CEO of the Detroit Bus Company, is crowdfunding to buy the community’s kids the scooters (and helmets) they’ve already claimed. “What I’m interested in is how a Silicon Valley startup comes into a city like Detroit—a Rust Belt, poor community lacking in transit—and markets to people of means who have credit cards and can take a fun ride,” Didorosi told the Detroit Free Press. “And leave out all the kids in the neighborhoods.”

A proper fad once again, the scooter finds itself caught in another liminal space; the debate over who gets to ride (kids or adults; techies or everyone else) continues. No longer considered toys, they’re unwelcome on the sidewalks. But they’re not quite recognizable as bikes or mopeds, either, so they’re left without space in the streets.

These blurred boundaries can be dangerous. In early September, a man in Dallas was found dead after falling off an electric scooter (the cause of death remains unknown). On September 21, a driver in an SUV struck a scooter that was negotiating Washington’s rush-hour-clogged Dupont Circle; the rider later died in the hospital.

Ouboter has a lot of ideas around how to adapt cities to properly integrate scooters (he’s had a lot of time to think about it). “Make less parking spaces for big, big cars,” he tells me, and create more parking specially for little vehicles. Reduce car lanes, and replace them with designated lanes for slow-moving, environmentally friendly transportation options. Stop driving around in big pickup trucks if you’re just one person. “You know what I mean? This is ridiculous.”

Ouboter’s company, Micro, is still very much a player in this transportation revolution. The Swiss firm sells a large line of two- and three-wheeled scooters aimed at both kids and adults, including a $1,000 electric model and this wild rideable carry-on luggage-mobile. Micro is due to launch a bigger product, too—a supermini car called a Microlino. It’s an electric update of the BMW Isetta, a tiny two-seater city car from the 1950s. Ouboter displayed a prototype at the Geneva Motor Show in 2016 and is now taking orders for the production version. Like his original scooter, the Microlino is a stylish facelift of a decades-old product, sleek and sexy and yet somehow at least half toy.

The dockless-scooter boom is lifting his wheels, too: He says that Lyft, which just launched a fleet of electric scooters in Santa Monica, will use his company’s models in deployments next year. (Lyft wouldn’t comment.) He isn’t bitter that the role he played in making the boom happen two decades ago isn’t more well-known. He’s just gratified it finally happened.

I cannot explain why, but sometimes it needs momentum,” says Ouboter. “You need to have a lot of other people doing it.”

This post appears courtesy of  CityLab.


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