Letter: Electric Scooters Aren’t Selfies, They’re Selfie Sticks

A reader traces the electric scooter craze to the growing influence of Chinese manufacturing on our global urban environment.

Mike Blake / Reuters

Unfortunately, the Electric Scooters Are Fantastic

Updated on June 7 at 9:52 a.m. ET

“The war is over and I have lost,” Robinson Meyer confessed on TheAtlantic.com last week. “I love Big Scooter.” But can the trendy new mode of transport overcome its essential dorkiness? And what does the boom portend for cities?

I enjoyed your recent article on the electric scooter phenomenon—I wanted to hate them, too, not least because they’ve been rolled out in the most stereotypically “techie” way, i.e., without considering the social impact they’d have on civic life. But the first time I rode one, I realized it was fun, a lot more convenient than a bicycle (especially for navigating San Francisco hills) and more than a little terrifying. After I got used to it, I found myself nodding along to what Robinson wrote: “Riding one feels like a superpower.”

As I look at them, I also remember the hoverboard craze from a couple years back. The bigger story, I think, is that these electric scooters reflect the growing influence of Chinese manufacturing on our global urban environment. Many of the electric scooters seem to be rebranded Xiaomi products, and they are part of the larger global phenomenon of dockless transport reshaping urban life. Dockless bikeshares, which have taken hold in many Chinese cities, can now be found throughout many Western cities.

The global megatrend to pay attention to is that Chinese hardware production has been steadily and rapidly introducing new physical products to the world, influencing our physical environments in much the same way that internet memes have influenced our digital ones: hoverboards, drones, fidget spinners, and cute phone cases. These seemingly-random creations are often made by multiple creators, and they have been tested and iterated on in Chinese markets before reaching the rest of the world. As these objects catch on and these processes formalize, we’re seeing more companies build viable businesses in concert.

The specific rollout strategies of dockless transport leave a lot to be desired. Dockless bikes and scooters encourage a certain type of behavior that has people leaving them any which way. But solutions like geo-fencing and stricter policies for encouraging good behavior can help. We ought to more rigorously explore and understand how these scooters disrupt urban life (many startups roll them out without due consideration to social norms), hurt the environment (bikeshare graveyards reflect the too-quick growth of these creations) and perpetuate stressful and even unsafe labor practices (most scooters are charged by contractors in a competitive environments).

That said, in the U.S. context in particular, I think it’s important to set these devices in the context of car culture, which reshaped the majority of the American landscape, especially in western states. What we’re seeing is a new mode of transportation for short distances. Yes, riders really ought to wear helmets, and yes, cities and companies need to work together to figure out the exact laws and customs so inconsiderate people aren’t zipping around dangerously on the sidewalk, and people charging these devices make a living wage. Instead of bans after the fact, cities and companies should work together more proactively.

We can hold all of these thoughts at once—electric scooters are pretty great and they’ve been rolled out in a completely inconsiderate and somewhat dangerous way that fulfills the worst of techie stereotypes and they’re not just a little bit dorky. That said, car culture has been much more corrosive to American urban life over decades of infrastructure, and public transit in major cities has yet to catch up to demand. It’s vital that we find alternative solutions. China, with its legendary traffic jams, is helping nudge along new innovations for urban life that, with any luck, will help reduce our collective dependence on cars.

Rather than selfies, I wonder if electric scooters will one day seem more like selfie sticks and Bluetooth headsets—physical objects first perceived as dorky and intrusive and now just a normal part of our object landscape, found for sale at every major tourist spot in the world.

An Xiao Mina
Author, Memes to Movements
Director of Product, Meedan
Research Affiliate, Berkman Klein Center
San Francisco, Calif.

Robinson Meyer replies:

This is a typically astute point from An Xiao Mina, who is as smart and perceptive on Twitter as she is above. I’d add that not only do scooters weaken car culture’s dominion over urban design, but also they are actually much more environmentally friendly than cars. Electric scooters release less heat-trapping pollution into the atmosphere than cars and trucks do, because scooters are able to get some of their energy from the wind, solar, nuclear, and hydroelectric power plants on the local grid.

A reader replies to Robinson Meyer:

I have a small (but important) suggestion regarding your response to An Xiao Mina’s letter. I think it’s important to note the large reduction in energy usage with electric scooters. We need to reduce our global energy demand in addition to electrifying everything.

In the case of electric scooters, the primary environmental benefit is the low energy consumption. An electric scooter’s mass is a fraction of a car’s. Even though an electric car could (theoretically) get all of its energy from emissions-free sources, an electric scooter would still be preferable because it takes much less energy to move a person from point A to point B.

Mass is particularly important when you consider the entire life cycle of the vehicle. A smaller vehicle should require much less material, energy, and water to manufacture, ship, and dispose of than any car.

I hope this doesn’t come across as pedantic, because it isn’t meant that way. As some background, I’m a Ph.D. student at MIT researching ways to reduce the energy consumption of water desalination technology, so I’m heavily invested in helping to create a sustainable future. I’m a big believer that we need to change personal behavior and decision-making on a societal level in order to get to that future. Promoting awareness on the environmental impact of our daily choices is a critical part of that.

Quantum Wei
Cambridge, Mass.