American cities really don’t make it easy to get around quickly without a car. Cars are loud and expensive, they pollute, and they take up public space. But until recently, the quiet, cheap, green alternative mostly amounted to bicycles. A motor scooter splits the difference between the two, offering some of the benefits of a car and some of those of a bike. Make it sharable, and you add some convenience and forgo the need to own and store anything. That seemed like a reasonable strategy, until the Bird scooters arrived and took up all the space, literally and figuratively, in the electric mobility-sharing world.
Keating argues it doesn’t make a lot of sense to have to choose between a car and a push scooter. Instead, different vehicle-shares should serve different purposes. An Uber is mostly for special occasions; it’s still too expensive to use all the time. A moped can get you somewhere fast and still be affordable enough to use a couple times a day. A push scooter is really a substitute for a long walk, but the cost can be worth the convenience.
Even so, Keating acknowledges that not everyone will ride a motorbike, even a simple one. “We started looking for how we could cover all forms of urban, electric mobility,” he explained to me. Like Contreras, Keating sees mopeds servicing people connecting by commuter rail or subway, offering both last-mile connectivity and midday convenience: “Our hope is that urbanites might not have to own a vehicle, but could use 100 percent electric transportation in many cities.”
But what counts as “many cities”? Scoot operates in San Francisco, and it recently added Barcelona, where it joins Muving and other European providers. San Francisco is another dense, modern city spread out over a small peninsula. Muving’s current Atlanta operating area mostly covers similar types of urban space, where height and density is greater than elsewhere. That’s not where most people live, though. The entire city of Atlanta constitutes less than 10 percent of the metro area’s 5.8 million residents; San Francisco accounts for about 12 percent of the Bay Area’s 7 million. Outside the center city, the car still rules and train service is scarce.
When I question Keating on his narrow idea of who counts as urbanites worthy of service, he acknowledges that Scoot is focused on dense, transit-rich global cities—it’s the easiest early market for these kind of services. “We’re trying to pick the cities that are most ready to make this transition,” he hedges. That means looking for density, moderate climates, and existing multimodal transit systems.
He’s careful not to write off cities like Atlanta or Houston, where the private car still rules, but he characterizes those places as globally atypical. “Zooming out, Houston is kind of an exception, not a norm we’d factor into our grand theory of transportation change,” Keating says. On the one hand, he has a point. Compared to Paris, Berlin, or Bangkok, big American cities are unusual by global standards. But on the other hand, if companies like Scoot ignore or downplay the relevance of sprawling American cities, then what is the fate of the people who live there?