Like so many inventions, the scooter was a child of necessity: specifically, the need to get a bratwurst without looking like an idiot.
One night in 1990, Wim Ouboter, a Dutch-Swiss banker and an amateur craftsman, was “in the mood for a St. Gallen bratwurst at the Sternengrill in Zurich,” or so the story goes. He wanted to get from his house to the brat place and then to a bar, stat, but the stops seemed too far apart to walk, and too close to drive. What he really needed, Ouboter decided, was a mode of transportation that would let him swiftly cover that micro-distance. A bike seemed like too much trouble to take out of the garage. What he wanted was a kick scooter.
Ouboter was a big fan of the mode—he came from a self-described family of “scooter freaks,” and he and his siblings had enjoyed hurtling down hills on clunky wooden kickboards as kids. For a brat-to-beer trip, though, he needed a grown-up upgrade—something durable enough to handle an adult rider, but also small and inconspicuous. “The problem is, if you’re a big guy and you’re riding such a small scooter, people will look at you weird,” he told me. “So you have to make it collapsible in order to bring it into a bar afterwards.”
No such machine existed, as far as he could tell. So he decided to make it himself.
“What was this ridiculous obsession with toy scooters?” his friends asked as Ouboter tinkered away. And yet he persisted, coming up with a low-slung, collapsible prototype with tiny polyurethane wheels, made of polished aluminum and outfitted with foam handlebars—a sleek machine that, he says, had “more sex appeal” than the clunky kids’ toys of yesterday.
These recollections are detailed in a 2003 paper from the University of St. Gallen, “Micro Mobility Systems: Realizing the Scooter Dream,” which chronicles Ouboter’s pioneering role in scooter history. In 1996, he launched a company called Micro Mobility Systems (or Micro, for short) to build his zippy creations, which he called “micro-scooters”—or just “micros.” Then, he says, he partnered with the bicycle-manufacturing arm of China’s JD.com to produce them. In 1999, sales began in Japan.
At this point, the scooter-genesis story gets somewhat murky; some reports, like this 2001 Bloomberg piece, credit Gino Tsai, JD.com’s president at the time, with the critical light-bulb moment. At any rate, Ouboter says that JD.com ended up selling a licensed version of his design as the Razor, and Razor USA was founded in 2000. (Razor USA declined to comment specifically on the who-invented-it question.) A slew of copycat brands quickly joined in, and suddenly the world was seized in a scooter frenzy.
“Maybe you know the Razor scooter in the U.S.?” Ouboter asks me over the phone from a Greek island where he’s vacationing (he still lives in Switzerland). “A lot of people don’t know that the Razor comes from me—from that Swiss guy.”
The Razor was selected as the Spring/Summer Toy of the Year by the Toy Association in 2000; by 2001, 7 million of them were whizzing along America’s suburban cul-de-sacs. But a funny thing had happened to the tiny silver machines that leaped from Ouboter’s imagination on to the sidewalks of the world at the turn of the millennium. Ouboter had never thought of his creation as a toy.
“The original idea was not to make a scooter for kids,” he says. The idea was to fundamentally change urban transportation.
Ouboter first intended to market the scooters to adults, as an urban last-mile transportation solution. In 1998, he says, he was in talks with Mercedes-Benz, working on a deal to outfit the company’s Smart cars with scooters, with the notion that commuters would use them to scoot to transit stops or other destinations from distant parking lots. And when his micros swept Japan in 1999, a lot of the first users were urban subway riders.
To hear Ouboter tell it, he saw it all coming, even then: the flocks of Birds overtaking California sidewalks; the Limes fanned out on Washington, D.C., street corners; the AirPod-wearing men in suits zipping to work on skinny electric kickboards. Equipped with grown-up proportions, bigger wheels, and battery-powered motors, the electrified offspring of his invention have stormed U.S. cities this year, with nearly a dozen dockless e-scooter–rental companies springing seemingly from the ether. Bird, which launched 12 months ago, just hit 10 million scooter rides; Lime users have taken 11.5 million scooter and bike-share trips in the past 14 months. Two ride-hailing rivals, Uber and Lyft, are cannibalizing their own car-ride markets to get in on the scooter-share action. The micro-mobility revolution Ouboter tried to inspire in the ’90s has begun, just two decades late.
In a sign that the scooter has completed a full evolutionary cycle, Razor, whose kid-focused products kicked off the craze in the United States in 2000, has now launched its own dockless rental service, with fleets of e-scooters in Long Beach, San Diego, and Tempe, and plans to expand into more cities this year.
“It’s actually proof that I was right, but nobody was listening to me,” Ouboter says, laughing. “Goddammit, why did it take so long?”
To answer that question, it’s useful to look at another dawn-of-the-millennium transportation revolution that took a weird turn: the Segway Personal Transporter, which made its debut, after months of hype, in December 2001. The self-balancing, people-moving contraptions generated plenty of wows upon arrival. Predictions of impending urban-mobility disruption were made.
But the PT never found a home as a machine of mass commuting. Expensive and bulky, the first Segway seemed to fall from outer space; today, it’s reserved largely for the Paul Blarts of the world.
E-scooters, on the other hand, arrived on the earthly plane with some precedent—and a built-in prospective ridership: Their cultural cachet as iconic ’90s-kid street gear has, perhaps counterintuitively, helped pave the way for their current success.
Of course, the kick scooter itself goes back far further than the Clinton administration. Kids in early-20th-century cities would fix roller-skate wheels to wooden planks, add metal pipes as handlebars, and tear off down the street. But when the early-aughts scooter boom took off, there were some questions about who, precisely, the vehicles were intended for.