Scoot or Die: Colorado's e-scooter shitshow is a situation in development

Scoot or Die: Colorado's e-scooter shitshow is a situation in development

CultureOctober 07, 2019 By Will Brendza

It was a Friday in late May of 2018 when the e-scooters arrived in Denver, all but unannounced and totally unsolicited. 

That cool spring morning, when the Mile High City woke up, hundreds of LimeBike dockless electric scooters littered its streets. People were confused, intrigued and excited they suddenly had access to cheap and an (allegedly) environmentally conscious new mode of electric transportation. 

These things were going to change the way people commuted and they were going to save the planet in the process! And, on top of all that, they looked like a lot of fun. 

It was a temptation that The People of Denver (and of many other cities across America) could not resist. They downloaded the apps, hopped aboard and zipped off into a city that had no rules or regulations in place to handle them.

Things have been something of a shitshow ever since. 

By the end of 2018, the number of e-scooters on Denver’s streets surged from a couple hundred to a couple thousand — there were five city-approved operators and a general sense of acceptance that these things weren’t going anywhere. 

The e-scooters were seemingly here to stay. Pandora’s electric scooter box was open and Denver quickly needed to figure out how to deal with these things lest the chaos escalate.

But, as one might expect, the city government dragged its feet and things got worse. 

It was October of 2018 when the first e-scooter scuffle broke out. Eric Lazzari, a hapless scooterer, was slapped in the face by a pedestrian who accosted him for riding on the sidewalk. “Those things belong in the street!” the man barked at him.

The last thing Lazzari remembers hearing before getting slapped was: “I’m going to teach you a lesson.”

Smack!

He was baffled. Dazed and confused. He called the police. Not to report the man or to try and press charges, but to clarify the situation: are scooters street or sidewalk vehicles?

A LESSER OF TWO-WHEELED EVILS

Lazzari’s incident set in motion a huge debate and discussion among Denver city officials on where e-scooters actually belonged.

At the time, they were classified as “toy vehicles.” Meaning, they were required to be on the sidewalks. But, clearly, this was causing issues. 

“The problem with scooters is they’re in that ‘not so sweet spot’: too fast for sidewalks, too slow for streets,” Denver City Councilwoman Mary Beth Susman said in a statement shortly after the scooter slapping incident. “What we really need are ABC lanes, ‘Anything But Cars,’ that accommodate scooters, bikes, peds, wheel chairs, skateboards, and any other kind of future devices coming our way.”

While Lazarri remains the only known Denverite to be bitch-slapped for riding scooters on the sidewalk, that type of confrontation is not uncommon throughout Denver. In fact, some 60 percent of Denver residents say they’ve been involved with an e-scooter crash or near-miss since they were introduced. 

After things went horribly wrong and local media chewed through every possible clickbait headline it could about the scooters, state legislation finally passed. It removed the “toy vehicle” classification from e-scooters and the City of Denver promptly banished them to the streets — to the bike lanes and roadways of the city, where they might have belonged all along. Just like a bike, the City declared, e-scooters are fast enough for the street. And anyone caught riding them on the sidewalk will feel the wrath of the law.

“In large part we see that people are trying to ride at responsible speeds and they’re yielding to pedestrians,” says Cindy Patton, the strategic advisor for the city and county of Denver. Though she adds, there certainly are some less responsible riders out there. 

“It’s definitely better now that [e-scooters] ... are in the bike lanes or on the roadway where the other vehicles are going speeds that are more commensurate with that [scooter] speed,” she says. 

However, no one really knows for sure if forcing e-scooters into the streets will actually make Denver commuters any safer. And if someone says they do, they’re probably lying. The very same month the city passed this ruling, Denver saw its first e-scooter fatality, when a rider was t-boned by a vehicle at an intersection. 

It’s a choice between the lesser of two evils: let e-scooters stay on the sidewalk and endanger pedestrians, or push them to the streets, where the riders are at a far greater risk.

BOULDER’S EMERGENCY BAN

It’s exactly those kinds of incidents in Denver that caused the City of Boulder to place a hasty “emergency moratorium” on e-scooter businesses. 

The town wanted to preemptively squash the situation before it found itself in Denver’s floundering shoes. The council and community feared Boulder would likewise see people getting slapped, crashed into, or killed should these scooters hit Boulder without rules in place. And truly, imagine the chaos that would engulf The Hill on any Friday or Saturday night of the school year if student-piloted e-scooters were tearing along the sidewalks, blasting through crosswalks and buzzing bicyclists in the bike lanes. 

Boulder had to figure out those logistics. They wanted to know where e-scooters would be riding, how fast they could go, how many they would allow and if these things are really as environmentally beneficial as they claim to be, before welcoming them into “The Bubble.”

But it isn’t a permanent ban. It isn’t a question of if Boulder will see these things on it’s streets someday soon. But when?

'CARBON FREE' ISN'T FREE

All of this began with the assumption these e-scooters were going to minimize a city’s carbon footprint. People were going to use them for short trips (to go to lunch, to meet friends, to commute to class or work) instead of driving, thus reducing carbon emissions and city traffic. Two birds, one stone, right?

Not exactly. Sure, executives from LimeBike and Lyft preach about their e-scooters having saved hundreds of thousands of gallons of gasoline and taking thousands of riders off the road annually. But consider this: most (if not all) of these e-scooters are charged using grid electricity. LimeBike “Juicers” and Bird “Chargers” are paid to collect the scooters bring them home and charge them using their own power. Some of these scooter chargers will even go so far as to turn their garages into massive charging stations, pulling from the same grid supply you use to light and heat your home.

And where does grid energy come from? From burning stuff taken out of the ground. Namely, coal and natural gas. 

So when all these e-scooters are being charged with that power, are they really as environmentally beneficial as the company execs claim? According to research published in the journal Environmental Research Letters, the answer to that question is a resounding: no. They certainly aren’t. 

“E-scooters consistently result in higher life cycle global warming impacts relative to the use of a bus with high ridership, an electric bicycle, or a bicycle per passenger-mile traveled,” the study concludes. 

Which is to say, busses, e-bikes and regular bicycles are all more environmentally friendly than e-scooters are. 

Beyond the carbon e-scooters may or may not be saving, there is also the issue of direct e-scooter waste. The average street-life of a scooter is only 30 days ... the same as a common housefly. They are then recycled and what cannot be recycled is thrown out. Which means Denver’s armada of well over 2,000 e-scooters is likely generating a significant amount of plastic, steel, rubber, aluminum and battery waste. 

So while the scooter ride itself might be “carbon free,” everything else associated with it, isn’t. And those impacts will start adding up over time. 

ADAPT OR DRIVE

The fact is, no matter how problematic these things might be (on the streets, on the sidewalks and on the environment) they aren’t going anywhere. E-scooter companies are already looking into ways to extend the street-life of their vehicles. Cities like Denver are figuring out (if by trial and error) how to cope with them in a sensible way and even hesitant places like Boulder will soon open their doors to e-vehicle operators like LimeBike, Bird and Lyft.

The era of the e-scooter is upon us. Slowly but surely the kinks will get worked out and e-scooters will likely be a mode of transportation that endures well into the future, regardless of meager issues like environmental impact and traffic fatalities. Get used to them. 

And for fuck’s sake, learn how to ride them.

1. YOU’RE A CAR
Think of it this way: you’re driving a vehicle. The same laws apply: red lights, stop signs, pedestrian right-of-ways, hand signals, speed limits, cell phones — all of ‘em. 

2. YOU’RE ALSO A BIKE
If you’re unsure of what to do, pretend you’re a bike. Stay off the sidewalks, use only bike lanes when available, be considerate of others in the space and don’t just leave them lying around everywhere.

3. DON’T SCOOT DRUNK
Yeah, it’s fun. But it’s pretty stupid, too. Just like with bikes, those who are ordered to “protect and serve” can and will give you a ticket for scooting while intoxicated. Booze. Shrooms. Weed. All of it.