THE FIRST THING you need to know about scooters is that it’s impossible to look cool riding one. When you ride one, people look at you with disdain. They shout things like, “you’re the problem!” and “get off the sidewalk!” (Seriously.) They try to get in your way as much as possible. Even people on hoverboards and electric skateboards judge you. These are just facts.
The second thing you need to know about scooters is that there’s a decent chance you’re going to be riding one soon. It might be a fancy electric seated thing from some hip startup, but just as likely it’ll be an old-school, kick-push-and-coast, Razor-style ride. Why? Because we need a way to move around that isn’t inside a car.
The UN predicts the global population will hit 9.6 billion by 2050. All of that growth will come in cities—two thirds of those people will live in urban areas. We’re breeding like rabbits, and packing people into ever-smaller, ever-taller, ever-more-crowded metropolitan areas, because it’s not like there’s more land in Manhattan or San Francisco or Beijing we’re just not using.
This isn’t one of those “think of your grandchildren!” problems. Our cities are already clogged with traffic, and filled with hideous parking garages that facilitate our planet-killing habits. Even the automakers recognize that the traditional car business—sell a car to every person with the money to buy one—is on its way out. “If you think we’re gonna shove two cars in every car in a garage in Mumbai, you’re crazy,” says Bill Ford, Jr.—the chairman and former CEO of the company his great-grandfather Henry founded to put two cars in every garage.
The problem with moving away from car ownership is that you give up one its biggest upsides: you can usually park exactly where you’re going. Public transit, built around permanent stations, can’t offer that. That’s called the “last mile” problem: How do you get from the subway or bus stop to where you’re actually going, when it’s just a little too far to walk?
The UScooter turns 20-minute power-walks into effortless five-minute rides. It’s tripled the size of my immediate vicinity.
There are plenty of possible last-mile solutions: bike-share programs, Segway rentals, folding bikes, even skateboards. In Asia, for instance, a number of cities have experimented with people riding a variety of small, economical “personal electric mobility devices” to get from public transit to their destination. “They are a low-carbon, affordable, and convenient way to bridge the first and last mile gap,” Raymond Ong, an assistant professor at the National University of Singapore’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, told Eco-Business.
Electric kick scooters, goofy they may be, are a particularly good answer to the last mile problem. They’re light enough to sling over your shoulder, and small enough to fold for stowing in the trunk of your Uber / Tesla / Hyperloop pod. They’re easy to ride just about anywhere, require minimal physical exertion, and are relatively affordable.
For the last few weeks, I’ve used an electric scooter as part of my daily commute. It’s called the UScooter. It costs $999, and it’s coming to the United States after a successful debut in China. It’s got a range of 21 miles and hits 18 mph with just a push of my right thumb—on a scooter, that feels like warp speed. Every time I ride it, I feel ridiculous. But as I zip up and down the sidewalks of San Francisco, bag slung over my shoulder at the end of a long day, I do it like the fat kid strutting in that “haters gonna hate” gif.
Go ahead, sneer at me from behind the wheel of your SUV. This thing I’m riding is the future. Maybe.
The UScooter was born about five years ago, under another name: E-Twow. (It stands for Electric Two Wheels, and you pronounce it E-2. It makes no sense.) It’s the work of Romanian engineer Sorin Sirbu and his team in Jinhua, China. Sirbu’s friend Brad Ducorsky helped with the development and is now responsible for the improved, better-named Americanized version.
I am squarely the target demographic for the UScooter. Most mornings for the last few weeks, I’ve ridden it out of my Oakland apartment and down the street toward the BART station. I slide to a stop ten blocks later, fold it up, pick it up by the bottom, and run up the stairs to catch the train. I stash it under a seat, or stand it up on one wheel for the ride. Then I carry it up the stairs out of the San Francisco station, unfold it, and ride to work. My 50 minute commute—15 minute walk, 20 minute train, 15 minute walk—is now more like 30.
The UScooter’s much easier to ride than the hugely popular hoverboard, because all you have to do is hop on and not tip over. Turns out handlebars are helpful that way. You can take it over small curbs and cracks in the sidewalk, powering through the obstacles that would launch you forward off a hoverboard. The whole thing produces no emissions, needs no fuel, and makes almost no noise.
It does have its flaws. The only throttle settings seem to be “barely moving” and “land speed record,” so you’re always speeding up and slowing down and speeding up and slowing down. The worst part of the whole experience, though, is the folding mechanism. Opening it is easy enough: press down on the back tire’s cover until the steering column clicks out, then pull it up until it’s vertical. But to fold the scooter back up, you have to push forward on the handlebars, then press down on a tiny ridged lip with your foot until the hinge gives. I call it the Shoe Shredder, because you’ll rip a sole off trying to get the thing to disconnect. The UScooter has a bad habit of trying to unfold while you carry it, too.
After a few days of riding, I got good—and a little cocky. I’d weave through pedestrians, and ride gleefully in the bike lane and among the cars. (Don’t worry, I hate me, too.) I’d charge through lights about to turn red, all the while making vroom-vroom sounds in my head. Then one rainy day, I made a sharp right turn, and my back wheel didn’t come with me. One nastily scraped knee later, I ride a lot more carefully.
I may not be doing sweet tricks anytime soon, but my electric scooter is an amazingly efficient way to get around. It turns 20-minute power-walks into effortless five-minute rides. It’s tripled the size of my immediate vicinity—I’ve been riding to coffeeshops and stores I’d never patronize otherwise. When I’m not riding I can fold it up and carry it, or sling it over my shoulder to go up stairs. At 24 pounds, it’s no featherweight, but as I squeeze onto the morning train, I pity the people begging strangers to move so they can fit their bike. With the 21-mile range, plus the energy recouped by a regenerative braking system, I only need to plug it in once a week, for a few hours.
It won’t replace your car or help you through your 45-mile morning commute, but for the kind of nearby urban travel so many people struggle through, it’s perfect.
The Cool Factor
It would be perfect, rather, except for the fact that anyone riding a scooter looks like a dweeb. Sure, scooters are practical, efficient, and useful. They’ve been a good idea for a long time, since well before they were even electric. But they’re not cool. They’ve never been cool.
UScooters’ Instagram page is full of beautiful women standing next to scooters, and they look ridiculous. Justin Bieber got his hands on one—he’s friends with a guy who helped Ducorsky come up with the UScooters name—andeven he couldn’t pull it off. “If you can park it in your cubicle or fold it into your man-purse,” Details has warned, “it is not something you want to be seen riding.”
Scooters aren’t cool. What’s cool right now is hoverboards. They’re not so different from scooters—they run on electricity, are more or less light enough to pick up, and can easily fit in a closet—but hoverboards have taken off and hit a level of social acceptability that eludes scooters. It’s hard to say exactly why. Maybe it’s the association with kids’ toys. Maybe it’s that hoverboards make people think of floating and the future, and scooters are the equivalent of that game where you hit the hoop with a stick. Whatever the reason, it’s undeniable.
The case for scooters gets even harder to make when you look at the price tags, which are much higher than the $200 or so you can snag a hoverboards with. Ducorsky defends the $999 price of the UScooter as the rightful cost of making a safe product (you know, one that won’t catch on fire). He also notes that hoverboards are harder to ride, can’t handle hills, and are much more toy than transport. Plus, even at a grand, the UScooter is one of the cheaper electric kick scooters on the market. EcoReco’s M5 costs $1,250; a similar model from Go-Ped is about $1,500.
These scooters are all starting to hit American shores, all banking on the same thing: That there are lots of people looking for a faster, easier way to get to the grocery store or the subway station. They’re hoping that scooters are just the right mix of powerful, portable, and useful. They’re also hoping to deal with some important questions about where you can and can’t legally ride an electric scooter. Ducorsky wants to sell UScooters to you and me, but he’s also imagining them as a great way for pilots to get around airports, for cruise patrons to see the sights on shore, and for managers to get around factories. “There are so many markets for this thing,” he says. It’s hard to disagree.
There are plenty of reasons these scooters are a good idea, and I almost want one myself. There’s just one big problem left: scooters are lame. And if Justin Bieber can’t make you cool, what can?