NICK EICHER, HOST: Today is Tuesday, January 22nd. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day. Good morning. I’m Nick Eicher.
MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. Coming next on The World and Everything in It: we move to another trend originating in California. A trend that people seem either to love or to hate.
EICHER: And cities aren’t neutral about it, either. Some have even gone so far as to ban it. What is it? Well, World Journalism Institute’s mid-career class has a report on it from sunny Austin, Texas.
BARNES: I don’t like ‘em at all. I want to kick them all down. I want to do a domino thing.
That’s Waylon Doyle Barnes, age 29. He’s a tattooed ex-con, hanging out near the University of Texas, sipping malt liquor from a can stuffed in a paper bag.
South of downtown, cars flow along Congress Ave. Pedestrians cram the sidewalks. Along comes Sam Greyhorse—who is riding a horse up the middle of the road. This is Texas, after all.
GREYHORSE: I think there should be more regulation on them. I think there’s too many. The town’s growing, but it’s the wild, wild west, you know.
What are Barnes and Sam Greyhorse talking about? The nearly 13,000 electric scooters that appeared on Austin streets and sidewalks since last May. They resemble a child’s foot-powered toy. But these have a battery that allows them to hit speeds of 15 to 20 miles an hour.
Names like Bird. Lime. Lyft. Jump. Spin. Skip. Scoot. Maybe you’ve seen them in your city, parked at intersections. Or discarded on the sidewalk.
To ride one, you use a smartphone app to scan a code on the handle. Then hop on. And when you’re done, you just leave it at your destination, wherever that is.
WOOD: The first time I rode them it was in Washington D.C… it’s convenient way of getting around, especially whenever you get tired.
That’s Presley Wood. She’s embraced this new transportation. At 15 years old, she’s too young for a driver’s license.
Technically she’s also too young to ride a scooter. All the companies require users to verify they are 18. But kids routinely ignore that. Like these two 15-year-olds in east Austin.
AUDIO: It only asks you are you 18. You didn’t really have to scan your ID or anything. You just really had to like verify. And you verified? Just by saying yes. I mean we lied about something we wanted to have fun about. Yeah.
Cyber security consultant Abdul Pasha is almost twice Wood’s age, and he’s scooting about on South Congress with a couple of friends. He likes the fun and convenience.
PASHA: My car had a flat tire about a week ago, and ah, ya know riding a scooter was pretty economical, just to go from my apartment….drop off my car, ah, they were fixing it and I just rode my scooter around and ah, got back to my apartment. They called me. Grabbed my scooter again.
Eric Warden works construction downtown. He also likes scooters.
WARDEN: I can save money by not parking right here on this street. I can park under that bridge down there for free and catch me a scooter up here to this job.
The transportation service is certainly proving popular, but some worry about safety. “Scooter danger” is a common theme: rutted sidewalks, distracted shoppers, and busy street traffic pose challenges to riders.
Another concern is pedestrian safety. Rebecca Zeinsmeyer.
ZEINSMEYER: I hate scooters. I hate them. Because people like to ride on the sidewalks when they shouldn’t be riding on the sidewalks. People have actually asked me to get off the sidewalk while I am walking, while they are on scooters, they have asked me, can you please move?
At an east-side park, 76-year old Barbara Archey worries about children:
ARCHEY: There are a lot of strollers, a lot of toddlers, a lot of kids who are on those sidewalks, and I would rather not see scooters there. It could be very dangerous.
For others, like Danny Saenz, abandoned scooters are more than a minor inconvenience. He gets around town in a wheelchair.
SAENZ: As a person with a mobility issue—I’m in a power chair—a lot of times the scooters are left in the middle of the sidewalk, blocking the sidewalk. I’ve seen some even blocking the curb ramps.
On the bus, driver Eddie says scooters have made his job harder.
EDDIE: I hate ’em. I get it for some people, but for messing with buses and cars, it’s kind of chaotic.
Back on South Congress, Allie McWilliam clutches her phone and darts across the street. She loves scooters, but still worries about accidents:
MCWILLIAM: They’re great but I still think they’re kinda dangerous, especially when people start drinking….Someone was riding in the street and hit a pothole and literally flipped over the front of it… busted face. Everything. It wasn’t pretty. I almost hit them everyday single day ‘cuz I come down a huge hill and always forget.
Part of the problem stems from a century of cities designed for cars, and the suddenness of the scooter invasion. Reworking city streets and sidewalks to accommodate scooters is hard. Local ordinances seem to shift every few months. Cities like Denver have restricted scooter use to bike lanes. Others, like Portland, Oregon, and Corpus Christi, Texas have severely limited their number. And city boards in Columbia, South Carolina and Indianapolis, Indiana prohibit them altogether. At least for now.
But those government reactions would leave some scooter enthusiasts bereft.
KRISTEN: You can go really really fast and it’s awesome cause you don’t really have to walk…You get to go down there and people watch while you scoot. And that’s a verb. [laughter]
For WORLD Radio, I’m Joel Maas, reporting from Austin, Texas.
EICHER: In addition to Joel, these other members of the 2019 World Journalism Institute mid-career course worked on this story. They are Carol Blair, Andrew Coleman, Sharon Dierberger, Collin Garbarino, Vicki Johnson, Daniel van Oudenaren, Jenny Rough, Laura Singleton, and Steve West.