Credit: Darrow Montgomery

Ben Tufts swears he’ll never step foot on a Lime scooter again.

Tufts is a musician from Virginia who’s been playing in bands and giving drum lessons in the District for 20 years. Last month, a series of unfortunate events left him running late for his job at 7DrumCity. His car was in the shop and traffic was so bad even an Uber couldn’t save him, so he did what people in D.C. do approximately 14,000 times every day—he checked his scooter apps.

“My Lyft app was not working. Lyft scooters are what I had used exclusively. I find them to be really safe and easy to use,” Tufts says. “So I checked out the Lime app, noticing there were a bunch of Lime scooters just sitting all over the place.”

Desperate, Tufts rented the nearest Lime. The first couple miles were a bit rickety, but mostly uneventful. Then, riding at full speed and wearing a heavy backpack, Tufts hit a bump in the road, flew over the handlebars, and sprained his ankle—badly. Needless to say, he didn’t make it to work.

For Tyler Jones and Georgia Rowe, the scooter company they’ve sworn off is Bird.

Jones and Rowe moved to D.C. from Alabama in January and have been using electric scooters to get around the city. Initially they used whatever they could find, then Jones noticed a mysterious $20 charge to his bank account from Bird.

“It was like preloading my account, so I can get on it and have $20 to spend. Then it preloads again,” Jones says. “But I couldn’t go below the $20.”

In protest against the undesired charges, Jones and Rowe both deleted the Bird app from their phones. Now, they mostly get around on Lime or Spin.

Despite their unwanted charges and injuries, Jones, Rowe, and Tufts remain pro-scooter. And they’re not alone.

According to a National Association of City Transportation Officials report on shared micromobility, riders in the United States completed 38.5 million trips on shared electric scooters in 2018, beating out the 36.5 million trips taken on station-based bike share systems like Capital Bikeshare. The report found that at the end of 2018, more than 85,000 scooters were available in approximately 100 U.S. cities.

Of those scooters, 3,960 are permitted to operate in D.C., according to Terry Owens, Director of Communications for the District Department of Transportation. The city has granted permits to six dockless scooter companies: Bird, Jump, Lime, Lyft, Skip, and Spin. Owens says 420,000 scooter rides are completed in the District every month—that’s around 14,000 every day.

The rapid emergence of dockless scooters hasn’t been welcomed by everyone. An Instagram account called @birdgraveyard, which posts videos of people throwing, stomping on, and vandalizing scooters, has more than 85,000 followers. (Bird representative Mackenzie Long tells City Paper that the company has “zero tolerance for vandalism and aggressively [addresses] it when it occurs in communities where [they] are meeting the needs for sustainable transportation options.”)

And electric scooter sharing is severely limited or outright banned in Austin, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Seattle. In October 2018, a class-action lawsuit filed in California accused Bird and Lime of “aiding and abetting assault” after a number of collisions involving scooters resulted in injuries.  

Lime representative Russell Murphy says in an emailed statement that “the safety of our riders and the community is our number one priority,” and that the company is working on a number of initiatives to “set the standard for micromobility safety,” including distributing more than 250,000 free helmets and investing more than $3 million in their Respect the Ride campaign. It wants to work with “the industry, medical community and regulators to create a meaningful ecosystem for this new and evolving technology.” 

Rowe says she notices a lot of resistance to the growing trend from bikers. Earlier this year, a man on a bike crashed into her while she was using a scooter.

“He was like, ‘these stupid scooters, you need to watch where you’re going.’” she says. “It was equally both our faults, but he was making it just mine, and about the scooter.”

But that attitude isn’t universal among cyclists. Colin Browne is communications director at the Washington Area Bicyclist Association, and he says part of his job is keeping up with what bicyclists are angry about.

“Scooters haven’t really been on the radar,” he says. “The most I’ve encountered is mild annoyance at poor parking etiquette, which is certainly not a bicyclist-specific concern.”

Sophie Krensky usually bikes to and from her job as a project manager at the Georgetown University Medical Center. She doesn’t mind the increasing number of scooters in bike lanes, but says she’s had some issues with people using them on sidewalks.

Legally, scooters can be used on sidewalks everywhere except the central business district—although for anyone who’s been downtown at all over the past two years, it’s pretty obvious that scooter riders are ignoring this rule. Other restrictions on operating scooters in the District include an age requirement of 16 and a speed limit of 10 miles per hour.

Krensky self-identifies with D.C. cyclist culture, which she says “kind of has the same flavor as people who join groups for exercise.” She doesn’t see a comparable community with scooter riders.

“I don’t think there’s a scooter identity. And I can’t tell you why that is,” Krensky says.

The reason might be because such a broad mix of people ride scooters. There’s the people who ride them to work in full suits, the high schoolers who circle around Tenleytown on them, and of course, the tourists.

Alexandra Schulte, a nanny from California, visited D.C. with her husband in May, and they couldn’t get enough of dockless scooters. She says one of their favorite activities was to “double-up” on one scooter.

Schulte prefers Lyft scooters, which come with two brake options: one near the handlebars and one accessible by foot. But before unlocking one, she always made sure they had a functioning bell and brakes—which was especially important since she never wore a helmet. And since helmets are not supplied by scooter companies or required by D.C. law, most riders don’t.

Krensky worries that the scooter malfunctions Schulte was so wary of will only worsen over time.

“I have to wonder how sturdy those things are. My bike takes a beating on these streets regardless, and these scooters are kind of flimsy,” Krensky says. The solution, she thinks, lies in better infrastructure for all forms of alternate transit—bikes and scooters alike.

***

While there may be a lack of scooter rider identity in the District, scooter charger identity is very real.

Jumbe Hamza is a student at Towson University in Maryland, but he’ll be spending most of his summer break within D.C. city limits. It’s where he and his cousin Jibril can make the most money charging the batteries of electric dockless scooters.

The cousins are part of a growing contract workforce employed by scooter companies to collect scooters, charge them, and redistribute them around cities. Becoming a charger is easy: Interested individuals sign up either online or through the same apps used to unlock scooters, then provide some personal information and sometimes complete a brief interview. Once approved, scooter companies send these people physical chargers in the mail, and the newly hired chargers—also known as Lime “juicers,” Bird “hunters” or Skip “rangers”—can locate scooters that need charging on their apps and start making money.

Hamza and Jibril have a whole system down. Jibril locates Bird and Skip scooters through their corresponding apps and Hamza meets him in their minivan. After loading up as many scooters as they can, the cousins take them to a warehouse and switch them out with the scooters they’ve already been charging, then drop those off in areas designated by the scooter companies.

“You can make maybe $200, $300 a day if you work from 7 a.m. through the nighttime,” Hamza says.

Ryan Ha, a self-proclaimed member of the “gig economy” who lives downtown, charges scooters every day for Lime and Skip. He says he’s not in it for the money—he does it for the free rides some scooter companies guarantee to chargers. He either gives his free rides to his girlfriend or uses them to deliver food through Postmates. But for those who charge for a living, Ha says, the job can get “cutthroat.”

“It’s a social experiment,” he says. “They put money on a map lying around the city, and then they let poor people duke it out. It’s like The Hunger Games out here.”

Ha says he sees tons of chargers working in teams like Hamza and his cousin, sometimes collecting 40 scooters at a time in their trucks. And often, multiple chargers will show up to take the same scooters, which means people who charge on a regular basis start seeing familiar faces.

“You know what Tinder is?” Ha asks. “It’s like Tinder.”

According to Ha, who’s been charging for over a year, the charger scene is much less competitive than it was when he first started because companies are paying less per scooter than they used to. Still, he definitely perceives a charger type.

“It’s a lot of hustlers. A lot of people who hustle the town,” he says.

***

Tufts is now on his feet again, back to hustling the town as a drummer. He’s definitely steering clear of Limes, which he called “death traps” in a Facebook post shorty after his fall, and he probably won’t risk his well being again with any electric scooter brands—even his beloved Lyfts. But he doesn’t think accidents like his should stop the use of electric scooters entirely.

“When this kind of thing pops up, and it’s a successful business, and it’s relatively safe, it suggests that there was a need to be filled that wasn’t being filled,” he says. “They’re gonna be around, and I think people are gonna have to learn how to live with them.”

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