When I tell people that I work in the e-scooter industry, I typically hear one of two reactions:
- “Oh, I love the scooters! I just rode one last week!”
- “Ugh, those things? What a menace! One of them nearly ran into me the other day.”
I’m used to hearing strong opinions about scooters — both for and against. In Washington, D.C. where I live, a magazine even gave scooters an award for “Best Public Nuisance,” saying that scooters annoy some but “do solve a last-mile problem, and if that means less traffic, lower demand on Lyft, or revitalized neighborhoods thanks to increased accessibility, then they’re a nuisance worth abiding.” Um, thanks? I think?
I believe that scooters are a valuable new alternative for helping people get around and enjoy our cities. But in working with cities around the country to establish regulations for scooters and make scooters a reliable transportation option, I’ve noticed that cities’ relationships with scooters follow a predictable pattern. It’s a cycle that experts recognized almost a quarter century ago.
Gartner’s Hype Cycle
Back in 1995, the Gartner consulting firm released its first “Hype Cycle for Emerging Technologies,” illustrating the four phases that all new technologies progress through:
- First, a “technology trigger” where an innovation or product combination creates a new product category;
- Second, a “peak of inflated expectations” where the new technology is hyped as a solution to war, famine, loneliness or disease;
- Third, a “trough of disillusionment,” when the new technology fails to meet those lofty expectations, and the new product may even be abused or have downsides;
- Fourth, the “slope of enlightenment,” where the product’s upsides are reasonably weighed against its downsides; and
- Finally, the “plateau of productivity,” when the new technology finds its most valuable use in business and society, and its downsides are managed.
This is what that very first Hype Cycle looked like, with Gartner capturing where different technologies were in their evolutions in 1995:
What does all this have to do with scooters? The Gartner Hype Cycle is also a great model for thinking about cities’ evolving feelings about scooters — but with a twist.
In observing the cities where my company, Lime, operates scooters, it seems that each new city that welcomes our product goes through its own individual scooter hype cycle. And each city’s passage through the cycle is eerily predictable, as measured by local media headlines at every step along the way.
Peak of Inflated Expectations: Scooters Arrive
On the first day that scooters arrive in a city, everyone’s excited. The mayor rides a scooter at a press conference. A local reporter tests the scooters and publishes a first-person account. Operators like Lime offer safe-riding seminars for novice riders. The mood is upbeat, as reflected in headlines:
Trough of Disillusionment: Scooter Norms Not Yet Developed
But because scooters are new to the city, they take some getting used to until norms emerge. A small minority may misuse the scooters. Vandals may start throwing scooters in rivers and lakes. Untrained riders ride improperly on sidewalks. Reporters call up the local hospital, which reports there’s been an increase in scooter-related accidents — which makes sense given that there were no scooters before. CBS News called this disillusionment phase “the great electric scooter backlash.” And because many city leaders are unprepared for the new technology to be abused by a small minority, they threaten to kick out the scooters at the first sign of trouble:
Of course, any accident is a tragedy, and we work to make our product as safe as possible. But press coverage of the first scooter accident in a city sometimes overlooks the fact that more than 3,000 people tragically die every day in auto accidents around the world.
I believe this happens because the “scooter element” has a way of making old stories…new again. For example, Florida is well-practiced in preparing for hurricanes. But throw scooters into the mix and you get… a “Scooternado”!
Or…a bank is robbed. But when the suspect gets away on a scooter, that’s nightly news material:
During scooters’ “trough of disillusionment” in cities, there are typically many more happy citizens than there are unhappy voices — but unhappy voices are certainly louder. It’s a classic collective action problem of diffuse benefits vs. concentrated costs, and city officials may be tempted to heed the views of a vocal minority.
Slope of Enlightenment: Maybe the Scooters Aren’t So Bad
But if city leaders are patient, cooler heads typically prevail in the next phase. As people become more experienced in riding scooters, accident rates decline. As norms develop for respectful riding and parking behavior, there are fewer complaints from non-riders. Cities might start fining non-compliant riders just as they would write speeding tickets for car drivers. Rather than ban scooters, city officials look at regulating them:
Plateau of Productivity: Scooters are Good
And finally, as everyone gets used to scooters, they begin to be seen as an everyday, even essential, part of city life. They are seen as a valuable tool in helping relieve traffic congestion, reducing pollution, and even an economic development tool.
Heck, people might even start feeling the scooters are…good:
Put the cycle together and it looks something like this:
Cities’ own data shows a similar cycle. Check out this chart published by Arlington, Virginia — showing that the first month of the county’s scooter program was the high water mark for public complaints about scooters. As residents have gotten used to scooters, they no longer complain much at all:
Similarly, in San Diego more than 75% of all scooter complaints to the city last summer came from the same ten people — that’s 0.0007% of the city population.
So what can cities learn from the fairly predictable patterns of this Scooter/City Hype Cycle?
First, scooters aren’t nearly as amazing or terrible as their most optimistic champions or most pessimistic critics would have you believe. Rather, they can be a valuable mode of transportation but must be regulated properly.
Second, cities should be prepared for scooters to be misused by a small minority, and should take the long view that any new technology will require some time for adjustment.
Third, operators like Lime are working to smooth the introduction of scooters into a city. When we launch in a new city, we hold a “First Ride Academy” event to train novice riders on how to ride safely and respectfully.
Fourth, the troughs of the cycle should encourage city leaders to think about how their own micromobility infrastructure should be improved. Separating scooters and bikes from both cars and pedestrians is the surest way to reduce both accidents and complaints.
Finally, adding a brand new technology like scooters to city environments that are largely built for cars and pedestrians will definitely pose challenges to both the design of public space and existing regulation. But that challenge calls out for wise regulatory innovation, not outright rejection of anything new.
With a little wisdom to see how city residents will gradually adapt to scooters — and appropriate regulation to address citizens’ concerns — cities can help scooters reach their full potential in transforming city life for the better.
Adam Kovacevich is Head of Americas Government Relations for Lime, a shared e-scooter operator.