Is New York City ready for the e-scooter revolution?
Companies like Bird are making inroads in the city, but there’s much to be done to make e-scooters a viable transit option
The micromobility revolution that has permeated cities across the U.S. has yet to arrive in New York City, but—having conquered the West Coast through a combination of rule-breaking and eventual cooperation—electric scooter companies are now looking to make their mark in the five boroughs.
As The Verge has pointed out, there’s money to be made there; Bird, one of the leading scooter companies, has reportedly been valued at $2 billion in recent months. And New York City, with its more than 8 million residents—more than half of whom regularly use public transportation—could be a “tremendous scooter city,” according to Gil Kazimirov, the general manager of Lime, the micromobility start-up.
But before that money can pour in, there’s a skeptical populace to win over, some of whom see e-scooters on the same plane as Thanos. There are also laws that must be changed and streets that need to be made safer for the more rugged version of the push-assist scooters that Bird wants to bring to New York.
Those first two necessities are what Bird, the company most prominently trying to enter New York’s market, seem to be focusing on at the moment. The start-up, which is based in Santa Monica, has been courting politicians on both sides of the aisle, though neither Eric Ulrich (a Republican who’s pushed for unfettered competition among bike share companies) nor Robert Cornegy (a Democrat who participated in Bird’s recent Bed-Stuy demo) would comment about their feelings on e-scooters. Bird even snagged one of the city’s most prominent street safety advocates, making clear that it’s approaching New York City expansion in a responsible fashion not usually embraced by “break shit, apologize later” disruptonauts.
Bird has also tried to win over skeptics with demonstrations of how its service works—there was one in Bed-Stuy in September, and one earlier this month that was meant to show how e-scooters could be a key component of the looming L train shutdown. Bird donated scooters for a mass ride from the Myrtle-Wyckoff station to the Grand Street stop, which will be a departure point for a series of Brooklyn-to-Manhattan SBS routes. The demo offered not just a look at how the scooters work but also a proof of concept of how they could help get people around if trains are packed to the brim.
The group ride seemed to win over Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, who liked his scooter enough to throw it in his SUV and show up with it at another press conference that morning in Brooklyn Heights. Before the Bird ride started, Adams told the assembled crowd in the Myrtle-Wyckoff stop’s pedestrian plaza—itself a symbol of reclaiming the streets from cars—that “too many car riders are making decisions for millions of New Yorkers who are not in vehicles. Selfishly, they think that they have to drive alone.” While Adams doesn’t have the power to vote for the impending bill to legalize e-scooters, he did at least give rhetorical support to their legalization.
That effort is being spearheaded in part by City Council member Rafael Espinal, who announced his support for scooters in a Daily News op-ed earlier this year, and is currently working with Transportation Committee chair Ydanis Rodriguez to introduce a bill legalizing them. Espinal’s interest in the scooter issue is driven not only by their potential usefulness during the L train shutdown, but also as a way to include his district (he represents parts of Bushwick, Brownsville, and Cypress Hills) in a transportation system that Citi Bike has yet to meaningfully reach.
“What I’d like to see is an expansion of modes of transportation—not only in Manhattan, but in the outer-outer-boroughs,” Espinal tells Curbed. “We have Citi Bike, but it hasn’t made its way out to East New York and other neighborhoods on the outskirts of the outer boroughs. We have to make sure this transportation is available to everyone.”
But while scooter companies can stage events and work with elected officials, the issue of safety—and aggressively redesigning the city’s streets—is what will no doubt determine how widely adopted scooters become in New York. While their top speed of 15 miles per hour make them inherently riskier than bikes, a Washington Post article about the rise in scooter-related emergency room visits notes that the number of bike lanes in Washington, D.C. was one of the reasons the city didn’t see the same rate of increases in injuries as other American cities.
Bird itself has put a huge emphasis on bike lanes, telling Curbed that “protected, well-maintained bike lanes are part of our vision for a safe future for all road users—be they on foot, bikes, or scooters.” The company has also pledged $1 per scooter per day in each city it operates in to help cities pay for more protected bike lanes, but at least in New York, opposition to bike lanes has had less to do with price and more to do with parking spots. And on that front, radical thinking seems to be in short supply.
Cornegy, whose district mostly encompasses Bed-Stuy, told Streetsblog that he would “stand up for more protected bike lanes” when he was at Bird’s Bed-Stuy event, but he was also a high-profile opponent of the Classon Avenue bike lane, which was installed in response to a cyclist’s death in 2016.
The city’s addition of bike infrastructure has not stopped opposition from community boards; new bike lanes and other improvements are still at the mercy of the right combination of political pressure. Even Adams—who’s called for something as ambitious as a Flatbush Avenue bike lane next to Prospect Park—was ambivalent about the relationship between community boards and the need to quickly shift space away from cars.
“We should never count out the voices of people,” Adams said after the Brooklyn Heights press conference. “[Community boards’] advisory status helps as we carve out bike lanes, because bike lanes are personalized to those communities. It doesn’t mean a community board should be able to have veto power if it’s unreasonable. Allow community boards to have their space to voice their concerns; but at the same time, don’t allow anybody in government to get in the way and stop progress.”
Espinal says that when it comes to New York’s existing network, “the city can be doing more to make sure that bike lanes are acceptable and not being blocked,” though said he’d rather see the results of a scooter pilot program before committing to any type of radical street redesigns.
But Curbed’s urbanism editor Alissa Walker, who’s written previously about how micromobility give cities a huge opportunity to move away from being so car-centric, said that instead of reacting once scooters are being used, street design “needs to be a part of the conversation at the same time.” Without being comfortable on the streets, people either won’t ride scooters, Walker says, or wind up taking to the sidewalks—which simply wouldn’t work in New York City.
One idea the city can embrace is instituting the Vision Zero Design Standard, a series of pedestrian, cycling, and mass transit improvements that are implemented whenever a road needs to be fixed. “It traditionally takes longer to build protected bike lanes than it does to, say, empty a truckload of scooters onto the street,” says Transportation Alternatives’ Joseph Cutrufo. “The best way to accommodate more people on bikes and scooters is to make safer street redesigns part of regular repaving projects. This way, every time a street is repaved, we have the opportunity to make our streets more accommodating for New Yorkers on two wheels, and, more to the point, to save lives.” While Cutrofo says the idea has been endorsed by a majority of members on the City Council, it hasn’t been instituted in any street repavings yet.
As a scooter agnostic/skeptic, Bird’s demonstration earlier this month certainly worked on me: The mass of riders didn’t seem to have any huge problems with Bushwick’s streets that are barely habitable to bikes in some stretches, especially the heavily-trucked and pockmarked stretch of Knickerbocker and Morgan Avenues north of Flushing Avenue. If you squinted, you could see a vision of the future where people used the scooters in peace, although they had some good fortune in clear bike lanes and a dearth of double-parked cars on side streets.
And while some might worry about scooter companies “imposing their will” on the city, the fact remains that car companies have already imposed their will on New York in a way that e-scooters could never possibly match. Besides, if you’re out on the street, you can already see the scooters are there. The same afternoon as the Bird demonstration, I saw a scooter rider salmoning on Ann Street, just blocks from City Hall. Later, I came across an e-scooter rider named Mike while I was walking down Flatbush Avenue.
“It’s convenient, you can slip between cars,” Mike said when asked what he liked about his push-assist scooter that he bought online. He also sees larger benefits for the city if it embraces the scooter revolution. “I feel like you can definitely help the environment, and even start new businesses. Cars suck, and you could open a bunch of mom and pop shops to service the scooters and sell scooters, and just help with the transportation system.”