Electric scooters aim to solve the last-mile problem — those gaps between public-transit stops and a person's final destination. Some locals consider them a nuisance, but for travelers, they offer a new sense of possibility.

By Mark Healy
November 06, 2019
The e-scooter company Lime launched service in Rio de Janeiro in July 2019.
Courtesy of Lime

When my family visited Portland, Oregon, a couple months ago, we spotted the city's new electric scooters everywhere. So, after walking around and eating like gastro royalty on our second day, we grabbed a few. In minutes, we'd crossed the Willamette River, rolled through a sweet neighborhood we'd glimpsed earlier from a car, stopped for a leap off a pier to cool down, then headed back to the hotel. The sense of adventure and satisfaction of pack mobility made those the best 90 minutes of our day — all for less than the cost of a cab ride.

Over the past 18 months, dockless electric scooters have been appearing en masse in major American cities (though not yet New York) and college towns, and in Europe, Asia, and South America — all you need to find and rent one is an app and a credit card. The two biggest players, Lime and Bird, now operate in more than 100 international destinations. A third, Jump, is in close to 15. In most of these places, the cost of a ride is a mere $1 per scooter plus 15 cents per minute of use. This affordability is, perhaps, one reason for the current boomlet. A report from the National Association of City Transportation Officials showed that, last year, use of e-scooters outpaced that of bike shares for the first time. Uber is so bullish on the trend that it invested in both Lime, which riders can rent through the Uber app, and Jump, which it acquired in April 2018.

Even so, dockless scooters are widely mocked and are particularly loathed by anyone who has had to step around one left in the middle of a sidewalk or dodge one speeding through a park. And locals' frustration with them is entirely understandable, given the unregulated way they've been used. But for someone visiting a new city, it's one of the best ways to travel.

We spend so much time and energy obsessing over where to go, but we forget to consider how we're going to get around once we get there. Many argue that the ideal way to explore a city is by foot, and if you have a week to stroll through Vienna or Seattle, it is. Yet everything we love about walking — the sunshine, the sight lines, the flexibility to follow your nose down a random alley — is true of scooters, too. There's no hunting for parking, and no need to master an arcane public transit system. It's a low-cost, low-emission way to travel, with an unrestricted range of motion, unlimited stops, starts, and wander backs.

For the business traveler, riding a scooter can mean getting to a meeting on time, regardless of the traffic. For the weekend explorer, it can mean whizzing a half-mile out of the way to a flea market, gambling only a few minutes and a fraction of a euro if it turns out to be a bust.

Lime, Bird, and their ilk have new initiatives aimed squarely at travelers. Lime, which has investment from Alphabet, the parent company of Google, has partnered with Google Maps to help riders locate scooters, calculate distance and cost, and find the best route. Bird, meanwhile, coordinated with Hilton on two high-profile sporting events earlier this year. During the Super Bowl in Atlanta and the NBA All-Star game in Charlotte, North Carolina, select Hiltons placed 10 or 15 Bird scooters outside to give guests easy access to them.

But what won't always work are the scooters themselves. As we neared our hotel, one started losing steam, while another slowly broke down, beginning with an ever-loosening handlebar. We reported the issues on the app, thanked the scooters for their service, and left them on a patch of grass in a park without a care in the world. After all, there's more where those came from.

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