On the afternoon of Wednesday, July 17, a nervous middle-aged man engaged in alternating fits of screaming ecstasy and profanity while scooting around The Village at 15 miles per hour.
That man was me. Part of my job is covering the controversy caused by the hundreds of dockless electric scooters staged and discarded around La Jolla’s streets and sidewalks every day. So, my editor thought, why not personally experience what I report about?
I didn’t need to use an app to find a scooter. There were seven staged on Cuvier Street across from the Light’s building — three Birds and four from a newcomer, San Francisco’s Skip, which rolled 2,000 of its bright blue vehicles into San Diego on July 1.
It took six minutes to download the Skip app to my phone, enter my credit-card information and ignore the wording of a multi-screen contract before clicking “I agree.” The app then required a photo of my driver license, front and even back. (I can’t give it points for those safeguards, however, because my Skip was one of four staged inside a disabled parking spot, a clear violation of Municipal Code 83.0310. Oopsies!)
Labels on the scooter warned to obey all traffic laws, to not ride on sidewalks or with passengers, and to be 18 or older. The scooter also read, “Helmet is required,” a statement that isn’t true but that probably makes Skip feel they at least tried. (California used to require a helmet for electric scooters, but a bill to overturn that law — sponsored by Bird — passed in September 2018 and became law in January.)
I scanned in my vehicle’s unique 2D barcode and was told by the app to “start the ride.” A kick backward with one foot was required for the accelerator to operate.
Whirring forward for the first time — a third of a horse galloping with just a small depression of the right thumb — is a thrill of the purest kind. (If my middle-school self could see me now, he would be stoked about this and some of the other things I get to do for a living. And also that I didn’t go bald.)
After a few blocks, however, the thrill of the thrust faded, leaving me to notice several potentially dangerous deficiencies with this transportation mode.
My particular scooter took an entire car length and a half to slow to a stop from its top speed of 15 mph. Before I realized this, I was faced with no alternative to running the first stop sign I encountered, westbound on Pearl Street at Olivetas Avenue. Thankfully, that was only a three-way intersection, allowing me to hew to the curb on Pearl with no danger of colliding into anything or anyone. (Part of that contract I didn’t read had me accept full responsibility for whatever happens during the ride — including my own death or injury or someone else’s. Even if the scooter’s brakes fail!)
Also, without the benefit of an air-filled tire like a bicycle’s, even the slightest road protuberance is felt, radiating an incessant series of hard concussions into the hands and feet. Luckily, I managed to avoid La Jolla’s famous potholes. But even standard manhole covers turned the steering column into a small jackhammer. And a pebble in front of the La Jolla Historical Society made me pop a scooter wheelie — something that was as terrifying as it was slightly cool.
Making it entirely up some of La Jolla’s slightly slanted streets is another problem — at least when you weigh 160 pounds like I do. At the top of Jenner Street, just before turning right on Prospect Street, I slowed to such a crawl, the scooter actually stalled. (Resituating the accelerator restarted it.)
OK, fine, I weigh 172 pounds, but I’m working on that.
Finally, on Prospect in front of Bubba’s Smokehouse BBQ, I was almost slammed into twice in rapid succession — first by an opening car door and then by a car pulling out of its parking space. While it would have made a good read, a hospital stay wasn’t my first choice of exciting endings for this story.
Instead, I finished my ride by walking my scooter directly into the lion’s den: an actual La Jolla Traffic & Transportation (T&T) board meeting about scooters.
Board trustee Tom Brady immediately doubled over with laughter. Even T&T chair Dave Abrams cracked a smile. But the audience singed me with the heat of dozens of angry eyes that felt like thousands. One woman seated in front emitted a resounding noise. It was an actual “boo.”
“You see this?!” she asked me, holding up a photo on her phone. “This is what one of those things did to me!” The photo showed her horribly bruised hip. (After the meeting, we talked some more, but she declined to identify herself, explaining that she was in a lawsuit regarding her injuries.)
When I brought the scooter outside to park it as unobtrusively as I could on the Rec Center sidewalk, the Skip app informed me that my ride, three miles in total, would charge my credit card $7.25. It also asked me to photograph the scooter, proving that I parked it somewhere safe — even though there is no legal requirement to do so.
Then the app asked to rate my ride with a smiley face or a frowny one.
Hmm, that was a tough one. Besides the thrill of the thrust, there were some other positives I haven’t mentioned yet. My favorite was the nod. The biggest thing you notice while riding scooters is other people riding scooters. So, there’s this little thing you do as you approach another scooter-ist headed in the opposite direction. It’s not a full-on “hi.” It’s just a little head-bobbing acknowledgment that here you are, two grown-ups riding a motorized vehicle without helmets because it’s legal, even though it’s insanely stupid.
Bicyclists won’t do the nod to you, by the way. They think they’re all superior and stuff. (Oh, right. Just because you’re using YOUR OWN energy and still going faster than us? Just because you’re doing something good for yourselves and for the planet? And just because you’re wearing helmets to protect your brains?) OK, well, maybe you are totally superior.
Also, I would never have met U.S. Army Cadet Captain Shiloh Perenon and his lovely new bride, Lily, if I didn’t have the speed to catch up when I saw them two whole blocks ahead of me, walking from the beach to their wedding reception at the Cuvier Club. (“That looks like fun,” Perenon said of the scooter. )
But the woman in the front row at the T&T meeting had a compelling point. Dockless scooting is just too dangerous — at least without more sensible regulation and enforcement than we currently have. She was just one of several hundred unfortunate examples — including two San Diego deaths — since dockless scooting was introduced. If I wasn’t careful — and especially if I rode on the sidewalks, like so many riders illegally do — I could easily have run into someone like her who I didn’t see until it was too late, someone stepping out in front of me less than a car length and a half away.
Also, despite the claims of the scooter companies, what they offer does not seem to be a green alternative to driving. A car lets you drive long distances, at high speeds and up occasional hills — all while carrying stuff inside of it that you need.
What dockless scooting replaces is not driving but walking. But why would anyone want to replace that? Walking is exercise. And it’s a decidedly greener activity than riding a battery-powered device that needs to be picked up by someone’s gas-guzzling Ford F-150 every night, then recharged using SDG&E electricity, before being discarded after four months of use.
I clicked the frowny face.