The two young men — they appeared to be kids as neither had a chin hair worthy of a razor — looked confused and unafraid of traffic.
They hopped on two of the 100 scooters foisted on the downtown earlier this month. They’d waived via a smart phone app their right to complain about bruises or mishaps and paid $1 each to unlock them.
They fiddled with the accelerators, grinned and zipped off down 5th street. They turned around near the library and headed back. Approaching the Benton Convention Center, one young man turned the wrong way onto a one-way street and the other pulled up on the sidewalk to wait.
Electric scooters — known as micro-mobility to city planners and the companies that profit from scooting — are back.
But this time, about a month in, the new and improved roll-out has been orderly, reasonable and (mostly) free of kerfuffle.
Easy to follow rules
The first time the city dealt with scooters was by comparison a guerrilla campaign.
The Bird Company of Santa Monica, Calif., off-loaded a fleet of more than 1,000 electric scooters on every conceivable city intersection and block in August 2018.
Bird droppings, as it were.
The plugged-in, wired-up, in-the-know crowd knew what they were and how to operate them, but it took a minute for the rest of us troglodyte, pen-and-paper types to catch up. And that included more than a few city officials.
It didn’t take long before complaints and problems, mostly caused by operator-error, piled up. Jugheads flew down sidewalks, nearly sideswiped cars and abandoned them in rights-of-way, in front of reputable businesses and anywhere they damn well pleased.
The Winston-Salem City Council, you might recall, banned the scooters last November, a move which was always going to be temporary.
By March, council had reconsidered and approved a 19-page ordinance with some 15 subsections. Clearly, and necessarily, it was written by (and for) lawyers.
Its key provisions, most of which seemed aimed at preventing another Wild West-style Bird infestation, can be summed up in plain English: Don’t be stupid.
Supplier companies agree to use GPS to compile data about usage and incidents and provide reports to the city manager upon demand.
To obtain operating permits, the companies further agree to pay a $1,000 annual fee plus $100 per scooter, $50 per electric-assist bicycle and $25 per human-powered bike.
They also must agree to respond promptly to complaints and hop-to when reports surface about the devices being dumped in stupid places.
(Interestingly, the city also requires companies to “state clearly, conspicuously and transparently” that personal data will be collected and that they must ask users’ permission to sell it.)
For riders, the basic rules can be summed up similarly. Users must be older than 16, obey all traffic laws, and stay off the sidewalk and out of Old Salem. Helmets are recommended, but not required.
In other words, don’t be stupid. And that’s easier said than done.
View from ground level
Two companies — Zagster in partnership with Spin scooters and VeoRide — filed applications and were awarded permits in August.
Spin put out 100 scooters earlier this month with plans to expand to 500 by year’s end. VeoRide is expected to have its scooters out soon.
If the math checks out, always a big “if,” Zagster/Spin shelled out $11,000 to start — $1,000 for the annual fee and $10,000 for the scooters at $100 each for the first fleet of 100.
At a base rate of $1 to unlock and 25 cents per minute, each of those 100 scooters would have to be ridden 32 times for 10 minutes to make that $11,000 back. That can be done on a nice weekend; the rest is gravy.
So if stupid is as stupid does, how goes the re-introduction?
Damon Dequenne, the assistant city manager charged with riding herd over this iteration, reports that official complaints have been few.
“We’ve had a few instances of riders using the sidewalks downtown and those have been addressed quickly,” he wrote in an email. “I can state that the complaints have almost been completely abated compared to our last experience. The policy and the vendor appear to be working well.”
Much the same has been reported at the ground level. A few boneheads have done bone-headed things — witness the kids at Fifth and Marshall — but nothing over the top yet.
“I would say it is better this time,” said Sgt. Kevin Bowers of the Downtown Bike Patrol. “Personally I’ve seen people on sidewalks and two riders per scooter but that gets shut down when we talk to people.”
The best improvement, Bowers said, is in the response time from the vendor. When he saw a couple kids take off on a scooter that had been left on by a careless rider, he contacted a company rep.
“They shut it down remotely within minutes,” he said.
Philip “Opie” Kirby, the owner of Finnigan’s Wake, likes the new ruled-based, ease-in approach to micro-transportation.
“(Scooters) don’t seem like they’ve taken the city by storm like last time,” Kirby said. “It’s a good thing if people are doing it right.
“When your mom or my mom has lunch at Finnigan’s Wake, when they walk out and a scooter whizzes by, that’s when it scares me. I don’t want my customers feeling like they need to carry a stick to check the sidewalk before they walk out.”