Seemingly overnight, scores of electric scooters appeared in neighborhoods across my home city of Columbus, Ohio earlier this summer. I began seeing them parked in groups of twos and threes in front of shops near my home. I could hardly leave the house without witnessing someone riding one down the street or sidewalk. They were everywhere.
This newly-available transportation option was compliments of Bird, one of several emerging companies seeking to solve the “last-mile” problem in transportation. Shortly after Bird began offering scooters here, a second company, Lime, which was already offering bicycles for rent using a similar model, also entered the scooter market.
Each day, these companies distribute their scooters along sidewalks across cities like mine. Customers may locate and rent the vehicles using a mobile app for very affordable prices, $1 per ride plus 15 cents per minute where I live. When riders reach their destination, they simply click a button in the app to end the ride and leave behind their scooter.
I feel deeply ambivalent about the arrival of these scooters to my hometown. On the one hand, I felt privileged to live in an area where companies will market such innovative products. While traffic congestion is not as bad here as in some cities, we certainly have our share. I can see how these scooters could make short trips faster and more convenient, hitting a sweet spot between walking and taking a car that is better than either option. At a large enough scale, they also have the potential, perhaps, to take significant numbers of automobiles off the roads, reducing traffic and emissions. And observing scooter riders on their travels, it just seems like a fun way to get to where you’re going, too.
On the other hand, I resent that these companies dropped their product into my neighborhood without considering how it could adversely affect those who live and work here. I have observed may users riding on sidewalks. While I am not aware of any accidents locally thus far, these vehicles move fast enough that they pose a real risk of injury to riders and pedestrians when ridden on crowded thoroughfares. Accidents and injuries are not uncommon in cities where the scooters operate. They are provided without safety equipment for riders like helmets, though the companies encourage riders to wear them. And while Bird and Lime also discourage their users from blocking public right-of-way when parking scooters, I have found them left in the middle of the sidewalk on some occasions.
To my knowledge, and according to local media reports, Bird did not consult with city officials prior to entering the market, nor did they make their pending arrival know to local residents through an advertising and marketing campaign. With the often strict regulation or outright bans their arrival has been met with in other cities, they must be aware of the public safety issues their business model raises for communities.
The tension between the costs and benefits this new mode of transportation offers brought to mind the insights raised in “The Happiness Advantage,” a recent report from Sogeti Labs exploring digital happiness. The report explores how technology impacts individuals’ happiness and the role and responsibility of companies to safeguard and promote happiness among their customers and employees.
I would argue that, just as companies ought to take responsibility for promoting happiness among those to whom they sell or employ, so should they bear responsibility for the ways in which their products and services impact the happiness of the wider society in which they operate.
Scooter purveyors like Bird and Lime offer a service with tremendous potential to enhance the wellbeing of both their customers and the communities in which they operate. It seems they can best achieve this by proactively working with community leaders to accentuate the positive aspects of their service while mitigating the negatives ones.
Earlier this week, the City of Columbus issued emergency regulations pertaining to scooters that, among other things, restricts operation on sidewalks. I credit both the city for enacting rules that promote public safety while allowing the scooters to continue to operate as well as Bird for signaling their support for them. I hope in the future that companies that seek to disrupt the status quo through digital innovation will work more proactively to ensure their products maximize happiness while minimizing negative side effects.