For anyone looking for a reason to hate those electric rental scooters sprouting up like dandelions on the sidewalks of American cities -- and the companies pushing them have made them all too easy to hate -- the streets of Austin during South by Southwest offered plenty of fresh rage bait.

The technology and culture festival, which draws some 350,000 people to Texas's capital every March, has a history as a springboard for viral products, from Foursquare to Twitter to Meerkat, and many major scooter startups -- Bird, the Uber-owned Jump, Lime, Lyft, and Spin -- pulled out the stops to ensure they would be this year's breakout sensation. 

Everywhere you went in downtown Austin during the "Interactive" portion of the festival, which ended Tuesday, the same images recurred: packs of young people on scooters, weaving through traffic or barreling down busy sidewalks. Forests of parked scooters lining curbs and hemming in building entrances. More than a few people had enjoyed a few alcoholic drinks before taking a ride. Some steered with one hand, so they could look at their phones. Seeing attendees abruptly decelerate and topple over was fairly common. 

In my four days in Austin, of the hundreds and hundreds of scooter riders around me, I counted perhaps six in helmets. That was about the same as the number of clearly underage children I saw on scooters, and they weren't wearing helmets, either. 

Officially, it wasn't supposed to be like this. All of the scooter apps I installed offered some version of the same onboarding screen instructing new users to wear helmets, stick to bike lanes, park in designated areas, and ride sober. Those admonitions had about as much effect as the instructions on a box of Q-Tips saying cotton swabs aren't meant to go inside your ear. Nor did the companies offering free helmets onsite find many takers. I stopped by Lyft's operations center, just outside downtown, to pick up my free helmet on Monday. The process only took a few moments, but when I asked the guy helping me if they'd given away many others, he said, "Not too many."

Even before SXSW started, one hospital in Austin was seeing 50 scooter-related injuries per week. Given the behavior I saw -- and the drinking that starts early and runs late, which is part and parcel of SXSW -- it will be a small miracle if the festival ends without someone dying. 

Yet I left feeling that e-scooters were exactly the innovation this innovation festival has needed for years, and a mode of transportation that should change cities for the better, if the companies offering them can avoid blowing the opportunity.

In my previous visits to SXSW, getting around Austin has been a nightmare. The venues and hotels are spread out over an area of miles. With taxis scarce, the wait time for an Uber or Lyft pickup could be an hour-plus, especially in outlying areas or when it rains. More than once, I waited half an hour for an Uber, only to have the driver cancel and have to start over again. The result was perpetual anxiety of place: Is it worth trying to go there? Will we ever be able to get back? 

This time, that anxiety was nonexistent. Anywhere you went, you were never more than a block or two from a cheap, instant way to get back. 

Cheap, instant, and fun! I'd never ridden an e-scooter before landing in Austin, or an e-bike, for that matter. I started with the latter, a Jump bike, and was delighted with how easy the pedal-assist electric motor made it to accelerate out of stops and cruise up hills. Without the penalty of losing momentum, I found myself more inclined to obey stop signs than to roll through them. 

Getting on a scooter for the first time wasn't the easiest thing. The first one I tried showed up in the app as having a full battery charge but was in fact dead; the second one wouldn't start, serving up a "Needs maintenance" message. The third time, I scanned the QR code on the scooter to unlock it only to have the app fail to recognize it. 

But attempt No. 4 was a success, and it took me only a block or two to understand why people enjoy scooters so much. It's a feeling of freedom, almost like flying. On the other hand, while it's more carefree than piloting a big, heavy cruiser bike, there are obvious tradeoffs. There's no basket to put your stuff in, and the tiny wheels turn every crack in the pavement into a teeth-rattling jolt. 

My most terrifying moments as a participant in Austin's mobility explosion came on South Congress Street, one of downtown Austin's main thoroughfares. A busy boulevard with two or three lanes of fast-moving traffic in each direction, it has no protected bike lane, just a painted strip on the ground that runs in between the traffic and a parking lane.

A few years ago, Austin began experimenting with something called back-in angle parking, which is designed to make it easier for cars to zip right into the flow of traffic. No doubt it serves that purpose well. But to merge, that driver has to first cross the bike lane, which she can only see by looking backward over her shoulder, around her car's blind spot, and over the hood of the car to her left -- which, this being Texas, is likely to be a giant SUV or pickup truck. 

Back-in angle parking is supposed to be safer for cyclists than the back-out kind, since drivers are looking out their side windows rather than into their rear-view mirrors. But what it really does is transfer the burden of caution to the driver. Unlike with parallel or back-out parking, a scooter rider or cyclist can't see the brake lights or turn signals of a car about to emerge. From the rider's standpoint, there's no warning a car is about to enter the bike lane until it starts rolling. Every moment I was on South Congress, I lived in dread. I chose to walk the mile back to downtown rather than risk another ride.

Changing parking spaces without changing anything else is the kind of "solution" you arrive at when you're optimizing cities for the number of cars you can cram onto its streets. Imagine if we started with an entirely different set of criteria, asking questions like: How can cities make it so people can get from point to point as quickly and inexpensively as possible? How can we ensure that accidents, when they happen, are non-life-threatening? How can we make transportation, the biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S., dramatically greener, while freeing up enormous amounts of public space in cities where real estate scarcity is driving a historic housing crisis? 

If you started by asking those questions, you'd end up with a city that looked a lot like Austin during SXSW. Only with less drinking, perhaps, and a lot fewer cars. 

Published on: Mar 14, 2019