8 June 2022
Resistance is futile: how I learned to appreciate the e-scooter
My first visit to Abu Dhabi’s Corniche waterfront area took place in 2019 the evening after I arrived from Chicago. The late August sun had set, and the citizenry emerged from the heat to visit the area’s cafes and use its long, uninterrupted walking and biking paths. I still remember the first time I noticed the figures gliding past my peripheral vision like ghosts, then slowly solidifying into young men. The white robes of their Emirati national dress flowed behind them as they rode two-wheeled electric scooters, the ubiquitous kind that one can rent in cities across the globe.
Back in Chicago, I had been a committed three-season bicycle commuter as opposed to the two-wheeled electric vehicles that had begun to congest the city’s dedicated bike paths. I was convinced it was a fad, driven by tech bros who would soon move on to personal quadcopters for their commute. When several e-scooter sharing providers were allowed to set up fleets in a pilot programme in Chicago, the scooters began to litter the pavement, laying on their sides in the neighbor’s grass or blocking public walkways.
People ride electric scooters along The 606 recreational trail in Chicago. (Brian Cassella / Chicago Tribune)
On a visit to Los Angeles around that time, the Westwood neighborhood presented me with an e-scooter graveyard filled with casualties in the battle for market share between competitors like Uber and Lime. The clutter on walkways was an undeniable nuisance, and I felt solidarity with the people who expressed their displeasure on social media.
Courtesy of @emdubbbb: https://twitter.com/emdubbbb/status/1190086234334355457
Long before then, large parts of the world had been adopting two-wheeled electric transportation with zealous pragmatism. While Tesla and legacy auto manufacturers were making headlines with electric cars, the electric vehicle revolution globally wasn’t being led by cars, but by electric scooters, e-bikes and other two-wheelers. In places like India and China, which lead in the production, ownership and export of electric two-wheelers, buyers are incentivized by governments that are keen to improve urban air quality and reduce road congestion. In China, for example, where it’s cheaper to produce electricity domestically than to import foreign oil, the incentive is also very much an economic one. The country accounts for 90 percent of electric two-wheeler sales, according to a 2019 Wired magazine report.
While much of the world is still getting ready for an electric vehicle future, in Asia it’s already arrived – and as battery technology improves and cities get denser, it’s spreading. There, the e-scooter has become as much a totem of urban life as a soulless high-rise or steam rising from a sewer grate. As they storm the world, e-scooters can also be tempting to scorn (and to vandalise), but it is impossible to ignore what they offer to people.
Lime scooters dumped in a pond in downtown Auckland, New Zealand. Photo by Lori Haggarty.
Historically seen as toys, personal mobility devices offer freedom of, well, mobility, to millions of people around the world for whom the cost of taxis or even public transportation is too high to bear. On a given day, I have only to walk from my front door in Abu Dhabi to the nearest intersection to watch dozens of e-scooter riders pass by over the course of a few minutes. Yannah, a 25-year-old HR manager, commutes on a USD 450 stand-up e-scooter with a top speed of 45 KPH. It costs less than public transport, and without having to wait for the bus, her commute is shorter. For 29-year-old Mohamed, who works at a mobile phone shop, getting rid of his car in favor of an e-scooter was a no-brainer: “No petrol, no parking, no insurance.”
For others, economics play a less important role. For 45-year-old foundation director Oliver, the commute is too short to make a taxi trip worthwhile, but the distance is still too long to walk. Marie stopped taking the bus to avoid crowds during the pandemic and discovered that with her e-bike, she can ride door-to-door. “I’m 40, and I’m a waitress. I walk enough.”
After a few months of watching people glide along Abu Dhabi’s shoreline in early 2020, I felt I might be missing out. When I took my colleague’s e-scooter for a spin around the neighborhood, more than the convenience or anything else, I noticed the feeling. It made going to the supermarket seem like a zippy little adventure. Of course it did. In the same way, Piaggio’s classic Vespa holds an appeal that, for over half a century, has had little to do with economics. Retailer Society Motors in the Dubai’s cultural district Alserkal Avenue thought the Vespa brand would be a good fit amongst the art galleries there, because, as managing director Vincent Bosco says, “people want to tap into the history and allure of the Vespa’s quintessential design.”
Photo: Ruslan Bardash
As of now, Society’s only electric two-wheeler is the Vespa Elettrica, which tops out at around 70 KPH. But, as technology changes and both the speed and battery capacity of electric two-wheelers increase, that could soon change. “Electric two-wheeled vehicles will become a real alternative to the fuel-based motorcycles used, for example, by the delivery industry,” says Society’s founder Ahmad Hakemi. “In time, as the technology improves, electric will be the go-to option.”
For a motorcycle or scooter to be registered with a number plate by the UAE’s Roads and Transport Authority, it has to be able to reach a speed of at least 80 KPH. For now, dealers like Society Motors are sticking with electric leisure scooters and high-performance motorcycles powered by internal combustion engines, but only because those are the available options. “People’s minds are changing,” Hakemi says with excitement. “Electric vehicles are the future.”
I test drove an electric Vespa, and my biggest takeaway is that, like my colleague’s e-scooter, they’re really fun. As for e-scooters, despite their zippy thrill and the fact that they could make my commute easier and more affordable, I have yet to be compelled to get one of my own – but I did delete an old Tweet showing a meme of scooters attacking people in Hitchcock’s The Birds.