It is hard to tell where the electric scooter will rank in the pantheon of great transportation technologies — the wheel, the jet engine, the bicycle, the train track... All these surely have a claim to being humankind’s most revolutionary invention when it comes to getting from point A to B.
But this motorised, two-wheeled upstart, currently taking the United States by storm, may yet have something to say about that. And it’s coming for Dubai.
The scooter, most commonly used by children in parks, has been given an electric motor, rebranded with a splash of neon paint, and is now one of the hottest commodities in technology.
Could these motorised scooters become the next big thing in the UAE where residents prize convenience and people are always on the look out for the latest trend? Or will they be relegated to the scrapyard of transportation irrelevance, alongside the ludicrous penny-farthings of the 19th century, and the hoverboards which, for a time, ruled the malls as children whizzed about precariously from shop to shop.
On a recent visit to San Francisco, I decided to try and find out if the craze could ever truly take off in the UAE.
First, the basics. Dockless scooters are scattered around the city, simply left by the last user where he or she was done with it.
In order to begin using the scooter, one must first download an app. There are currently two licensed scooter companies in the city of San Francisco — Skip and Scoot. In the UAE, there is KIWIride, Qwikly, and Skoot.
Each company has its own app, which you’ll need to download on to your mobile phone. When you open the app, a map will tell you exactly where the nearest scooter is to your location, and how much battery it has.
Typically, there’s a scooter every one or two blocks.
Once you locate the nearest vehicle, you simply scan the QR code on the handlebars using the app, add your bank account details and take a photo of your driving licence or passport for identification purposes.
After these steps are complete, the scooter will spring to life, and is ready to be used right away. Activation costs $1, and a further 0.25 cents-a-minute thereafter.
In the UAE, KIWIride scooters cost Dh2.99 to activate, and then 59 fils per minute from there. Qwikly is similarly priced.
The whole process is fairly straightforward, although it may take some time on the first attempt (I didn’t have a driving licence so had to call Skip’s customer service line to see if my passport was a suitable replacement). Once the admin is out of the way on the first go, subsequent activations are much faster.
The technological component of the process makes the concept of renting an electric scooter seem more futuristic than it is, but from a practical standpoint, being able to simply end your ride outside of the museum, shopping mall, or restaurant you’re visiting, and not needing to look for the nearest rental shop, is where the real genius lies.
There’s no fear of your scooter being stolen, since once you end the ride at your destination and park it, it is no longer your scooter, it’s the next person’s.
And there’s no hassle of returning the scooter back to its place of origin if your plans change, or if you want to continue on foot.
This does mean, of course, that discarded electric scooters are commonplace on the sidewalks of San Francisco. They have also been known to turn up in lakes, and other inappropriate places. But the local government in San Francisco has done well to largely ensure users leave their scooters in responsible places.
Aesthetically, the business model may be problematic for cities, but in almost every other sense the scooters, which can reach speeds of 20 miles per hour, are highly convenient for flexibly exploring densely populated urban areas.
So, you’ve activated the scooter you found opposite your hotel. You are feeling very sci-fi, having just hired an electric transportation device with your phone. Now you want to go and check out the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
Here’s where things get complicated.
Users must navigate the streets, and traffic, of San Francisco on their scooter, frankly a daunting task for the uninitiated.
At the risk of sounding dramatic, there were several moments when I was convinced I was going to die.
Not being in possession of a driving licence, I honestly have no idea how the roads work in the UK, my home country, let alone the US.
Suddenly, I found myself holding on for dear life as I soared down one of San Francisco’s famously vertiginous hills, hurtling towards a pedestrian crossing and a red light.
Unlike cars and bicycles, giving the brake a firm press on an electric scooter will not bring it to an abrupt halt. This is probably so that people don’t go flying over the handle bars.
I learnt this the hard way as I sped towards a junction. Instead of leaving a sufficient amount of time to brake, and slow my speed in a controlled manner, I decided I would hit the brakes as I approached the junction.
However, when I pressed the brake button on the left hand side of the scooter, nothing happened. Or at least, nothing happened fast enough. I frantically hit the button, trying to decelerate in less time.
In the end, I had to jump off the scooter as I reached the red light, and slow down on my feet.
The whole thing was exhilarating, but also terrifying. Suddenly, being involved in some kind of extreme urban sport wasn’t quite the leisurely cruise around the city I had imagined.
Within 30 minutes, however, I had gotten the hang of the accelerator and the brake buttons, and was comfortably weaving in and out of traffic. I overshot my destination a number of times as I couldn’t consult Google Maps while riding — not because it wasn’t possible but because I felt it was too dangerous. I needed to focus on dodging school buses and errant pigeons.
Eventually, I reached my destination and pulled up on the sidewalk. To compete a journey, the user simply goes back on the app, chooses to end his or her ride, and then takes a photograph of the parked scooter to ensure that they haven’t left it in the middle of a road, or in a lake.
And with that, my scooter was back in the citywide pool of available scooters, and probably scooped up shortly thereafter.
For roughly half an hour of cruising around the city, I paid nearly Dh35. An equivalent amount of time in an Uber would have cost at least double that amount, and I wouldn’t have been able to stop to take photos, or feel the adrenalin rush of an exciting experience. It would have also been less environmentally friendly
“Scooters are great for travelling maybe four or five blocks to get to the nearest public transport service,” one San Francisco resident told me.
This seemed to make sense. Cheaper than getting a taxi, a hop-on-hop-off electric scooter could take you to the nearest train station in a short span of time. You’re not going to drive 32 km down the side of the highway to get home on an electric scooter but it can fill the gap where public transport isn’t an option. And this is exactly where I believe scooters could be most impactful in the UAE.
In some ways, electric scooters could be impractical in Dubai — a sprawling, dispersed city — as communities such as Downtown and the Marina are essentially connected only by a 16-lane highway. The same is true even for neighbourhoods next to each other: Jumeirah Lake Towers (JLT) and JBR, for example. They are both connected for pedestrians by an overpass, which would not realistically be able to support scooters and commuters.
Dubai has developed in pockets, and travelling on a scooter on Shaikh Zayed Road would be like riding on the back of a house cat in a race against leopards and cheetahs!
You’re definitely not going to win the race, and you’re probably going to get eaten in the process.
San Francisco, by contrast, is almost entirely urbanised, meaning one extremity of the city is reachable from the other, by a series of residential or commercial roads, none of which ever have more than four lanes.
More, with its tendency towards safety, it seems unlikely that the authorities will allow people to ride around on scooters with no training for long.
Although I made light of my experience in San Francisco, the risks are real. For several months now, according to the Washington Post, emergency rooms have been full of severely injured people who were riding electric scooters.
In early February, Mark Sands was killed at the age of 21 in an accident involving an electric scooter.
Sands’s death follows the deaths of two other men in recent months, the newspaper reports. Jacoby Stoneking — a 24-year-old Dallas man — died after “falling off a Lime electric scooter in September and receiving blunt force head injuries,” authorities said. Carlos Sanchez-Martin, of Silver Spring, Maryland, was “struck and killed by an SUV in September while riding a Lime scooter in Washington, DC.”
The legal age to ride a scooter in San Francisco is 18. According to a statement from Dubai’s KIWIride, the minimum age the company insists on is 14.
The company says it recommends riders wear helmets. For San Francisco’s scooter companies, a helmet is mandatory, although it is rare to see people actually wearing them.
Given the obvious dangers that scooters can present, it seems likely that the currently unregulated technology will get a second look from the transport authorities here at some point soon. But looking beyond the drawbacks, the emirate could benefit greatly from the arrival of electric scooters.
Firstly, the simplicity of the system means it’s hard to abuse the service; stealing a scooter is virtually impossible since your bank details and identification are connected to your account. Users who leave scooters in illegal places can be identified and banned from the platform if necessary.
Next, the city’s public transport is such that getting from point A to point B is easy, but getting from your office to point A, or getting from point B to your house, can be quite a challenge. The linear nature of the metro line means that many residents live and work some distance away from their nearest station.
With the bus service infrequent and not particularly nodal, many face long walks to the metro at the beginning and end of each day. In 45°Celsius temperatures, this can be particularly gruelling.
Electric scooters that cost just a few dirhams could be the solution to this problem: Filling the gap where public transport isn’t an option. They may not be ideal for tourists trying to explore Dubai given how spread out the city is, but scooters could be of real use to residents.
With Dubai’s push to become a smart city, it should begin looking at smart forms of transportation.
Scooters are one such way. Local ride-hailing app Careem has previously floated the idea of buses on its platform, in addition to carpooling (which technically remains illegal in certain emirates) both of which would be welcome additions to the city, alleviating the roads of traffic and providing people with new, efficient ways to get about.
For a place that loves newfangled technologies as much as Dubai does, it makes sense to begin exploring the feasibility of introducing and regulating electric scooters in a serious way. The city could launch a pilot programme with one or two of the existing vendors, in much the same way that San Francisco did.
For critics, they are a dystopian eyesore prone to vandalism and accidents, while for proponents they are accessible, futuristic and environmentally-friendly.
Time will tell whether electric scooters take their place on the list of legendary transport modes. In the meantime, just watch out for those school buses and roving pigeons.