By Cody Mello-Klein | [email protected]
One mile. For drivers, it is a distance easily crossed. For runners, a mile is only the start of a workout. For commuters, though, that seemingly short distance can present problems; it might be only a 20- to 25- minute walk, but a mile can make all the difference.
“There’s a lot of times where I need to go somewhere between a mile and a mile and a half [away],” Ethan McAfee, an Old Town resident, said. “For me, my house to my office in Old Town is 1.2 miles, and historically your options would be, I’m either going to walk – and walking would take like 20 minutes, give or take – [or] I would drive, which it kind of seems silly to drive a mile, but that’s kind of the default.”
A 20-minute walk is nice for some, but when time is of the essence, that mile can seem like a gaping chasm. Recently, however, McAfee and others have found a solution to their mile-long problem.
“I started taking scooters,” McAfee said. “All of a sudden you’re no longer having to drive; you’re no lon- ger having to find parking spaces. That 20-minute walk becomes an eight-minute scooter ride.”
While a chorus of outrage echoes across Alexandria over the presence of e-scooters, many residents – mostly younger commuters – have flocked to the disruptive technology for convenience and accessibility. Others, including visitors, ride them for enjoyment. Within four months of the launch of the city’s scooter pilot program in December 2018, riders had taken more than 22,000 trips, according to the Department of Transportation and Environmental Services.
For some, a simple joyride one sunny day quickly evolved into a daily routine.
“That was kind of the genesis of it. ‘Hey, that looks fun; it will be interesting to try once and get it under my belt,’” Travis Niles, an Old Town resident who works in D.C., said. “… But then as time progressed, it legitimately started affecting my daily schedule.”
Niles, like a lot of commuters, travels to and from the Metro every day. Before scooters, he’d either drive and face the challenge of parking near the Metro, or take DASH buses.
“[Scooters are] far more predicable than DASH and more nimble than a car,” Niles said.
West End resident Chris Sims relies on public transportation to get to his job in Old Town, since he doesn’t own a car. The scooters have become an extension of his daily travel routine, he said.
“Usually I’ll take the bus to the Metro station at King Street Metro or Braddock Metro and then take the scooter somewhere I need to go,” Sims said.
The ubiquity of the scooters, a quality that some residents have bemoaned, has opened up travel for other residents, especially commuters.
“What it’s doing is for people who are using the Metro, it’s providing that last mile connectivity,” McAfee said. “… Now with the scooters you can be 10 blocks, 20 blocks away and still consistently use the Metro without having to walk half an hour to get there.”
For these riders, scooters are more than just a fad; they are a convenient new mode of transportation that can remove the need for a car.
“They are a great and green way to get around town, and I know we use our car less now that we’ve started using scooters,” resident Katie Ray said in a Facebook message.
“Your short car ride can now quickly become a short scooter ride,” McAfee said. “That decreases the amount of traffic, decreases the amount of parking issues, decreases the amount of car congestion.”
While some riders are using the scooters for business, just as many are using them for pleasure. On sunny days, the joyriders populate the city’s streets, parks and, to the concern of many pedestrians, sidewalks.
According to the city’s memorandum of understanding that every scooter company must sign, riders must be 18 years or older and cannot ride on sidewalks.
Several younger riders said they enjoy the scooters because they offer an easy way of getting around Old Town without the need to rely on their parents for rides. Some scooter companies now require riders to take a picture of driver’s licenses or other I.D. either during the sign-up process or before a ride.
Rider behavior has been a sticking point for many who oppose the pilot program. Those who ride the scooters insist that many of the complaints – sidewalk riding and improper parking – are edge cases, highly visible examples of the worst behavior.
“They sort of amplify, or make more visible, those bad habits that we have contained in all of us,” Niles said. “If you are already going to be inconsiderate and leave something in the way and diminish a public good, you were already going to do that. The scooter didn’t change it.”
However, even riders like Niles admit to engaging in the alleged poor behavior, often out of necessity due to Alexandria’s road infrastructure.
“Sometimes riding on the sidewalk is unavoidable because of where you are,” Niles said. “If you’re on certain permutations of one-ways, it’s faster to ride on the sidewalk.”
Niles said he dismounts during these sidewalk detours; however, many riders do not take such precautions. Temporary signage reminding people not to ride on sidewalks has sprung up throughout Alexandria in recent weeks.
Safety is one area of behavior where those who are for and against scooters differ. Virginia does not require riders over the age of 14 to wear helmets, and several riders admitted that wearing a helmet for the distance and duration of a scooter ride feels unnecessary.
“In general, we all feel we ‘should’ but no one actually does,” McAfee said in an email. “I think most people just view it as a ‘short trip’ and are willing to risk it. I feel it is a different mindset than someone commuting 10 miles on their bike because the speeds are slower and the distance is much shorter.”
A recent study conducted by University of California Los Angeles researchers found that in only 4 percent of 249 scooter-related injuries, the riders were wearing helmets.
Some companies, including Jump and Skip, are starting to offer helmets to their riders. Jump is working on a partnership with VeloCity Bike Cooperative in Del Ray to offer riders free helmets, and Skip’s safety promotion allows riders to purchase a helmet for about $10. Niles did not initially use a helmet but has since purchased one through Skip’s safety promotion.
While they may seem carefree, several riders said they, too, have concerns about scooters. Sims admitted that sometimes, especially late at night, the vehicles are not charged, at which point a convenience quickly becomes inconvenient.
In many cases, riders shared the concerns of their fellow residents who oppose the scooters.
“I think it’s a good thing for tourists and residents, I just wish people would take more care of them because sometimes you’ll see them stacked up on the corner and just on the ground and it looks really bad,” Sims said.
Several riders voiced support for designated parking areas in high traffic areas like Old Town and Del Ray, an idea that T&ES staff has been exploring as part of the pilot program.
“Obviously [scooters] are point-to-point and [you can] discard them wherever you want, but if you offer people safe places to leave them, like Capital Bikeshare has their docking stations, that’s something you can do as an incentive to cluster them in strategic areas and get people to return them in a responsible way,” Niles said.
And even those who ride the scooters are troubled by the sheer number of scooters and scooter companies that have arrived in Alexandria.
“The cost of entry was really low, so every scooter company did it. What ended up happening is that we have too many scooter brands and too many scooters,” McAfee said. “What will likely happen, my hope, is that the city agrees to go from seven scooter companies to two or three.”
More distressing for riders is the discourse that has swirled around the scooters and between relatively younger riders and relatively older residents.
“I am fearful that Old Town is becoming a place where any change is viewed as bad,” McAfee said. “With any change and with any technological progress, we have to look at it as a tradeoff.”
If the 22,000 trips are any indication, many residents have embraced this latest form of transportation technology. For some, a mile makes all the difference.
The sudden appearance of hundreds of scooters in Alexandria the last few months has left residents outraged and intrigued, while raising questions of accountability and safety. This is the second article in a multi-part series exploring the issue.