Transportation

In Defense of the Kick Scooter

The least cool transportation in Boston is also the most promising. It's time to embrace the O.G.


kick scooter

Photo illustration by Madeline Bilis | Red and black scooter photos via iStock.com/pioneer111 | Background via iStock.com/ExpressIPhoto

There’s an awful lot of talk about scooters in Boston these days. The wrong kind.

Pretty much out of nowhere, dockless e-scooters have swept the nation, popping up in cities coast to coast with mixed results. Debate has raged over whether the motorized devices are a panacea or a curse—a tech-fueled antidote to gridlock or an unwelcome infestation that warrants vigilante justice. That discussion played out in Boston this summer when Bird, a California-based startup, plunked hundreds of them in Cambridge and Somerville without asking, an experiment that ended when mayors abruptly banished them. But that won’t be the end of it. Whether cities like them or not, e-scooting is primed to become a $37 billion industry by 2024, according to one market research company’s estimate, and it’s just a matter of time until their inevitable return.

In all this recent hubbub, though, we’ve lost sight of transportation’s most promising and under-appreciated technology: The kick scooter.

Yeah, the kick scooter. If you’re my age, you might have ridden one as a kid in the late 90s or early 2000s, when they were all the rage and a Razor was the hottest brand around. Two decades later, as e-scooter mania has reached new heights, I can’t help but think back to the old-school, no frills, no-batteries-required O.G. Stripped of both an electric motor and all the controversy that follows Bird and its ilk whenever they attempt another city takeover, the kick scooter is a perfectly good alternative, but somehow no one is talking about it. How could that be? Why are we fighting passionate (and in some cases disgusting) wars over e-scooters when kick scooters have been right under our noses this whole time?

I decided to investigate.

The most obvious reason, which you’ve probably been thinking since you opened this tab, is that kick scooters are extremely not cool. “I’m trying to think of a diplomatic way to say it: They’re not for everyone,” says Ben Smart, manager at Cambridge Bicycle in Kendall Square, which last year became one of the few shops carrying human-propelled scooters in the area. “I would say it has a similar tinge to rollerblading. It’s one of those things that could be perceived by someone as maybe not having an edginess or cool factor.” People like to think that they’re cool, and starting your morning commute like your 12-year-old self is a pretty fast way to puncture that notion.

Unlike their electric cousins, which are trendy and exotic and controversial, kick scooters are more or less taboo by the time you graduate high school. Progress on this front has been slow, and only the bravest amongst us have embraced them for the transit solution I know in my heart they can be.

Because of this stigma, many of the scooter-curious are still stuck in the closet. “I have a buddy in Seattle who says, ‘Don’t make fun of me, but I’ve been using them with my kids,'” says Andrew Prescott, who owns Urban Cycles by the North End Waterfront. His shop doesn’t sell scooters and its sister bike tour and rental store, Urban Adventours, doesn’t loan them out either, but that’s not because he harbors any anti-scooter bias. Prescott says he just doesn’t get asked about them very often. At least not yet. “I think it’s just a matter of somebody hitting the nail on the head with the right branding, somehow.”

Companies that sell them are definitely trying to do just that. “Both of those are concerns that we hear from people: that they feel childish riding a scooter or it’s sort of a nerdy thing. But they are becoming more accepted” says Jamie Rau, vice president of marketing for Micro Kickboard, a brand based in Michigan that sells scooters for adults and kids and advertises relentlessly in Boston. “Twenty years ago, it was a toy,” she adds. “Now we find adults that are very serious about their scooters and very passionate about them. It’s really more of a lifestyle now.”

I understand she’s got scooters to sell, but I think she’s right. Just look around. The old-school scooterers are out there, and the odds are better than ever that you’ll come across one on your commute today—a trend that popped up long before Bird. But we still haven’t reached the critical mass of grown-ass adults riding them in Boston necessary to make scooters cool again. There is just a small but proud few out there leading the way (including the kick scooter’s one and only celebrity face: Hugh “King of the Scooter” Jackman).

So the logical next step in my investigation was to put kick scooters to the test. I convinced Micro to let me try one out for a while, and I joined the uprising.

scooter

Let’s do this.

There is a lot to love about scooting, and not just because it’s as fun as I remember it being (although that’s definitely part of it).

Consider the facts: Kick scooters are light, easy to ride, and, unlike dockless electric scooters, don’t have to be plugged into a charger sucking up electricity for hours. They almost never end up blocking sidewalks, stuck in trees, or drowned in lakes. There isn’t a cutthroat scooter-charging side hustle associated with them. And they are ready exactly when you need them instead of intermittently via an app.

They’re also an urbanist’s dream. For commuters who use public transit but also live or work long distances from the T, the kick scooter is the most nimble, versatile solution to the “last-mile problem” ever devised. You can scoot from your home to your subway, bus, or commuter rail stop, via either sidewalk or bike lane, in just a fraction of the time it would take on foot. Then when you get there, you can just fold that sucker up and carry it easily onto public transit without bothering anyone, then hit the street again and ride to your destination. Try doing that on a bike. If it’s rush hour, you can’t.

In my experiment this summer, I found that lugging it on and off the T was a breeze. Adult-style scooters are heavier than the kids’ ones, so you have to deal with that, and they’re a little on the awkward side to hold (it makes sense that so many people who ride them buy dorky but practical shoulder straps for carrying them around). After a couple of days’ worth of experience, I got used to gripping it just so, and managed to not slam it into anyone as trains lurched from stop to stop. The T does not have a specific policy on scooter usage on its trains, but MBTA spokesman Joe Pesaturo tells me, “We ask subway riding scooter owners to be mindful of their surroundings and to use common sense, particularly during the busiest commuting periods.”

What’s up, comrade?

The world is just a lot more convenient on a kick scooter. I’ve now scooted to work; to shops and friends’ apartments; on bike paths, main roads, and side streets alike, and am struck by how much time I can shave off trips. It’s simple to fold and unfold, and handles bumpy terrain surprisingly well. The scooters of today, remember, are not the ones you might remember from childhood. The tiny, hard urethane wheels popular on the children’s models have been upgraded with larger, city-appropriate ones, which are typically about 8 inches around and often made of rubber, and are therefore much better at handling even the worst-of-the-worst of Boston sidewalks.

In all but the busiest areas (avoid the more highly trafficked sections of the Freedom Trail, for example), weaving around pedestrians is really no big deal. The bike lane also proved a perfectly acceptable place to scoot. Marc Ebuña, co-founder of the nonprofit TransitMatters and expert on what does and does not fly in a bike lane, assures me that given the frequent bad behavior from drivers and other hazards on the road, scooter riders are the least of cyclists’ concerns. “At the end of the day, it’s still cars versus anything that’s not a car,” he says.

I thought maybe the scootering would get me a sideways glance or two, but I didn’t detect even one. My one and only bit of commentary from a bystander came when I took my scooter to Revere Beach, as I hopped off along the sidewalk to carry it down to the sand.

“Oh my gosh, it’s so cute!” an older woman, who I kid you not was wearing tiger face paint, told me.

“Yeah! It’s convenient!” I answered.

“It folds up!” she said.

“Yeah!”

So at least in my experience, if people are laughing at you, they’re doing it behind your back. You’re much more likely to meet a very nice lady at the beach.

The alternatives to kick scooting simply don’t check all the boxes. Let’s go down the list.

Privately owned e-scooters are heavy and expensive, and have to be charged constantly.

Bikes are great, sure, but it’s only acceptable to wheel one onto a train during off-peak hours, as the T prohibits them during rush hour.

Blue Bikes are perfectly fine, too, but aren’t available everywhere, plus you have to find a dock to park it in once you get wherever you’re going, which means you might still end up hoofing it a couple of blocks.

Fold-up commuter bikes are a train-friendly option, but strike me as unnecessarily complicated.

Of course, you can carry a skateboard or electric longboard aboard public transportation, too—but riding either requires skill, while scooting requires none.

Hoverboards, gaudy and explosion-prone, have disappeared off the face of the earth, and no one even cares.

If you insist on commuting on rollerblades, I can’t help you.

Driving a car anywhere, unless you can help it, is essentially a crime.

So what we’re left with for those with commutes that are less-than-reasonable on the MBTA alone is the tried-and-true kick scooter.

Case closed.

There are some obvious disadvantages, sure. For one, standing on one leg for so long is a lot more exhausting than I remember. A good hard day of scooting will cost you a pretty sore thigh and calf. (At least it did for me.) You’re also technically supposed to avoid going downhill, according to the manual that came with mine, as the brakes aren’t built for inclines. This would seem to exclude a lot of Boston from scooter-ability, but I bravely put this warning to the test over and over on East Boston’s steep Eagle Hill, and found it’s mostly overblown. Maybe don’t bomb it down the highway like a long boarder with a death wish, I guess, but otherwise you should be fine.

All in all, scootering is clearly, objectively, good. So what gives? Why has Boston, and every other city on the cusp of a scooter invasion, turned its back on analog scooting?

I will admit, I did feel sort of goofy sometimes. There are way more children riding these things than there are fully grown men commuting to the office. The dork vibe you project on a kick scooter is palpable, even if no one literally laughed in my face.

But in the middle of a summer afternoon scoot, a thought popped into my head: If you really think about it, are they that uncool? Consider Blue Bikes. People love Blue Bikes, ridership increases every year, and it’s a perfectly acceptable way to pedal around the city, provided there are docking stations built somewhere convenient to you. But the bikes themselves are, for the sake of durability, the heaviest, bulkiest bicycles ever made. They’re the Hummer of bikes. And in terms of how cool you look riding one, it’s somewhere on the Segway side of things on a spectrum with Segways on one end and, say, Harleys on the other. A scooter can’t possibly be much less cool than a Blue Bike.

So you know what? From here on out, as the dust from the electric scooter craze begins to settle and a new era of scooting begins, I’ve decided that kick scooters are cool. Especially in the brainiest city in the nation, we have what it takes to handle a dorky but overwhelmingly sensible paradigm shift. If the fanny pack can make a comeback, so can the kick scooter.

This is the future. Deal with it.