Innovation Earth: This Could Be 'The Future Of Urban Transportation'

The number of people living in cities is expected to double in the next 30 to 40 years. By 2050, seven out of every 10 people living on Earth will call themselves an urbanite. So how will we navigate the throng?

If the post-apocalyptic-esque air pollution in Beijing has taught us anything, it's that conventional cars will not be an option. (This past Saturday saw the highest toxicity levels to date, a "Beyond Index" 755 on a scale that ends at 500.) And switching to pollution-free cars won't eliminate the ever-increasing problem of urban traffic congestion, which will worsen as our numbers continue to rise.

One hope on the horizon: The San Francisco start-up Scoot Networks, which has brought the concept of car sharing to electric scooters. With a regular drivers license, riders can rent the smartphone-activated scooters by the hour or day to run errands, commute to work, even take a joyride around the city (albeit a slow and ostensibly safe one, since the scooters, or scoots, as the company calls them, top out at 30 mph). Prices are reasonable; a basic plan lets you ride for up to an hour for $5.

Scoot launched at the end of September 2012 with 20 scooters in four locations; now, the company has 36 scooters and 12 locations with plans to expand in the coming year, and recently nabbed $1.7 million in additional funding.

Car-bound Angeleno that I am, navigating a city via scooter sounded incredibly freeing, so I planned on taking a scoot for a spin in San Francisco over the holidays. Alas, my travel plans fell through, so I turned to the next best thing: An interview with Scoot Networks CEO and founder Michael Keating.

Jennifer Grayson: Alright, Michael, let's pretend I actually made it up to San Francisco and want to test out a scoot. What's the learning curve for someone who's never been on a scooter?

Michael Keating: It's super easy. We've taught over 2,000 people to ride the scoots. Most of them had never ridden a scooter or motorcycle before.

JG: So how long before I'm actually up and riding?

MK: When someone joins Scoot, they take what we call orientation. The first time you ride, you meet with one of our instructors and maybe one or two other new riders. In your case, if you have no experience, it takes about 45 minutes.

JG: So 45 minutes until it's just me and the streets of San Francisco?

MK: It's really important to know that these aren't motorcycles; they're mopeds. Legally in California, they're mopeds if they can't go more than 30 mph and have only 2 horsepower. They're really tame, really user-friendly vehicles that are super easy to learn to ride.

JG: Oh! That sounds doable. So safety wise, this is something that, ahem, a mom of two young children could feel comfortable doing? Not with my baby on the scooter, obviously...

MK: Riding a scoot is about as safe, or safer, than riding a bike in the city. Like I said, they don't go more than 30 mph, so the real risk isn't the scooter -- it's cars and trucks, which is something everyone in the city has to worry about. At least when you're on a scooter you're in the flow of traffic with other vehicles, not over on the side where you're harder to see.

JG: I'll bet you're quite the pro scoot rider now. What was your own scooter experience before you came up with the idea for Scoot?

MK: I was looking for a scooter, and being an environmentalist, I really wanted an electric one. When I found out how popular and affordable electric scooters had become in other parts of the world, I thought there might be an opportunity to bring them to the U.S.

JG: So now that they're in the U.S., tell me: Who's riding the scoots? Young professionals going to work? Environmentalist types? Grandmas out for a joyride?

MK: The diversity has been one of the biggest surprises. A lot of people ride just to explore the city and have fun, but the customers who ride the most also use it for work or commuting or errands like going to get groceries. (Note to hipster luddites now embracing a flip phone: One thing all Scoot riders have in common is a smartphone; you can't ride without one, since the phone keeps track of the scoot and is used for cashless payments.)

JG: Obviously an electric scooter is more sustainable than a taxi in the city, or certainly Uber, which seems to be all the rage here in LA. Are you using sustainable energy to charge the scoots as well?

MK: For now we charge them with normal wall outlets. A solar panel is an obvious symbol of greenness to so many people, but when you switch from a 3,000-pound car to a 200-pound scooter and power it with electricity, the difference that makes in the environment is so massive that doing it with solar or wind power or more than the solar/wind mix that's already in the PG&E energy mix is kind of like dotting an I. A scoot uses about as much power as your toaster while you're riding it. We're literally more energy efficient per passenger mile than a subway.

JG: So it's not just, "Hey, I'm green, I need a solar panel." You're looking at what's really important.

MK: We want to stick with the real environmental significance, which is getting people on a small, efficient electric vehicle they can afford. That being said, if we feel like we can green it up more with a solar panel at some point in the future and that makes sense, we might do that.

JG: What is in the immediate future for Scoot, other than more scoots or locations?

MK: We just introduced an electric motorcycle into the fleet, and we'll probably introduce a two-person scooter later this year.

JG: Sounds like a great date night! Big picture though, what's your vision for the American city of 2050? The Scoot Networks Twitter bio is "The future of urban transportation"; I love that, since I'm trying to see "the world as it could be" via this column.

MK: We see the American city of 2050 being a lot more dense, and having a lot less space for private cars. Most short trips will be made on foot, with trips over a mile or so being taken on a wide variety of small, speedy, on-demand electric vehicles.

JG: Looks like my city has a long way to go, then. Could Scoot work in a car-driven city like LA?

MK: Scoot is a great complement to transit, biking, walking and car share. In cities where you have to own a car to go anywhere, adoption of Scoot would be slower, so our initial focus will be on cities that are less car-dominated.

JG: Boo hoo. Looks like I'll have to plan that trip to San Fran for real, then.

MK: We'd love to give you a more first-hand experience.

JG: Sounds like a great follow-up! Thanks, Michael.

Stay tuned!

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