Electric scooters have a public health externality

It’s too early to get real stats on this, but I would bet real money that the cities that have allowed electric scooters into their downtowns and commercial districts have a growing public health problem. I bet the number of emergency room visits has gone way up, and the public is footing the bill. 

The problem is that these scooters are fun. Really fun. You feel good when you ride them. In the brief window when they were allowed in San Francisco, I took one of these scooters all the way across town for just a few dollars. It was cheaper than an Uber, faster than a bike, and still fell under the banner of green transportation. 

It would be a perfect solution for cities struggling with congestion. Or so you’d think. 

The problem comes in two-fold:

1. Most people just aren’t equipped to ride these scooters. They move fast, they don’t handle bumps very well. And if you don’t have great balance or are a bit jittery, you can fall off, hit a pedestrian, or get hit by a moving vehicle. 

2. These scooters were not designed for the intensity and duration of use that they’ve been getting in popular cities. There’s nothing “heavy duty” about these things. They’re lightweight, some of the critical controls are plastic, and are easily broken. The solution that the scooter companies have come up with is to hire people on Craigslist to repair (and charge) the scooters overnight. However, a stuck accelerator, broken break, or fractured axel can put even the most experienced and capable riders at grave risk. 

These two problems combined create a public health problem for cities. It’s a city problem because the scooter companies, in their terms of use, explicitly and severely limit their liabilities. If someone falls and racks up a $20K medical bill due to no fault of their own when using a scooter, they cannot sue the scooter company. Even if the scooter malfunctioned. The person will go to a nearby hospital’s emergency room and if they don’t have insurance then taxpayers cover the bill. The scooter companies pay nothing. 

I’d like for this concept to work. We need more creative solutions to the intra-suburban commute. What I don’t like is when companies, even clever, good-hearted startups like these scooter companies, create externalities for everyone else. They should have insurance to cover injury and make their customers pay for it. Instead of charging $1/hr they should charge $3/hr and have better scooters with better maintenance schedules. 

This is called internalizing the externality. The scooter ride I took in San Francisco was cheap because these real costs were not born by me or the scooter company I was renting from. That’s a flaw in the system that needs to change.  

Image credit: https://www.sltrib.com/news/politics/2018/07/30/scooter-wars-come-salt/

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