Carried Away on a Bird

By Mike Warwick

Mike Warwick’s scooter partner Montse Shepherd enjoying a fall day
on a Bird. Photo credit Mike Warwick

Being a senior citizen leads me to avoid risky behavior. I was never a skateboarder and my few attempts at rollerblading ended in scrapes and torn trousers. The idea of balancing on a narrow, two-wheeled platform that moved seemed insane. However, the recent favorable report about Portland’s scooter trial forced me to accept a neighbor’s invitation to test drive one. Like many residents, I begrudge riders on sidewalks, scooters blocking sidewalks, and worse, blocking curb cuts for strollers and wheelchairs. However, the report indicated users surveyed believe these could address the “last mile” problem keeping more city residents from using mass transit or their personal vehicle. So, time to put myself at risk to determine the truth for myself.

My partner and I planned to grab two of the Bird scooters that seem to roost near her house every night. Alas, on the day of our ride they had flown the coop. The nearest flock was 12 blocks away (15 for me). Walking a mile to find a scooter doesn’t make much sense, but that argues for more scooters, rather than their removal. Prior to our ride, we had to download the Bird app, follow the instructions it provides on both Portland scooter rules and how to operate the thing. Operating wasn’t intuitive, even with the tutorial. And, the app requires a photo of your driver’s license, so you need to take that with you. A word of advice, you may need to present that to the police if you violate the traffic code or get into an accident. So, don’t leave home without it.

Instructed and empowered, we donned our helmets (as required by City rules, and in case I fell off or collided with a pole). Our mounts were parked in the middle of the sidewalk on MLK. Starting our experiment on a busy street seemed suicidal, so we rode down the sidewalk to the corner in violation of City rules. Our initial reaction was that scooters wobble a lot! That was especially true on the uneven pavement characteristic of Portland roadways, so we headed to the Williams bikeway and up to a northern greenway. This provided both a smoother road surface and traffic protection for a much more pleasant ride.

Our 4-mile, 36-minute loop left us with “sea legs” when we dismounted. It cost $6.40; not exactly a bargain, especially after walking a mile to bag our Birds. Although our confidence increased as we rode, we both felt they wobble too much to go very far and my scooter slowed considerably hauling my 200 pounds up even the slight hills north of Fremont on Williams. Wobbling kept our hand on the handles and thumbs on the accelerator leaving none free to for hand signals, which we did not do. You have to push off to start from a dead stop, which makes crossing busy streets unnerving. We used lighted crossings at MLK and prayed to cross Fremont and Knott. Whenever possible, we rolled through Stop signs in violation of City rules. Maybe with more experience, we could do both, but it doesn’t seem a two-wheeled skateboard will lend itself to either behavior. Moreover, it is unrealistic to expect a first-time user to do so. This presents a risk to both those riders and anyone else on the roadway they may encounter.

For us, scooting was mostly a fun experience, but unlikely to be a routine one. Nevertheless, it seemed well within the range of utilitarian transport and not just a toy. For those who are curious, I recommend taking a scooter for a spin with some friends some weekend on one of Portland’s bike lanes or greenways. For those who are comfortable with this technology, this seems like a viable transit option. Their success will depend on ready access; walking a mile to drive two miles downtown isn’t reasonable, especially in less than ideal weather. That recommends a lot more, rather than fewer, scooters and riders. Although I favor competition, having to maintain multiple apps to increase access to whatever scooter is handy is insane. Scooter providers need to find a way to share a common platform, ideally one that works with the HOP card.