Ad and marketing creatives

Let's Talk e-Scooters

Here in the San Francisco Bay Area, and in about half of the rest of the United States, companies like Bird, Lime, Skip, and Spin have been aiming to disrupt urban transit by depositing rental electric scooters on city sidewalks, usually without first asking permission from local authorities. For $1 per ride and 15 cents per mile, e-scooters provide an efficient short commute (or joyride). Along the way, this fast-growing transportation trend has added some new terms to our vocabulary, and revived some older ones.

The e-scooters arrived without warning in late 2017 and early 2018. But scooter is much older. Without the e- prefix, it's been part of English for almost two centuries. In the early 1800s, it referred to a person who scoots: moves suddenly and swiftly. (The verb seems to have come from a Scottish term meaning "to eject or squirt." If you have a dog, you probably know a different and more worrisome meaning of scoot.) In North America around 1900, a scooter was a spoon-bottomed sailboat with steel runners that allowed it to navigate on ice and water; 15 years later, during World War I, a scooter was a fast motorboat. But it also began appearing as the name of a child's foot-propelled, handlebar-steered toy and as slang for a motorcycle.

Ad for a Gra-Houn child's scooter, 1920. "Gra-Houn" was meant to evoke "greyhound," a racing dog. Source: Yesterday's Print

Almost as soon as children's scooters took off, some people decided to motorize them for grownups. A Long Island City, New York, company led the way with the Autoped, a scooter with a four-stroke gas engine; the vehicles were sold between 1915 and 1921.

Newark, New Jersey, traffic cop on an Autoped, 1922. Via Wikipedia.

Today's electric scooters weigh between 25 and 40 pounds and are sometimes called LEVs, or "light electric vehicles." (Almost all of them have four-letter brand names, for no reason I can discern other than copycatting.) Proponents tout them as a solution to the challenges of first-mile and last-mile transportation, terms that originated in the freight and supply-chain industries and now refer to getting people from their starting point to a transportation hub (bus stop, train station) or from the hub to a final destination. Naysayers have taken to prophesying scootergeddon: an aggressive "invasion" of two-wheeled vehicles as dire as the End of Days.

Then there are those who look at the big picture, regarding e-scooters as a necessary element of the micro-mobility movement, which seeks to shift the balance of city transportation from gas-powered cars to human-powered bicycles and to scooters and small cars powered by electricity. There's even serious talk about Universal Basic Mobility, or UBM. Modeled on the concept of Universal Basic Income (UBI), UBM recognizes freedom of movement as a basic human right. It might be implemented through a platform called mobility as a service (MaaS), a term modeled on "software as a service" (SaaS), which emerged during the late 1990s in the first dot-com boom. MaaS combines transportation services from public and private transportation providers "through a unified gateway that creates and manages the trip, which users can pay for with a single account," according to a Wikipedia entry. According to CityLab, a website that covers urban design and transportation, "MaaS is the transportation equivalent of Netflix: a monthly subscription fee gives you access to multiple mobility services on a single platform." It's already being implemented in Finland through a company called Whim — an English-language word that evokes the spur-of-the-moment availability of the service — that charges about $50 a month for access to all public transit and bike-sharing, and limited ride-sharing in private cars.

Lime e-scooters at an Oakland, California, BART station. Photo: Nancy Friedman

Unlike most rental bicycles such as Ford GoBikes and CitiBikes, which are parked in locking docks, e-scooters are dockless: After you've arrived at your destination, you simply leave your scooter near the curb for the next rider — or for a roving freelance charger to collect and recharge overnight. A San Francisco Chronicle story in July 2018 described the routine, which the reporter likened to a "high-tech scavenger game":

Scooter chargers have already developed their own lexicon and subculture, flocking to Facebook groups and in-person meet-ups. They "harvest" Limes, and "hunt," "capture" and "release" Birds into designated "nests." Lime chargers are called "juicers," while those for Skip are called "rangers."

Not everyone loves the randomness of docklessness. Some e-scooter companies are responding by building parklets: small curbside spaces that allow sitting as well as e-scooter parking. (The "sitting" definition of parklet had already been in use for about a decade.) Another way scooter companies are attempting to mollify city authorities and irate pedestrians is geo-speed limiting: The companies create "geo-zones" within which the scooters automatically and abruptly decelerate to a safe speed. As with everything related to e-scooters, there have been unintended consequences. At least one Santa Monica, California, law firm now has a staff attorney who specializes in injuries related to geo-speeding limiting. (On its website, this firm asks, reasonably: "Why not just cap the speed on electric scooters to 8 mph, regardless of location?")

These after-the-fact measures may help a bit, but rebelliousness is built into the e-scooter companies' business model. And a rebellious streak is evident in their customers as well. That's why one particular word shows up frequently in coverage of the e-scooter industry: scofflaw.

Scofflaw is a rare example of a successful invented word. In October 1923, three years into the doomed American experiment known as Prohibition, Mr. Delcevare King of Quincy, Massachusetts, a member of the Anti-Saloon League, decided a new word was needed to "shame and sting the drinker" who flouted the new ban on the sale and distribution of alcohol. (The quotation, like the rest of this background, is from Allan Metcalf's excellent book Predicting New Words.) King offered a $200 prize to the coiner of the winning word, and received more than 25,000 submissions. In the end, the prize money was divided between Henry Irving Dale and Kate L. Butler, both of whom had combined the old words scoff (to make fun of, to mock) and law to create a new blended word. (Read more about the contest and its outcome on my blog.) Scofflaw was an instant hit, in part because "the scofflaws themselves evidently relished the term rather than flinching from it," Metcalf writes.

The word survived the Prohibition Era, which ended in 1933, and thrives to this day. We see it used scoldingly to describe the e-scooter renters who zoom, helmetless, along sidewalks (which are technically off limits). And scofflaw also crops up in reference to e-scooter companies that prefer (in the words of Facebook's famous internal motto) to "move fast and break things" — sometimes, unfortunately, all too literally — rather than to take the slow, bureaucratic, law-abiding route.

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Nancy Friedman is the chief wordworker at verbal-branding consultancy Wordworking, and the author of a fine blog on naming, branding and more called Fritinancy. Nancy has named a venture-capital firm, a laser hair-removal device, a mobile-money service, and many other companies and products. A former journalist, she still writes or ghostwrites articles, speeches, white papers, and books. Click here to read more articles by Nancy Friedman.

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