by Steve Gottschling

During times of upheaval, those vying for power might be too busy seizing territory to pause amid the wreckage and think about how cool they look. And since last spring, when companies like Bird and Lime scattered rentable electric scooters throughout major US cities without so much as a warning, the journalists assigned to make sense of the situation arrived at the same conclusions. The scooters came out of nowhere. They have clear benefits. And they’re not cool.

Stepping onto oneThe Atlantic’s Robinson Meyer found he could easily transverse sections of DC that rested in dead zones not serviced by public transport, but doing so felt like walking outside for the first time after being kidnapped and forcefully outfitted in cargo shorts.

“There are several trees on my commute home with whom I feel a deep and wordless bond,” he writes. “When I must ride a scooter past them, I avert my eyes.”

And for Wired Magazine, David Pearce can’t praise the scooter’s environment-saving potential without weaving in some comments about its dorkiness. “But they're not cool, he writes. They've never been cool.”

Seeing so many wrinkled noses takes me back to a time when new transportation technologies could drop into a city that not just accepted but romanticized them. You might think I’m referring to the Vespa, which rolled out of Piaggio’s factory into an Italy ravaged by World War II and in need of a way to zoom literally out of economic malaise. And still, Vespa from the start bathed itself in the sort of glamour that may rest forever out of reach for the likes of Bird and Lime.

But I’m talking about the scooter. In the year 2000. While dismissing electric scooters as dorky is practically part of newspapers’ style guides in 2018, you can almost imagine John Leland wiping drool from his keyboard as he writes about the Razor for the New York Times:

“As a mode of transportation, sadly, the scooter proved the stiletto heel of the two-wheeled set: great to look at, lousy for carrying laundry to the dry cleaner. Do not be seduced, as I was, by images of dapper men and women in graceful glide, cool breezes slicing through the hot city.”

Already among the glowing reviews, however, was a budding wariness toward the machinations of Silicon Valley. An LA times article written two months before the collapse of Pets.com describes startup workers barrelling atop their scooters to meetings, “liability be damned.”

If liability was an afterthought then, it’s a myth now. By dropping their scooters into cities unannounced, Bird and Lime contributed to a culture already steeped in data scandals and regulation-shirking ruthlessness. Even if they manufactured rideable clouds made of pure sexy, it’s hard to imagine city-dwellers trusting them any more.

Now, Bird and Lime could have paddled against this perception by prefacing their rollouts the way Vespa did-- with a good ol’ fashioned ad campaign. Rather than leaving image-making duties entirely in the hands of journalists, Vespa romanticized its scooters in magazine ads that recall the clean lines and perpetual motion of Italian Futurism. Teetering yuppies tend to look sleeker when rendered in pen.

But dorkiness is like a finger trap: on the rare occasion that 2018’s scooter companies do craft their own images, the grip of dorkdom clenches further. UScooters’ Instagram, as Pearce points out in Wired, tries to surround its stark metallic product with sensuously lit trees with unintentionally comical results.

The best hope for the scooters, in turns out, may be to double down. We’re in the year of the Dad Sneaker after all, and the Fanny Pack Renaissance is going strong. A device that has been branded dorky may still catch on, once the stench of Patagonia fleece has dissipated just a bit.