Lime: the intersection of death and transportation inequality

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Lime: the intersection of death and transportation inequality

Photo curtesy of @birdgraveyard

Photo curtesy of @birdgraveyard

Photo curtesy of @birdgraveyard

Photo curtesy of @birdgraveyard

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In Dupont Circle, a child’s scooter is propped against a streetlamp, with a sign against it that reads: “A person on a scooter died here 9-21-18.” Twenty-year-old Carlos Sanchez-Martin was involved in a traffic accident in the circle while riding on a Lime scooter. He was dragged and subsequently pinned under an SUV until firefighters were able to extricate him. Sanchez-Martin’s death is the first of its kind to occur in the DC area, but hospitals have reported increased electric-scooter-induced visits to their emergency rooms. The scooters have brought concern from DC locals, who have expressed confusion about the lack of safety precautions.

Lime, the name of both the scooters and the San Francisco tech company that spawned them, seems to be a bit of a mystery. The scooters appeared with little preamble around the beginning of summer in 2018, with the number of scooters spread unevenly across the neighborhoods of the DC area. Places in Northwest DC, especially Farragut West and Adams Morgan, have a much higher concentration of available Lime bikes and scooters, whereas they are scarce in neighborhoods like Shaw and Anacostia.

The presence of the scooters has also been met with pushback from the skater community, mostly on the West Coast, which has perceived their arrival as a deliberate infringement into their space. There is even a popular Instagram account, @Birdgraveyard, named after another scooter company, dedicated to the destruction of the scooters.

@Birdgraveyard was born in Los Angeles, CA where the local community has rejected the scooters viscerally and at times violently, with widespread destruction of the scooters going viral. Scooters thrown in the ocean, broken into pieces, and piled into the back of a pickup truck by the dozen are just some examples of the antics that have been posted on the account. The reaction brings into consideration the concept of the Tragedy of the Commons, which is a social science theory that suggests that when we are forced to share resources, we act selfishly, leading to rapid depletion of vital resources—in this case, Lime scooters.

Upon even deeper scrutiny, the Lime conundrum is an interesting piece of social commentary about both safety (Lime scooters go up to 15 miles per hour), and urban development (many cities have cited issues with e-scooters being incompatible with existing road infrastructure). It also brings into question the commodification of transport, and the impact it has on civilians—are we slowly being forced to pay for travel because there is a shiny new mechanism making it faster, and does the lack of helmets in the Lime design demonstrate a company cutting cost, and if so, are they allowed to profit off of dangerous transportation?

A protest outside of City Hall in Santa Monica, CA displayed the controversy that has followed the scooter craze. Following a vote by the city council not to recommend Bird and Lime for their e-scooter pilot program next year, Lime offered a $5 credit to anyone who joined the rally in opposition. The crowd was soon joined by counter-protestors, who registered varying complaints with reporters about the dangerous nature of the scooters.

In DC, however, the scooters have faced little pushback. Seven different electric scooter brands have received conditional approval from the DC government and there has seemingly been an expansion, with new brands moving in on the market in 2019.

The scooters are being touted as the solution to the first mile/last mile (FL/LM) problem that exists within the public transportation industry. The problem is based on the theory that most Americans are comfortable walking a quarter of a mile to or from their public transportation stop, however, issues arise when that stop is outside of the quarter-mile radius on either end of the journey, or both. The distance being seen as unwalkable pushes Americans to rely on cars to reach their destination, bypassing public transportation altogether.

Designed to combat the FM/LM issue from a sustainability standpoint, the scooters, in the eyes of the designers, should help mitigate carbon emissions by providing a simplified means to reach public transportation stops.

The question, however, is whether or not e-scooters in DC are pulling people who might otherwise be driving or using ride-sharing services, or those who might otherwise be walking or biking. If it’s the latter, the scooters are doing more harm than good from a sustainability standpoint. The jury is still out—Lime launched in January 2017 and the scooters hit the street just a year after, so the data is simply not there.

As it stands, the likelihood of Lime solving the FM/LM issue in DC seems slim. Wards 7 and 8 have been completely ignored by Lime and other e-scooter companies, as discovered by a Washington Post article published in December 2018. These Wards, are also often disregarded by transportation companies, like Uber and Lyft, and even more traditional services like taxis, the article revealed.

The Beacon contacted Lime customer service in hopes of finding both answers to questions regarding the FM/LM conflict and ones surrounding the often debated ethics of the company. The customer service representative was informed by her superior that she could not comment.  

While there has been no collective public abandonment of the company, or electric scooters as a general concept, the very existence of accounts like @Birdgraveyard highlight the places where Lime’s marketing falls short. Lime came out of nowhere, it seems, and if accounts like @Birdgraveyard are any indication, the relative novelty of the company is beginning to wear off. With no one to stand for its defense, it seems that the future of electric scooters is at a bit of a precipice, hanging on to the popularity it gained at a breakneck pace, while also being weighed down by the copious questions left unanswered.