When I was in college, some friends and I sailed my roommate’s father’s boat from Miami to Islamorada in the Florida Keys. It was a wonderful trip — until we knocked a giant hole in the bottom of the boat, which was discovered when I went into the cabin for something and was standing in knee-deep water. It’s a great story. But that’s not what I’m prattling on about this week.
While The Shamrock was being kept off the bottom of the marina through the clever use of towels stuffed in the hole and industrial pumps, we decided to go to Key West via U.S. 1. Everyone was excited to visit the (then) one and only Margaritaville, certain we’d spot Jimmy Buffett there eating a cheeseburger. We did, but that’s also another story.
Key West is a gorgeous city, great for walking or riding bikes — or mopeds. The five of us rented bright yellow mopeds and took to the streets of Key West like Hells Angels barreling through some sleepy little California town. Soon we were joined by a few strangers on their mopeds, then more strangers and then even more.
I don’t exaggerate when I say there were eventually about 30 people — mostly college-aged idiots like ourselves — riding in a pack, ignoring just about every rule of the road and showing off for one another. One memory that stands out was when we circled a group of people walking across the street, leaving them stranded in the middle of a ring of whizzing mopeds.
Things got completely out of hand. In just minutes on those mopeds, we were acting like a real live outlaw biker gang. I’m pretty sure there were even discussions of running crank across the Southeastern U.S. Fortunately our gang broke up when it was time to return our choppers.
I’m reminded of this particularly lawless couple of hours in my youth as I sit in my office and watch people flying by on the sidewalk on the new Gotcha e-scooters that suddenly appeared downtown last week. As I was closing up Lagniappe’s worldwide HQ Monday night, a group of 20-something men whizzed past on the sidewalk screaming at the top of their lungs. I ran out to join them, but they were gone.
Yes, I’m aware: complaining about the electric scooters is running dangerously close to old-man-yelling-get-off-my-lawn territory. And I’m also dying to ride an e-scooter, so maybe I also might be accused of hypocrisy should I be spotted later this week gliding one of these little blue babies into a trash can or pothole at 20 mph.
Regardless of that though, looking at the bigger picture, there does appear to be a certain amount of recklessness associated with the decision to allow e-scooters downtown. If you’ll remember, one of the main reasons Lime packed its electric, green rental bicycles up and left town is because the city wouldn’t allow them to move into the e-scooter market. At the time this prohibition seemed kind of prudish. Who cares about a tiny little scooter, right? It’s not like we’re allowing raging, crank-dealing moped gangs to take over downtown.
But now that they’re here, it’s quickly become obvious there’s a downside. First, the elephant in the room: Most of these scooters are parked adjacent to or within a short stagger of LoDa’s many fine watering holes. And while I’m certain it is illegal to operate a scooter while legally intoxicated, especially if you’re operating it on a sidewalk or going the wrong way down a one-way street, I’m just guessing a fair number of scooter riders are bar-hopping.
Supposedly scooter riders are supposed to be following the rules of the road, which means riding along with traffic, stopping a stop signs and red lights, staying off the sidewalks, etc. But we really have no idea who’s getting on these things. Is it Otis the Drunk who’s had his license revoked? A 15-year-old boy who hasn’t taken drivers’ ed but has watched YouTube videos of Evel Knievel — the man who inspired more childhood concussions and broken arms in the ’70s than all pee wee football leagues and trampoline parks combined?
The scooters’ small size makes them seem like toys, but they move pretty fast. Nothing like combining an unstable-yet-fast-moving vehicle with Mobile’s pothole-ridden streets and tree root-broken sidewalks. I’ve already heard of at least one serious injury and several other smaller ones.
Some teenage boys I know said they actually put three of them in a truck, took them to a Midtown neighborhood and drove around in the dark. Of course, one of the boys also told me he now has a giant bruise on his leg after falling off the e-scooter.
I don’t want to be Debbie Downer about our scooter renaissance. I’m sure the vast majority of people riding them do so safely and don’t wind up needing facial reconstruction. But they do seem to have injected a new public safety threat into LoDa just as the good ol’ days of rampant drunk driving appear to have faded significantly due to the presence of ride-sharing services. MPD reported only two DUI arrests New Year’s Eve, which is rather amazing.
Scooters are, I suppose, the ultimate in caveat emptor — buyer beware. “Yes, you can rent this wobbly, tiny motorized vehicle that would provide zero protection if you’re hit by a car! Act now and we’ll throw in NO HELMET absolutely free!!”
We’re a society in which everyone now wears a helmet just to take a leisurely bike ride around the block. We have nets and pads around our trampolines. We actively encourage intoxicated people NOT to drive their cars. But we’re actively encouraging both citizens and drunken tourists to now propel themselves down bumpy, potholed streets and sidewalks on something that looks a little like a broomstick taped to a skateboard.
A couple of scooter enthusiasts made the news the other night after MPD caught them riding through the Wallace Tunnel. Yes, the tunnel on I-10 where 18-wheelers and people driving 90 mph are the norm. Clearly these people didn’t have brains worth protecting with a helmet, but it’s perhaps illustrative of what our police officers are now dealing with as well. Both Gotcha and the city took out multimillion dollar insurance policies before these babies hit the streets, so obviously some damage is expected as e-scooters have had more than a few deaths and lots of accidents associated with them in other cities.
Perhaps these are just the growing pains of becoming a scooter town and we won’t be overrun with scooter gangs. Let’s hope it happens before Mardi Gras arrives.
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