What’s tomato red, fun to ride and talks to your smartphone? It’s one of those perky little scooters that you’ve probably seen swarming all over the Mission lately, of course. Scoot, the SoMa based company that owns the ride-sharing electric mopeds, is trying to offer serious competition to MUNI and bikes—and is finding an eager market.
Curious about these red two-wheelers whizzing past, I attended one of the required 15-minute training sessions (actually they tend to run closer to half an hour) for new riders. One of the nice things about Scoots is that you don’t need a motorcycle license, just a driver’s license with a clean record. You have to be at least 21 years old and, no, you can’t carry passengers. (Under California law, you need foot pedals for passengers, which Scoots lack.)
To get started, you reserve the scooter on your phone screen, which unlocks a compartment hiding the key. Turning the key in the ignition produces just a short mechanical “click,” and then silence, but the motor is on. The phone, still communicating with a chip in the scooter, shows your speed and battery charge and provides your GPS. Fully electric, Scoots are almost silent, so it’s important to know where the horn is.
Our instructor’s Scoot jumped ahead eagerly as he twiddled the throttle. A little wobbly but without hesitation, our little group zoomed down the alley. Within minutes most of us had tested the limits of the scooters, speeding up to 30 mph and then slamming on the brakes. “Can I just keep riding this right now?” asked Dylan Jhaveri, who works from his home in NoPa but was curious to try out the scoot and “go on adventures.”
Granted, there are drawbacks. By law Scoots can only hit 30 mph, and a governor in the motor keeps them from exceeding the limit. They can’t go outside city limits. Hills slow them down and use more battery power, definitely a disadvantage in San Francisco. However, starting next year Scoot will begin retrofitting the fleet with new engines that double their horsepower to a whopping four horsepower. In the meantime Scoot has been working with a mapping app to mark higher-grade hills on its map and plan Scoot routes around them.
Older models can go up to 10 miles before needing to be plugged in to a standard outlet. Newer ones can do up to 30. The Scoot app will text you when you have three miles of battery power remaining, but if you miss the text or miscalculate your remaining distance, you’re not completely done for. The vehicles charge at a standard outlet and take about 30 cents worth of electricity to fully charge. Worst case scenario: You just made it halfway up a hill and need to coast down to the nearest café to beg your way into a charge.
And cute as they are, Scoots are heavier than they look. Bonnie Lai, the petite cofounder of the tech startup Roost, needed a few tries to get her Scoot off its kickstand.
Still, Scoot founder and CEO Michael Keating predicts that Scoots will find their way into San Franciscans’ hearts. As a youngster, he said, he used to have posters of Lamborghinis on his walls. “No kid is going to have a poster of a Scoot on their wall,” he conceded. “But people will be like, yeah, this works.”
Scoot’s presence in the Mission is small but growing. There are already two Scoot Stops, which are streetside parking with no outlet, at 20th and Alabama and 24th and Utah (if you consider that the Mission). Two charging spots are available, one in the 21st street garage near Valencia and one near 16th and Mission. By fall, Scoot says it will have added another 150 machines to its fleet of 100, and more parking spaces for the scooters throughout the Mission.
Spanish-language Scooting will also likely roll out sometime in 2015.
For now Scoot regularly trains larger groups at the DMV parking lot on Baker and Fell, but is hunting for a space in the Mission that’s available on weekends.
Yes, Scoot is yet another techie innovation. “It’s definitely a tech thing,” Scoot spokeswoman Sophie Lubin acknowledged. But Scoot is trying very hard to change that image, and to make the mopeds widely accessible. One trainer said the majority of his students have been blue-collar workers rather than techies.
The pricing system is a little complicated. Membership costs $5 a month, unless you were referred by a friend or brought a friend into the system, in which case you both get a month of basic membership. Your first half-hour costs $3, and each additional half-hour costs $1.50. Or you can pay $29 a month and get unlimited half-hour rides—a bargain compared to MUNI. Keep in mind that a Scoot “ride” ends only when you end your reservation and leave the Scoot for someone else to pick up. Still, as the Lubin noted, that allows you to scoot soberly to a bar and get a different ride home.
Until those additional 150 Scoots come in, however, it can be tough to get a moped for even a one-way trip. Recently I checked for one near me at noon; two hours later, I got a text saying a Scoot was available. I missed the text, however, and within 13 minutes my ride was gone. Ah well, back on the bike.