Will Chicagoans all ditch their bikes, cars, and public transportation to zip around everywhere on lime-green electric scooters over the next few years?
It’s doubtful, but the contraption is an if mildly frightening way to traverse the city in short bursts. I felt like a kid for a day—and a minor celebrity—after a couple of impromptu test drives (scoots?) of the two-wheeled, long-handled devices over the weekend. The California-based company Lime parked a few of its GPS-enabled Lime-S’s near the Fiesta Del Sol festival in Pilsen as part of a public demo. There were four of them in a neat row right outside my apartment building, and I couldn’t resist trying them out.
It certainly wasn’t difficult to get started: I downloaded the Lime-S app and got authorized through Facebook and Apple Pay in less than two minutes. The app borrows your phone’s camera to scan the bike’s QR code to activate it. When you see the electronic display turn on, then you just hop on. I found the process considerably easier and faster than getting a new Ventra or Divvy pass.
Costwise, Lime-S falls somewhere between the CTA and ride sharing through Lyft or Uber. At $1, it’s cheap to start the thing up, but the additional 15 cents per minute can add up quickly if you’re not careful. My 3.4-mile round-trip from Pilsen to Chinatown took 28 minutes and cost $5.20 (though I got a $1 off from a promotion); my later five-mile trek from Fiesta Del Sol to Wicker Park Fest took 35 minutes and cost $8.25.
One of the first decisions I had to make: Where’s the most appropriate place to actually ride the thing? The street felt like a weird place for a compact scooter that resembles an adult version of a child’s toy, but so did the sidewalk, where I could have really annoyed (or even knocked into) pedestrians. I settled on staying within marked bike lanes, but even that felt awkward—like I was invading someone else’s turf—so I tried to travel quiet residential streets instead.
The novelty factor of seeing someone on an electric scooter is ultrahigh right now, which is why I kept getting distracted by pedestrians and car passengers bombarding me with questions while I was riding: Where did I get the Lime, how they could get one, how much it cost. Some just wanted me to know how fun it looked. “Damn, dude, you look like you’re from the future,” one guy yelled at me as I passed by his Saturday-afternoon barbecue.
[content-1]The moment-to-moment experience of actually riding a Lime is thrilling—maybe too much so. You barely have to move your body: one flick of the thumb on your right hand on the throttle zooms the scooter along with ease, and your left hand squeezes a brake to slow it down. I got an adrenaline rush early on, especially after I cranked the accelerator to the max while crossing the 18th Street Bridge over the Chicago River.
I managed to break 21 miles per hour, and at that speed I felt like I was on a theme-park ride or a grounded version of Marty McFly’s hoverboard from Back to the Future 2. It was fun, sure; it was also wildly unsafe. Going the maximum speed on a Lime could be OK on a flat track with a smooth surface, but not on our postapocalyptic Chicago roads riddled with sharp cracks, cavernous potholes, and loose rocks and litter.
On a thin, lightweight scooter, you’re much more exposed than on a bicycle, and more balance is needed to stay upright—I found it nearly impossible to ride it with one hand. (Then again, this was my first time on a scooter in two decades; maybe I’m just out of practice.) Through trial and error, I discovered that somewhere between ten and 12 miles per hour is a reasonable cruising speed, but even then I once accidentally hit the edge of a pit in the pavement near May and 21st Street and thought I might fall off.
One problem I ran into was with the battery indicator on the scooter’s display. On my second ride, the device couldn’t make up its mind—it kept intermittently flashing between one and two bars to indicate the amount of battery left. I received a notification on my phone telling me I needed to park soon before my scooter went dead, but I ended up squeezing two more miles out of it.
My favorite part of the e-scooter is that it’s dockless—the same aspect that makes it so controversial in other cities because of all the scooters that wind up cluttering the sidewalks. After making it to Wicker Park Fest, I was able to abandon my ride on the sidewalk ten yards away from the festival’s entrance. If the city of Chicago mandates that Lime outfit the scooters with “lock-to” mechanisms of the sort required for its dockless bikes, the scooters will be a much less attractive option.
As it is, once the thrill wore off, I’m not sure how much I’d actually use e-scooters if they were fully adopted in Chicago. Transportation experts say scooters make the most sense in cities for areas that are too far to walk to and too small for public transportation to access. But for me, that puts them in the same category as iPads, a tweener form of technology that feels unnecessary if you’ve got an iPhone and a laptop. For short trips I can walk or take a Divvy (and get some exercise in the process), and for longer trips, Limes feel impractical and overpriced, especially when you can take a car-share service for nearly the same price.