If Portland's new favorite pastime is riding scooters, complaining about people riding scooters is running a close second.

In the nine days after electric scooters appeared on the city's streets, at least 122 people contacted City Hall to gripe. That's a rate of one complaint every two hours. The vast majority of grievances focused on people riding on sidewalks or not wearing helmets.

"I'm really disappointed that Portland decided to allow these toys on civic property," wrote a resident named Matthew Sanders on July 31. "We have roads for cars, bike lanes for cycles, and sidewalks for pedestrian traffic. The last thing we need is another, fuzzy, class of transportation that doesn't fit within out current infrastructure plan."

But for advocates of active transportation, the whining about sidewalk scooting is a welcome sound.

It puts pressure on city officials to accelerate their efforts to build a city where more people have ways to go car-free.

(Sam Gehrke)
(Sam Gehrke)

"Scooters highlight a weakness in the system," says Michael Andersen, senior fellow at the Sightline Institute, a Seattle-based urban planning nonprofit. "To the extent that they're riding on sidewalks, there's inadequate bike infrastructure."

That's part of why bike activists have become combative scooter rooters: The enemy of cars is their friend. The demand for scooters—and the shortage of places to ride them—is creating a visual that spurs city officials to take a more aggressive approach to bike lanes and other places to ride safely.

The scooter companies, which have been badly received in many cities where they've launched, are happy to have Portland's bike boosters as allies.

"Our objective as a company [is] getting people out of cars. To do that, you have to actually give them an alternative," says Lime's director of strategic initiatives, Gabriel Scheer. "We are trying to create the alternative. Ideally, you do it in a way that's fun and that makes people's lives better."

Portland prides itself on being a city of cycles. But its efforts to offer alternatives to car commuting—and ease congestion and meet the city's landmark climate change goals—have stalled.

In 1993, Portland pledged to reduce carbon emissions 40 percent from 1990 levels by the year 2030. To meet that goal, the city needs to cut in half the percentage of commuters driving by themselves to work. It wants half the county to go to work on bikes or public transit.

Portland's not on pace to meet either of those goals. The percentage of commuters in cars hasn't meaningfully declined since 2010. Transit and bike commuters? Stuck at 19 percent.

But scooters have been ardently received by Portlanders. Data show the number of rides increases each week, and most riders are using them for exactly the kind of short trips—2 miles or less—that urban planners want to pull people out of cars for.

Skip scooter (courtesy Skip)
Skip scooter (courtesy Skip)

To be sure, scooters still account for a tiny fraction of trips in this city, and they may be cutting into bike ridership. The scooter pilot program isn't guaranteed to continue past November. But if they catch on, they would add a new mode of transportation that would help Portlanders shift from owning cars to renting multiple devices to get around.

"It gets more people used to buying rides when you need them, rather than buying vehicles and using them every once in a while," says Marc Schlossberg, co-director of the Sustainable Cities Initiative at the University of Oregon. "The more we get into a situation where we buy a car ride when we need it, we buy a scooter ride when we need it, we use our own bike when we need it, I think that's a good future outcome."

If that happens, the result could be pressure on Portland officials to protect cyclists and scooter riders from cars—a goal bike activists have long desired.

City officials running the scooter pilot program acknowledge new demand could spark new infrastructure.

"If e-scooter use continues to grow, scooter riders will likely ask for more neighborhood greenways, protected bike lanes and multiuse paths," says Dylan Rivera, spokesman for the Portland Bureau of Transportation.

PBOT is currently weighing a plan for 23 miles of protected lanes and neighborhood greenways through the central city. Scooters could push the city to move faster.

And they could help fund the projects.

A protected bike lane in Vancouver, B.C. (Paul Krueger / Flickr)
A protected bike lane in Vancouver, B.C. (Paul Krueger / Flickr)

Santa Monica, Calif., the birthplace of the e-scooter craze, moved forward with an expansion of bike lanes and signals last month, thanks in part to funding expected to come from taxing scooters and bike share.

In a less direct way, activists hope scooters could expedite Portland's aim for more bus and train service—by helping people get to public transportation. In a Lime company survey, 27 percent of users of both e-scooters and bike share in big cities reported they used Lime to get to public transportation on their last trip.

The share of people using public transportation "has been flat to down for years since the turn of the century," says Andersen. "Scooters and bike shares and short hops solve the last-mile problem and increase potential ridership on core lines."

For believers, the scooters represent the first wave in a series of new technologies that could shift Portlanders away from cars and toward transportation that doesn't pollute—but also doesn't require too much exertion.

Another one? E-bikes, which are bicycles with an electric motor. The city plans to introduce e-bikes as part of the next bike share contract in August 2019.

Meanwhile, riders like Neil Heller are accepting the scooter backlash as a healthy conflict.

The 40-year-old small-scale real estate developer was first in line for Lime scooters—he went to the company's warehouse days before it launched. In his dozen rides, he's had people yell at him out of their car windows and flash him a thumbs-down sign.

He doesn't care. "People are getting used to them," he says. "But as soon as they try them, they'll be sold."