While we wait for flying taxis, e-scooters are the latest attempt by tech companies to disrupt the way we get around cities. Thanks to permissive governments and effective behind-the-scenes lobbying, these companies are rapidly moving into cities across Australasia. Their roll-out is a textbook example of the tech libertarian mantra ‘move fast and break things’, but it equally relies on a public indifference to their invasion of the commons.
For many of us, it is hard to remember a time before Uber. Although it has been present in this part of the world for a little over five years, the company has changed the way people move, with major impacts on taxi companies as well as public transport. Lime and its competitors are moving just as fast. One day, you’ve never seen an e-scooter. The next day, there are hundreds of the things. Uber’s ethics and labour practices have been widely critiqued, including by Angus Reoch in this magazine, but here I specifically want to discuss the effects of its aggressively disruptive model on the way we use our cities.
In the case of my home town, Christchurch, four hundred scooters turned up on the streets one morning in October. Lime had agreed on a three-month trial with the Christchurch City Council, and paid them the princely sum of $136 for the privilege. In exchange, the company was subjected to remarkably lax conditions: scooters are allowed to ride at up to 27 km/h, and riders aren’t required to wear helmets. When the models of scooters used in New Zealand were revealed to have a braking fault that had resulted in a number of serious injuries, both Auckland and Dunedin temporarily pulled Lime’s license. Christchurch just extended the trial for another year.
Australian cities appear to have been more circumspect. This might be in part due to the failure of a number of dockless bike share schemes in the past couple of years. Trials have begun in Adelaide, Brisbane, Sydney, and at Melbourne’s Monash University campus. The reaction to Lime in Adelaide has been less welcoming than in her sister city of Christchurch. Police have cautioned hundreds of scooter riders, as well as revoking driver licenses in a couple of cases. As has been the case in a number of American cities, the only trip that some of the scooters ever took was to the bottom of the nearest body of water.
While the conditions of the license vary from city to city, there is one thing that all these scooter-sharing services share: they are dependent on footpaths, bike lanes or both. In the media coverage there has been almost no consideration for the common good that these spaces represent. For many people – those who have impaired mobility, the elderly, parents with prams and small children – footpaths are a vital space. They are more than just a way to get from place to place. They are places to meet, to stop and chat with the people you bump into. They are places to preach, to protest, to busk, and to beg. For the vulnerably housed, they’re often a place to sleep as well.
The use of footpaths and bike lanes may come at the expense of regular pedestrians and cyclists but it brings nothing but profit to Lime. Far from being a part of the ‘sharing’ economy, this is the co-opting of a public space.
Advocates promote all of these services as complementary to existing public transport networks. Scooters are said for instance to help with the ‘last mile’ problem – meaning the link between your house and the nearest bus stop. However, studies are beginning to show that ride-share services are competitors to public transportation, rather than partners. In a number of major cities, the arrival of Uber and Lyft has led to a reduction of trips on public transport. Documents released as part of Uber’s IPO have revealed the company’s true attitude to public transport. As Aaron Gordon explains: ‘Far from being a partner in helping people move around cities, Uber regularly slots public transportation as ‘competition’ or an obstacle to the company’s ‘growth strategy.’
Decreasing public transport use is an issue in a number of cities, and disproportionately impacts those on lower incomes. Comprehensive public transport networks are also crucial for any city making a genuine attempt to reduce its carbon emissions. If Lime scooters want to be truly regarded as a partner, they need to explain why they instruct their ‘juicers’ to place fully-charged scooters right next to bus stops.
When we talk about the commons and the city, we often think about small-scale interventions such as community gardens. While these spaces demonstrate the potential for community-driven projects to exist within cities, they are largely tolerated because they don’t challenge the dominance of capital. In places such as post-earthquake Christchurch, where a large number of transitional projects have popped up on unused land, they can act as a fig-leaf for property developers. However, the commons in the city can be more than just temporary activations. It can challenge the way we use our built environment. As Justin McGuirk argues:
In a relentlessly neoliberal climate, the commons seems to offer an alternative to the battle between public and private. The idea of land or services that are commonly owned and managed speaks to a 21st-century sensibility of, to use some jargon, participative citizenship and peer-to-peer production. In theory, at least, the commons is full of radical potential.
When Garrett Hardin coined the expression ‘the tragedy of the commons’, in the late 60s, he centred the debate around the exploitation of resources using arguments in support of privatisation. This narrative has been unpicked by the likes of Nobel Prize-winning economist Elinor Ostrom, whose research led her to conclude that ‘the governing of the commons [needs] to be organised from the ground up by communities, shaped to cultural norms, and based on trust.’
For many people, common spaces are the only way that they can participate in their city, though in increasingly privatised urban environments, it is difficult to ascertain what and where these spaces are. To quote McGuirk again:
we cannot have a common resource without a common strategy for managing it … rather than a resource, the commons is a process, a set of social relations by which a group of people share responsibility for, yes, a garden or even the governance of their neighbourhood.
Communities have been increasingly disconnected from their commons and are less likely to try and prevent their modern enclosures. Humble as they might seem, the footpaths that link our cities are a common space for all, and their utility should not be eroded for the sake of short-term convenience or private profit.
Capitalism was kickstarted by the enclosure of the commons, forcing people off the land and into cities to work for wages. In the 21st century, we have apps and stateless capital doing the same thing. As a society, we may decide that footpaths or bike lanes are the best place for e-scooters. However, if the commons are going to be used in this way, then the people to whom they belong should be consulted before the fact, not after it.
Lime is just the latest example of an economically libertarian enterprise that is entirely dependent on infrastructure built and paid for by generations of taxpayers. These companies have been upfront about their desire to change the way we move around cities, and many councils have been receptive to the idea of private interests stepping in and delivering what used to be considered a key council service. As the functioning of cities becomes ever more critical to the way in which humans coexist on this planet, we need to ask who is shaping these spaces: the people who live in them, or an increasingly unaccountable group of tech entrepreneurs living in the Bay Area.
Uber moved fast and broke the taxi industry. AirBnB has done the same to the rental property market. Lime and their competitors are certainly moving fast, but the thing they might end up breaking is our cities.
Image: Electric scooters in Austin, photographed by Anthony Quintano