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Tripping over electric scooters? Here's how they work (FAQ)

Our irreverent guide to the vehicles that may soon litter your sidewalk.

scooters-bikes-sf-sean-hollister-002

Electric scooters and bikes are aiming to become part of city commuting.

Sean Hollister/CNET

Do you remember the day the scooters invaded San Francisco? We do: March 29, 2018, was the first day we couldn't walk outside CNET HQ without tripping over an electric vehicle.

Where did these fiendish contraptions come from? Are they actually useful? Legal? Better than a bike? Can you seriously just grab one off the street and leave it anywhere you choose? (And can you avoid looking like an asshole if you do?)

You'll find all those answers and much, much more in our FAQ below.

Now Playing: Watch this: There's a scooter war in San Francisco
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Wait. Wait a gosh-darned moment. Aren't scooters for kids?

Not when they're barreling down the street at 15 miles per hour! And not when they require a credit card.

These aren't the tween-tastic Razor kick scooters you (or your kids) grew up with; they're beefy metal machines that can weigh upwards of 25 pounds (11+ kg), designed for urban commuters. You pay with your phone to borrow one, hop on, zip across town, then park 'em anywhere you like -- the company takes care of the rest.

Park anywhere? How is that legal?

It… technically isn't! That's why San Francisco authorities are confiscating hundreds of illegally parked scooters, issuing citations and distributing cease and desist orders as of April.

But that hasn't stopped the scooters yet. And it probably won't, because the city doesn't want to ban them -- it wants to get them under control. You can read way more about that in reporter Dara Kerr's feature story.

What happens when someone parks one in a tree?

We can't freaking wait to find out:

lime-scooter-tree

Brighton Miller

Where did this crazy idea come from?

Most famously, China -- where mountains of dockless, park-anywhere bikes are piling up on the streets and one of the biggest bike-sharing companies just got bought for $2.7 billion.

Oh yeah, what about bikes? I see bikes everywhere too.

Yep: Dockless bikes like the Jump Bike and LimeBike are also spreading across urban areas, and they're similarly available for a tiny rental fee.

But in SF, the bike companies are generally following the rules. Jump worked with the city to get a permit, and you have to lock its bikes to stationary objects using their built-in locks. LimeBike, meanwhile, doesn't offer bikes in San Francisco at all -- only scooters.

There's also city-approved Ford GoBikes, but with those your trip has to begin and end at specific docking stations. You always know where you can find a GoBike… but you may still have a long walk after you drop them off.

Will I look like a wanker riding them?

Yes. Yes you will.

We speak from experience.

wheels.png

Yeah.

Josh Miller/CNET

Why would a grown-ass woman or man ride one of these?

Hey that's convenient: We wrote a whole magazine story about that!

Are they… fun?

They're not bad! Really depends on which model you pick, how much traffic you run into and whether you're going uphill. If you're on a flat surface on an average day, you'll zip past pedestrians like it's nothing. 

Uphill, you'll need to pedal or kick a lot.

limebike-lime-s-sidewalk

The Limebike Lime-S.

Sean Hollister/CNET

The LimeBike Lime-S scooter has the comfiest ride and feels more hygienic than rivals, but it's a little weaker and harder to stop.

xiaomi-mi-spin-bird-electric-scooter

From left to right: Bird, Spin and a retail Mi Electric Scooter. They look identical because they are.

Sean Hollister/CNET

Bird and Spin use the same Xiaomi Mi Electric Scooter for their fleets. It feels a bit zippier, slightly better at climbing and stopping in a hurry, but the grips can feel pretty slimy if they haven't been cleaned in a while.

jump-bike-1-sean-hollister

The Jump bike.

Sean Hollister/CNET

The Jump bike is a pedal-assist electric bike, meaning you're still getting a little bit of exercise. It's fast and powerful -- getting up to speed feels effortless. You have to lock it to a stationary object, though.

lime-e-bike

The LimeBike Lime-E.

Sean Hollister/CNET

The LimeBike Lime-E is also a pedal-assist electric bike, but with less assist. Definitely feels like you're burning more calories. It locks to itself. You won't find these in San Fran right now, though.

ford-gobike-docking-station

A Ford GoBike docking station.

Sean Hollister/CNET

The Ford GoBike will soon come in an electric pedal-assist model. In the meanwhile, the pedal model is big, ridiculously heavy and a bear to pedal up hills, but it's still a fairly comfortable cruiser.

scoot-by-scoot

A Scoot scooter.

Scoot

And then there's the Scoot, a Vespa-style full-size scooter that we haven't tried yet. You have to park that one in a parking space.

How much do they cost?

Each company currently charges a starting fee ($1 for most scooters) plus a handful of pennies for every minute you ride.

Here's the breakdown in San Fran:

Down to ride?

Bird $1 + $0.15/min
Lime-S $1 + $0.15/min
Spin $1 + $0.15/min
Scoot $4 for 15 min + $0.07/min
Jump (bike) $2 for 30 min + $0.07/min
Lime-E (bike) $1 + $0.15/min
Ford GoBike $3 for 30 min + $3 per 15min
Ford GoBike e-bike $3 for 30 min + $3 per 15min

For short distances, it's cheaper than Uber or Lyft. For long ones, maybe not. Ford also offers plans for frequent riders.

How fast do they go? How far before they run out of juice?

To the chart!

Going the distance


Top speed Range
Bird 15 mph (24kph) 15 miles (24km)
Lime-S 14.8 mph (23.8kph) 37 miles (59.5km)
Spin 15 mph (24kph) 15 miles (24km)
Scoot 30 mph (48kph) 20 miles (32km)
Jump (bike) 20 mph (32kph) 40 miles (64km)
Lime-E (bike) 14.8 mph (23.8kph) 62 miles (99.7km)
Ford GoBike How fast can you pedal? Until you drop
Ford GoBike e-bike 18 mph (28.9kph) Undisclosed

How steep a hill can they tackle?

We haven't climbed San Francisco's steepest streets with the bikes yet, but the scooters are pretty tame when it comes to hills. Xiaomi (which provides the Bird and Spin scooters) says the best they can do is a 14 percent incline, and even that sounds pretty generous.

How do I find one?

You mean, assuming the city hasn't scooped 'em up yet? Just download the app for your provider of choice, enable GPS and it'll show you nearby vehicles on a map. Some providers will even show how much battery they've got left.

Sure, but how about rush hour?

We asked, and each company* has roughly 200 to 250 vehicles in San Francisco, except Scoot and Ford GoBike since they've been around a bit longer. 

How many in SF?

Bird Undisclosed but at least 200*
Lime-S Roughly 200
Spin Roughly 200
Scoot 550
Jump (bike) 250
Ford GoBike Up to 700
Ford GoBike e-bike 250
Lime-E (bike) 0

It's quite a few -- but we've definitely had to walk a few blocks out of our way to find one at 5 p.m. PT, and that's with all the different apps at our disposal.

*Bird technically won't say how many, but using a GPS spoofer and Bird's own app, we counted upwards of 200 Bird scooters in SF.

So I just hop on?

It's not quite that simple -- you've got to unlock the vehicle first. That means whipping out your phone to scan a QR code or type in a PIN, waiting for them to phone home and paying for your ride.

Also, that assumes they actually work.

Uh… why wouldn't they work?

Let's just say some of these vehicles have a few kinks to work out. We've walked up to electric vehicles that were mysteriously "broken" or too low on charge. We've had some that couldn't phone home, and others that wouldn't unlock.

And a couple of times, an app told us a scooter was in a location where it didn't exist at all.

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Some Jump bikes are confused about whether they're available or not.

Sean Hollister/CNET

I see scooters just sitting there. Can't I just take one?

1. No. What's wrong with you?

2. Also no.

3. The wheels are more or less locked in place and the scooters will beep angrily if you try to move them.

Where can I legally ride 'em?

Depends on your local laws, but in California you can't ride a motorized scooter on sidewalks -- only in the street or the bike lane. If there's a bike lane, you are required to use it instead of the street.

Oh, and if you want to make a left turn in California with a scooter? You've gotta cross the street like a pedestrian, on foot.

You're kidding.

Nope.

bird-scooter-attack-9627

Don't do this.

James Martin/CNET

How do bikers feel about a bunch of carefree helmetless idiots hoarding precious bike lane space?

How do you think they feel?

Do I have to wear a helmet?

Again, it depends. In California, motorized scooters mean helmets. And driver's licenses. Every Scoot comes with a helmet, but most of the others don't.

But pedal-assist electric bikes under 20 miles per hour (in other words, Jump and LimeBike) don't require a helmet or license in California.

Can my kid have a go?

No.

Can two people ride one?

No.

Can one person and their pet snake ride one? (asking for a friend)

No.

Well... technically, Bird's rental agreement doesn't prohibit animals. But the other companies do.

Can I smoke marijuana on one?

Is marijuana a drug? Then no.

bird-scooter-attack-9579

James Martin/CNET

Can you ride one in the rain?

Yes, actually! But not "heavy rain," or "freezing rain" or any other weather where riding would be unsafe. They're designed to resist water, but you've only got two wheels and the brakes don't work so great.

Can I ride at night?

Does the vehicle have "a lamp emitting a white light which[...] illuminates the highway in front of the operator and is visible from a distance of 300 feet in front and from the sides"?

That's what California law requires for both motorized scooters and bikes.

What if somebody hits me?

Good thing you're wearing a helmet, yeah? But also, you might be on the hook -- practically every company's rental agreement says you're solely responsible for any damage to the vehicle beyond simple wear and tear.

Scoot's the exception: you're only responsible for the first $500 (or the first $2,000 for the company's tiny Scoot Quad car).

What if I hit somebody?

Same as above. Hope you've got good insurance!

What if someone steals it?

You might be responsible! We're not lawyers, but most of the rental agreements say you have to pay even if your scooter or bike is stolen, and you might owe quite a bit:

"Lost or stolen" maximum fee

Bird $500
Spin $1,300
Lime-S $1,500
Scoot $5,000
Jump (bike) $1,600
Lime-E (bike) $5,000
Ford GoBike $1,200

Again, Scoot has a friendlier policy than most: you'll only pay that $5,000 if the theft is your fault. Otherwise, you'll pay only $500 -- and that's only if the company can't use GPS to track it down.

BTW, it's your responsibility to report the theft.

Yay for liability. What if I just want to buy my own scooter?

Totally doable. You can buy the exact same Mi Electric Scooter that Bird and Spin use for $500 at Amazon right now. We've been testing it for a couple weeks now, and it's probably our second-favorite of all the ones we've tried.

Here's our favorite one.

scooters-bikes-sf-sean-hollister-001

A flock of Birds. (Or rather, Xiaomis.)

Sean Hollister/CNET

What happens if I run out of charge?

We haven't found out yet, but they're rather heavy to be effective with leg power alone. Thankfully, most vehicles won't unlock unless they've got a decent amount of juice.

How the heck do Bird, Lime and Spin charge all those batteries, anyhow?

Would you believe they pay people $5 to 6 per scooter to take them home, plug them in overnight and put them back on the streets in the morning?

A Craigslist ad.

Screenshot by Sean Hollister/CNET

How much data are these vehicles collecting from me?

Bird and Spin told us they're collecting geolocation data that they'll share with cities like San Francisco. They say they won't sell that data to third parties.

Will I get Reddit karma for posting about them in r/SanFrancisco?

Yes, but the payout is declining.

Are they coming for my city next?

Expect them. Some stats so far:

LimeBike has 35,000 bikes and scooters across the United States.

Ford GoBike operator Motivate should be at 32,000 vehicles soon.

Bird has "thousands" of scooters, Scoot has nearly a thousand, and Jump has 500 electric assist bikes plus some 15,000 pedal-only ones.

And in China, there are already an estimated 23 million shared bikes on the streets. That could be us, next.

CNET's Dara Kerr contributed to this report.

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