For years, Rhett Reidpath got around town in a 2010 Ford Focus that the “Star Wars” fan affectionately referred to as his Millennium Falcon. It took him out of the city to golf courses in the suburbs, on weekend trips to his home in a galaxy far, far away — West Virginia — and, most importantly, to the office.
Then it went kaput. So Reidpath had to figure out how to travel the two miles from his Highlandtown home to the office every day. He could walk, but what if he were in a hurry, and biking raised the prospect of meeting with clients after he had worked up a sweat.
“So within two weeks of getting rid of my car, I was like, yeah, I’m going to look into the scooter,” said Reidpath. “I enjoy scootering man — I like cruising.”
It’s not always easy going without a car in Baltimore, but a growing number of people are turning to scooters not just for short leisurely rides but as a primary means of transportation.
According to census data, 27% of Baltimore households live without a car, but the rate skews heavily based on neighborhood. In 2018, the city Department of Transportation launched an e-scooter pilot program, adding a trendy transportation option for residents to get around and connect to bus and rail transit.
Though some view the scooters as a plague to Baltimore’s streets on the level of spotted lantern flies, the two-wheel vehicles have seen an uptick in ridership over the years, according to DOT data.
However, the addition of scooters to roadways already shared by cars, trucks and bikes has not been without problems. Local emergency rooms say they see plenty of patients with scooter-related injuries.
According to news reports, three users of electric scooters have died in collisions with motor vehicles on Maryland’s roads this year; none of those involved the city’s scooter program. In Baltimore City, a police officer faces manslaughter, reckless driving and other charges in the death of a scooter user who was struck in June, 2022. Authorities said the officer ran a red light while responding to an emergency call.
Doctors worry that all these new riders may not be wearing helmets, and say the city needs to do more to make scooting safer.
A cheaper ride
Tim Wilcox, a Baltimore point person for San Francisco-based Spin scooters, one of two companies approved to do business in the city, said its data suggests many Baltimoreans are using dockless vehicles for their daily commute.
“Which is very different from Nashville, Tennessee, where you have an influx of people coming in on the weekend and the majority of riders are just riding for fun,” Wilcox told The Baltimore Banner.
Many factors have kept Reidpath on two wheels instead of four, cost being one. Between student loans and mortgage payments, he said, his wallet isn’t quite ready for a down payment on a car.
Reidpath prefers riding Link, the scooters provided by Superpedestrian, another Silicon Valley company that is permitted to offer dockless vehicles in the city. He consistently gets a 30-day, 30-ride pass that Link offers for $29.99 as long as the rides are kept under 10 minutes.
Some quick commuting math: If Reidpath took two rides every weekday through September of this year — one to get to work and one to get home — that’s 384 rides in nine months. He could cover that with 13 30-day passes, making his total commuting cost just shy of $400.
What would he spend on gas for the same trips? At four commuting miles per day, that’s 768 miles. His intergalactic rust bucket got an impressive average of about 30 miles to the gallon, meaning 25.6 gallons of gas to get him to and from work. Based on what the Shell station on his way to work is charging today, that’s $91.
What about car insurance? Reidpath was paying just north of $200 each month. And maintenance costs? When asked, Reidpath closed his eyes and sighed.
But why doesn’t Reidpath take that $400 and buy his own scooter?
“The scooters are actually intended to be a temporary solution for my transportation needs in an effort to save money and buy a vehicle [car] in the future,” he said. “Another benefit I get from the scooters is kind of being able to, like, not need it after I get to where I’m going. Having my own, I’d have to store it, make sure it’s secured. If it gets stolen, that creates another challenge.”
But living just a couple of miles from work — or from a grocery store, parks, and social services — is not a privilege that all Baltimoreans have. And commuting time is now identified as one of the most important factors for individuals trying to escape poverty.
Since scooter users pay by the minute, longer rides mean a greater cost burden. When Superpedestrian examined the data, it found that on average, Link scooter trips in Baltimore tended to last 18% to 20% longer than in other cities where it operates.
Both Spin and Superpedestrian have equity programs, as required by the city. LINK-Up and Spin Access offer rides at significantly discounted rates for lower-income individuals who qualify, and can even allow users to ride without needing a smartphone.
Between the two companies, more than 1,000 Baltimoreans are signed up. Wilcox said that his company and the city DOT are working to spread the word so that more qualifying residents can jump on board. And a representative from Link referred to Baltimore as one of the cities where the company has seen the greatest success with its equity program.
Complementing or competing with transit?
Scooters have become increasingly visible in major U.S. cities over the past decade. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, 156 U.S. cities have some form of dockless e-scooter system.
Between Link and Spin, more than 4,000 dockless vehicles — a mix of e-bikes, scooters with seats, and the classic standing scooters — are on Baltimore’s streets, ready for rented rides. A member of DOT’s micromobility team said that Baltimore averages nearly 119,000 micromobility trips per month, below citywide bus ridership, but far from insignificant.
The growth in both ridership and the number of vehicles on Baltimore’s streets suggests that the scooters are far from temporary. In fact, the city is doing more to make streets friendlier to them — albeit slowly. The DOT is working on its Complete Streets plan of safer roads and more separated bike lanes, which scooter users share with cyclists. And the agency is creating more designated parking bays for them, a move that Reidpath applauds as necessary to improve scooter etiquette.
Dockless vehicles are just one piece of a larger transportation ecosystem known as “micromobility,” an industry that, in the words of Zach Williams, a member of Superpedestrian’s policy team, exists to “unlock” transit for people. They are one solution to the age-old “last mile” transit problem — how can transit riders most efficiently get from their front door to the bus/metro/train stop, and then from that stop to their final destination?
But in a city like Baltimore, where transit-dependent residents have long complained about unreliability and inefficiency, are dockless vehicles unlocking transit or taking would-be riders away from it?
In San Francisco and Chicago, where residents have extensive metro rail systems as options for getting around, a 2021 study suggested that e-scooters were fulfilling their last-mile promise. More than a third of scooter users surveyed in both cities combined their trips with transit to reach their destination. But a 2019 survey in Baltimore found that only 4% of scooter users were using them in the same way.
The study concluded that the “unprecedented” proliferation of scooters across the country actually has little to no impact on bus ridership levels. And the Baltimore survey was conducted only shortly after e-scooters took to the streets here en masse.
But why doesn’t Reidpath take the bus to work? He jumps on buses pretty much everywhere he goes, including when visiting his mother’s family in Peru or on weekend trips to other cities. This is his first year in Baltimore without owning a car, so familiarity is a big factor. But so is reliability.
“With the scooter, I just know exactly how long it’s going to take,” said Reidpath.
Sharing the road poses safety problems
Dr. Lea Moujaes, chief resident for Johns Hopkins Hospital’s emergency room, is familiar with scooters both as a rider and as a doctor.
“I am someone who scooters everywhere,” said Moujaes, a carless Baltimore resident who’s lives close to her work. She bought her own scooter once she realized that it could be a viable commuting option, and for the most part, she’s loved it. Except for the day she didn’t see a pothole in the road.
“I had to come in as a patient, and I couldn’t do my shift because I was injured,” she said.
Moujaes’ colleague and faculty member at Johns Hopkins, Dr. Matthew Levy, told The Banner that their team sees scooter-related injuries on a weekly basis. Last year, of 2,400 ER visits involving some kind of physical trauma, 40 of them were from scooter accidents.
Of those 40, only one person was wearing a helmet.
“It’s a bit tricky that the scooters are a pick-up-and-go system,” said Moujaes, acknowledging that many people don’t just carry helmets around with them, especially if they don’t plan to take a scooter. “People just need to be more aware of the idea that even if you’re taking a five-minute ride, something might happen. You might either get, you know, hit by a car, or hit a pothole like I did.”
A helmet can’t protect you from any injury, but it can prevent the worst of them, such as a brain bleed, both doctors said. They highlighted helmets and not riding intoxicated as the most important things that scooter enthusiasts can do to keep themselves safe.
But they think safety is a shared responsibility, too. “The individuals [scooter riders] have to be responsible for their actions and take them in a safe manner, and as society as a whole, we need to be willing to take a look at changes in both utilization of transportation and transportation demands, and find a way to meet the needs of the people in our community,” said Levy.
What do Moujaes and Levy think that means for drivers? Slow down, be patient, and share the road. And for the city? Better dedicated infrastructure like separated bike lanes, and more pedestrian-friendly streets.
Those would be welcome changes for Reidpath, who calls it a “direct correlation” between how busy a street is with car traffic and how safe he feels on it. And as he still needs to save more money to buy a car, he, like the rest of Baltimore’s carless, will be trying to share the city’s roads for the foreseeable future.
He just hopes the winter is mild. Winter morning scooter rides, he said, have made him expand his facemask and scarf collection.
Daniel Zawodny covers transportation for The Baltimore Banner as a corps member with Report For America, a national service organization that places emerging journalists with local newsrooms that cover underreported issues.