Over the past year, dockless electric scooters have descended upon cities across America much like a biblical plague of locusts.
Many users of the so-called micro-mobility revolution view these scooters as a fun and convenient way to navigate the urban landscape. In addition, these tiny transportation vehicles are cheap to use - $1 to unlock from a station and then 15 cents per minute. An app handles payment and locating a nearby scooter. While they can go up to 40 miles per hour, many cities have already passed ordinances limiting them to 25 mph.
Despite the enthusiasm for dockless (meaning they can be picked up and dropped off anywhere) scooters, many people in cities find them at best a nuisance and at worst a hazard. Complaints range from riders weaving in and out of traffic, riding without helmets, and just discarding the scooters on a sidewalk when done with them. Some of the more incensed have taken matters into their own hands by vandalizing or setting them on fire and even tossing them into public restrooms.
As was true with Uber, cities are rushing to keep up with technology. And, mimicking what happened with Uber, the electric scooters were introduced without first asking for permission from city officials. Some cities, like San Francisco, have banned the scooters until a policy can be implemented.
Interestingly, a similar clash of new technology and public perception happened about a hundred years ago when autos were first introduced onto urban streets.
Prior to the “horseless buggy,” the streets were filled with all matter of activity, from kids playing, vendors pushing carts, pedestrians, and horse-drawn carriages. As autos became more prevalent, a clash developed between those opposing crazy drivers and their metal machines and those who touted progress.
Automobiles were seen by many as an intruder and a menace. Some critics even called them “Satan’s Murdering Machines.” In those days, if a car hit a pedestrian, it was always the driver’s fault, no matter the circumstances. Some cities were even considering requiring automakers to install governors to limit the top speed of vehicles to 25 mph.
Obviously, if autos were to achieve a lasting presence on urban streets, laws and attitudes needed to be changed.
The first organizations to jump into the fray were local auto clubs. In due time, Detroit automakers also joined in, providing more money and wherewithal. Auto proponents provided funding to teach the younger generation that it was their responsibility to stop for traffic, not the other way around.
In addition, auto groups lobbied hard to get laws changed so that drivers could navigate urban streets without the constant fear of being charged with killing someone, no matter who was at fault.
While changing laws and education were important, equally critical was the need to change public perception. And what better way to do this than by shaming pedestrians who crossed streets wherever they wanted.
Thus, the term jaywalking was coined. At this point in time, the word jay was synonymous with rube, hick, or country-bumpkin. Thus, being accused of jaywalking was akin to telling someone they were someone from the sticks who didn’t know how to properly behave in the big city.
Needless to say, the earlier campaign was a huge success and vehicles now rule the streets (to be replaced by electric scooters in the future?)