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The secret weapon of San Diego Comic-Con: scooters

The secret weapon of San Diego Comic-Con: scooters


The last mile turns into the last fifty feet

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When I flew out to San Diego Comic-Con last week, I noticed one big change to the scene from last year. It wasn’t that Marvel and HBO weren’t there, and there were still thousands of fans dressed up in their favorite T-shirts or costumes. But as I rode in from the airport, I noticed that there were hundreds of electric scooters and bikes strewn around the sidewalks from companies such as Lime, Bird, Ofo, and MoBike. It was a drastic change from 2017’s convention, where I didn’t see any, and it highlights a point where these mobility solutions are useful — most of the time.

On-demand electric scooters have become the next big thing when it comes to personal mobility, and in the last year, major cities like San Francisco and Miami have had to contend with them piling up on sidewalks. The vehicles are simple to use: you download the app from the company that owns the bike or scooter, put in your payment information, scan the QR code, and off you go, zipping along at a pace that’s comparable to a run. They’ve been popular, too. Lime said earlier this week that it provided 6 million rides in its first year of operation, while companies such as Uber and Lyft are looking into offering their own versions to complement their fleets.

The convention famously attracts well over a hundred thousand people to the San Diego Convention Center in the city’s Marina district, and takes over the surrounding blocks for the better part of a week, encompassing around a mile of space, end-to-end. At the height of the con, the roads are flooded with people, and the streets that aren’t closed off are crowded with cars. Moving around and getting to the convention center can be a problem: you’ll either spend time hunting for a distant parking space or stuck in traffic trying, or you’ll end up walking several blocks to get to the center — which isn’t fun in the middle of July.

This makes the scooters and bikes an ideal in-between solution. They’re small enough to go between cars on the road (while they’re banned from sidewalks in San Diego, I saw more than one rider doing just that), and when I tried out Lime and Bird scooters out a couple of times during the convention, they certainly helped me get from my hotel room several blocks north of the convention center to where I needed to go, saving me critical minutes while heading to an interview or panel. On the one or two instances where I had a clear road without traffic, they were even a bit fun, zipping down blocks in seconds that would have taken me minutes to traverse.

I wasn’t alone in this, either: Lime told The Verge that on Saturday, July 21st (the con’s busiest day), the company saw double its “normal daily average,” and over the course of the weekend, more than “10,000 unique riders” used its vehicles. Zack Bartlett, Lime’s San Diego general manager said that they worked with the convention center and city to deploy the vehicles in the area. Indeed, I saw many attendees going from place to place on the company’s green scooters, as well as on those of its competitors.

While useful, scooters aren’t necessarily something that solves all of the problems when it comes to getting around a convention center. For one, there’s a lot of people packed into a small space, and the convention had enough foresight to prohibit scooters in a small perimeter around the convention center itself. For another, there have been numerous reports of crashes and injuries of people on scooters, prompting calls for bans on the vehicles.

Bringing in motorized vehicles where there are huge numbers of people causes problems. The ones mounting around scooters and similar devices aren’t unique to the convention in San Diego, but I noticed more than a few. I saw only one rider wearing a helmet; more than once, I had someone almost walk in front of me while riding a scooter, and more than once, I was almost hit by someone not paying attention on their own ride.

While most cars gave me a wide berth on the road, it was still a white-knuckling experience: you’re acutely aware that you’re largely unprotected while riding between cars. There are other minor issues as well to be expected with a large fleet of vehicles. One scooter I got had some sort of issue with its throttle, prompting me to replace it with another, and at peak hours, it was sometimes hard to find a ride when you needed it — they were either being used, or mistakenly showed up on the app’s map.

But at the end of the day, the scooters and bikes were a useful tool for getting around what is typically one of the more annoying parts of a major convention: moving across the space that the convention spans and lodging. They can move people quickly from point to point in places where pedestrians don’t typically go, saving con-goers a lot of time and sweat.

Photography by Andrew Liptak / The Verge