Angelica watched nervously as the police officer questioned the boy. It was a humid Wednesday in Los Angeles, and even though she didn’t know the boy, she overheard that he was also 17 and had been stopped for riding an electric scooter helmetless and underage — exactly what she had just done, on her way to return a pair of Warby Parker glasses in Santa Monica. It earned him a $500 ticket and a court date his parents would have to attend. Angelica was next in line.
“I’ve been working too hard this summer to pay $500 for this stupid shit,” she recalled thinking in an interview with The Verge. Fortunately, she had a plan. When it was her turn, she handed the officer an ID from a year spent in Spain with her birthday written day-month-year. The trick worked, the officer was convinced she was 18, and only wrote her a ticket for riding without a helmet.
Bird’s headquarters are in Santa Monica, but it rents electric-powered scooters in 41 cities in the US, as well as Paris and Tel Aviv. Meanwhile, other companies have placed tens of thousands of scooters in cities such as Washington, DC, Portland, and Los Angeles. The scooters began showing up in cities a year ago, growing exponentially thanks to millions of dollars that investors like Uber and Google have put into startups like Lime, Scoot, Jump, and Skip. The vehicles, which look like souped-up Razor scooters, cost $1 to unlock, 15 cents for each minute of riding, and can go up to 15 mph.
The scooters have become wildly popular among adult riders — Lime says it has racked up 6 million trips between June 2017 and July 2018. Last June, Lime and Bird received valuations of $1 billion and $2 billion, respectively, and the scooters have inspired everything from protests to rap songs.
But while they are only supposed to be used by adults over the age of 18 with valid driver licenses, the scooters have also become insanely popular among teenagers, with young people like Angelica skirting the law to ride them to work, the movies, shopping, and just about everywhere teens go these days. The Verge interviewed ten high schoolers, including seven who had ridden underage, to get a better sense of the growing trend. Most said they ignored the rules to use the scooters out of necessity or to hang out with friends.
Angelica, for instance, said she didn’t want to pay for car insurance or to sit in LA’s notorious traffic on her way to waitress at a seafood restaurant on the Santa Monica Pier. If she got a bike, she was too afraid it would get stolen. Instead, she preferred to commute on a Bird scooter every day to work this summer, and when Bird turned off its service at night, she came home on a Lime scooter. She also rode to the movies or with friends to get tacos, racking up 250 rides on Bird and 150 on Lime this summer alone.
“We’re out of our cars, they’re much cheaper than Ubers, and you look pretty cool,” said Angelica, who only wanted to use her first name.
Underage scooting isn’t just an LA thing. Teens from San Francisco to Washington, DC have ridden illegally, including Ashton, 17, who said he sometimes scooters home after school in DC, but mostly rides with friends. “It’s a quick way to navigate across the city,” he said. “You can tell people are looking at you, but it makes you feel different.”
Max Gorman, 17, also rides in Washington. He last rode a few blocks to the bank, but on another occasion, he rode four miles across the city to see a friend. He boasts about pushing the scooters past their intended speed limits going down hills, which Lime cautions against. “You can get up to 25,” Gorman said. “You get a major adrenaline rush. That you can go about as fast as a car on the road is an exhilarating feeling,” said Ashton.
Of course, that exhilaration can backfire or lead to questionable decisions. “I saw one kid who went straight through an intersection with cars about to go,” Ashton said. “I was thinking, ‘That is so stupid.’”
All of the teenagers interviewed by The Verge said they refuse to wear helmets, though the companies and cities they operate in typically require helmet usage. (In California, a bill on governor Jerry Brown’s desk could lift the helmet requirement for riders 18 and over.) Most services provide helmets for riders who request them.
Angelica said she went helmetless on the way to a date because she didn’t want to ruin her hair — but she also said wearing a helmet compromised her “aesthetic.” “I only break one law, and that is the helmet law,” she said. (In reality, Angelica also breaks the age requirement law.)
Other riders interviewed said they’ve watched underage friends ride two-at-a-time, or jump and rotate the scooters in the air. Some have even crashed, such as Max Wix, 15, who fell off a Skip scooter in DC while leaning back riding down a hill. Wix lost three brackets off his braces and chipped a tooth. “I was in shock and surprise and pain,” said Wix, whose 13-year-old sister, Ruthie, introduced him to the scooters. “I went home after that.”
“We were kind of laughing until we realized he was hurt,” Ashton, who was riding alongside Wix at the time, said. “He was inches away from losing his teeth.”
Wix avoided a trip to the emergency room, only going to the orthodontist — though the Washington Post recently reported that hospitals across the country have seen a surge of scooter-related injuries in recent months, with the Nethercutt Emergency Center at UCLA in Santa Monica treating 18 serious injuries over the final two weeks of July. Last week in Dallas, a man reportedly died after falling off a Lime in what is thought to be the first scooter-related death.
To be fair, the age requirement is easy to ignore. To ride, you first punch in a phone number and a payment method to each service’s app before finding a scooter from a map. The scooters unlock after you scan a QR code, typically found on the handlebars. On Lime, there’s no age check once a user certifies that they’re 18 by signing the user agreement — just a reminder of the 18+ and license requirement from a decal on the scooter’s neck and a message in the app.
“By getting on the scooter, you’re acknowledging that you’re over 18,” Lime spokeswoman Emma Green said. “We’re hoping to test various things to ensure safety.”
Lime did promise to verify age by scanning the barcodes on riders’ driver’s licenses in its successful proposal to operate in Santa Monica, a key piece of the city’s administrative regulations for scooter operators. If a license indicates the user is a minor, the app prevents them from riding.
But Lime doesn’t scan licenses anywhere else. In late August, when the San Francisco Municipal Transit Agency awarded permits for scooter operation, Lime didn’t receive a permit. The San Mateo-based company is the only one that failed to promise license-scanning — a decision they made in June, citing concerns regarding “data privacy and security issues” in addition to discouraging the “immigrant community from riding.” Green reiterated the company’s concerns regarding data in an email to The Verge.
Lime also doesn’t verify age in DC beyond the user agreement, and their warnings didn’t stop Gorman. “They didn’t really have any way of proving I was under 18. I was just like, ‘I’ll be responsible,’” he said. “I’m not going to let a little sign stop me.”
“It’s like a Google account,” said Wix. “All you have to say is ‘I am that age,’ and they say, ‘Okay, we believe you.’ If they really made you verify, they would lose some business.”
Skip, on the other hand, received a permit in San Francisco based in part on a promise to verify rider ages. Darren Weingard, general counsel to Skip, said the company already scans licenses throughout California, though it doesn’t in DC, one of its other markets. Weingard cautioned underage riders against interpreting the lack of enforcement as encouragement. “We’re not targeting our service to children,” Weingard said. “There are many ways we could consider looking at age compliance and they’re all under review.”
In an email, Weingard later said that license-scanning may cause issues for cities regarding data and “discrimination against those who don’t have government IDs.”
Bird scans licenses nationwide, but Angelica said she used a Chinese-made fake ID that shows her as a 21-year-old from Arkansas (different than the one she gave the policeman) to unlock access to Bird. She also has friends who scanned siblings’ and parents’ licenses — something that Bird said it wanted to crack down on in its proposal to operate in Santa Monica. As scooters proliferate, license scanning is unlikely to catch on, said Santa Monica personal injury attorney Catherine Lerer. “If you require a license, you’re limiting your rider population,” she said.
Angelica said other services adding license scanning probably won’t change much. “I think everyone’s conning the system so much with Bird that it’s not going to make a difference,” she said.
As scooter-sharing enters more cities and becomes an increasingly regulated system, more questions may arise regarding how teens interact with the vehicles. But for now, the kids are still riding, including those like Angelica and Max Wix who experienced problems with the scooters.
Wix said he started riding again a week after his accident. Though he still doesn’t wear a helmet, he now goes slower and keeps weight off his back foot. Meanwhile, Angelica said roughly five of her friends received tickets ranging from $350 to $500 later in the summer for riding underage, but she also has friends who got off with warnings for riding helmetless.
“‘Haha, we didn’t get a ticket’ was the text I got from my group chat,” said Angelica, who sent back a middle finger emoji in response.
Angelica’s ticket later came in the mail for $197, which she sent and paid to the county. She said she started riding again two weeks later, but the ticket changed one thing. “As someone who now has constant Bird paranoia, I now take a helmet with me,” Angelica said. “I put it in my bag.”