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Will America ever get urban transit right?

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Boosted should be thriving, not failing

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Photo by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge

The coronavirus justifiably continues to dominate the news, and tech news in particular. I’ve got a big section below on that, but today I want to put out a small (and hopefully premature) eulogy for a company whose products I have never personally used but still very much believe in: Boosted, the electric skateboard maker.

Sean O’Kane has been keeping a close eye on a company that has been near the brink for longer than most people have realized, and it finally went over earlier this week with massive layoffs. As with any corporate disaster, there will be postmortems that point to any number of failures or problems. When lots of things go wrong, any one thing can be blamed as “the cause.” But it’s hard to avoid the impression that a trade war combined with a risky bet on a new product was a big part of what happened here.

Actually, several “micromobility” companies have fallen on hard times recently. Even if, like me, you have never and may never ride an electric skateboard, their downfall is something to lament.

I’ve spent what some might think is an inordinate amount of space in this newsletter praising electric bicycles, but I make no apologies for it. I think they — and other personal electric vehicles — should be an essential part of the transit plan for any large city.

There are a thousand reasons for that which I could name and which would wash over you as typical green-policy moralizing about street design, emissions, car culture, transit, and so on and so on. These are all important, but I don’t think they’re what make people love Boosted boards. I think it’s something much more primal and relatable: freedom.

Indulge me for a second: I just bought a regular non-electric bicycle to ride around my city last weekend and it took just a few rides for me to remember why I love commuting by bike so much. It connects you to a city in a way that other modes of transportation like cars, buses, subways, and even walking cannot. Boosted boards and electric scooters and all manner of other personal mobility gadgets do the same thing.

This is all very vague, so let me try to explain just by comparing the experience of moving around a city at 15mph or so to other transportation methods. These observations are super obvious to a lot of people, but I think a lot of Americans in particular don’t have first-hand experience with any of this, so:

  • Compared to a car, you’re out in the world instead of tucked away in a glass and metal box. This sounds very woo-woo, but it really does make you feel more involved. It also means you’re not stuck in traffic. You’re less worried about parking, and maintenance is cheaper.
  • Walking does that too, of course! But walking doesn’t open up the city to you in the same way a faster vehicle can. You’re able to go much further, for one thing. But it also changes your mental map of the city. As you ride around you get a different feel for places and their relation to each other. Walking connects you to your neighborhood, while bikes and boards connect you with a whole city.
  • Trains and buses are great ways to get around a city, but they don’t necessarily help you build that mental map. You get on, ride to a new place, and start walking.

Again, none of this is especially revelatory when you just read it, but experiencing a city in this way changes your relationship to it. You come to know it and love it in a new way. This experience is so common in certain parts of the world that this must all seem elementary, but here in the US, the default experience of a city doesn’t happen at this scale.

Here’s an analogy that might resonate with some Americans, specifically those who grew up in the suburbs or the country. You might remember the rush of freedom that came with your first car. Suddenly you’ve got a sense of independence and opportunity you didn’t have before. That’s what micromobility has been like for me, again.

That’s why Boosted’s bust is such a bummer for the people who loved its products. It’s not that they felt like cool future skater kids. It’s that the boards provide a sense of independence and freedom at a human scale. They connect you to a city and make more of it feel like your own neighborhood.

My friend and former colleague Sam Sheffer is a huge fan of Boosted and captured some of this in a video along with some other thoughts.

Are there problems with scooters and bikes and boards? Hell yes. The way Bird and Lime dumped thousands of scooters on unsuspecting cities. The way those scooters break down incredibly quickly. The dangers of riding one of these vehicles on streets shared with cars. It is a long list. But it’s a list of problems that is significantly shorter than a similar list you could make for cars.

I hope Boosted pulls through. But more than that, I hope that here in America we can encourage our local city planners to find ways to get us out of cars and on to the streets. It’s better for the environment — but it is also better for our civics and our sense of place.


Coronavirus

Jay Peters is one of our reporters who’s been all over this story. Here’s a story he wrote about what big tech companies are doing to protect their employees — including moving all interviews with new job candidates to video conferences. The county that is home to the headquarters for Apple, Google, and Facebook has ratcheted up its recommendations regarding large gatherings, travel, and working from home.

Apple is experiencing a shortage of replacement iPhones due to coronavirus.

If your iPhone is heavily damaged — to the point of needing to be replaced — there will reportedly be a limited supply of replacement devices to swap it out for over the course of the next two to four weeks. The report also notes that some Apple Store locations are short on individual parts, meaning that in those cases, minor repairs that are normally handled in-store may not be possible due to shortages.

Etsy has started cracking down on coronavirus merchandise. Good.

Senator slams Amazon over coronavirus price gouging on hand sanitizer and face masks.

Facebook is giving free ads to the World Health Organization to fight COVID-19 misinformation.

Effective communication is critical during emergencies like the COVID-19 outbreak. Nicole Wetsman interviews Glen Nowak, director of of the Center for Health and Risk Communication at the University of Georgia.

There are examples of both the good and the bad. One challenge is that, early on, there have been mixed messages from government officials in the US and around the world about what’s happening, and the level of threat the virus poses. There’s probably not been enough articulation of why public health officials are concerned.

A germophobe’s guide to a clean phone.

Product news

TCL’s new foldable and rollable concepts imagine a wild future of phones. These are fun but also so far from being a reality — I just don’t see TCL having the chops to truly solve the durability issues at play on these wild designs. But I love that there are so many wild designs out in smartphone land again.

The real point of these phones is to get you to recognize TCL as a brand. The company wants to make a big push to sell phones under its own brand name this year instead of just being a white label for others. (LG’s loss is maybe TCL’s gain is the working theory, in my opinion). The goal is simple: later this year when you see a TCL phone in a carrier store, you won’t think “what the hell is a TCL?”

Sonos is getting rid of the controversial Recycle Mode that needlessly bricked its older devices. Chris Welch explains the new rules, which by the way don’t change the fundamental decision to cease updates on older products. I’m fine with that (all computers age out), but the original way Sonos bricked old devices was as dumb as a pile of ...bricks.

With the change, Sonos is now giving customers full control over what happens with the older gadgets they’re “trading” up from. They can choose to keep it, give it to someone, recycle it at a local e-waste facility, or send it to Sonos and let the company handle the responsible recycling part.

Google Assistant can now read webpages aloud in 42 different languages. Google continues to do a great job using its machine learning to improve accessibility.

Electric vehicle news

GM unveils a new electric vehicle platform and battery in bid to take on Tesla. If GM is for real here, this is a massive story. Not an “ooh can they take on Tesla?” kind of massive story, but a “finally, the beginning of the end of the internal combustion engine” kind of massive story. Unfortunately, in a Q&A afterwards, GM executives were fairly timid about saying customers should want to switch.

Smile, the new Microlino and Microletta electrics are here. I love them and we must protect them at all costs.

The US is too hooked on trucks and SUVs for Fiat’s new 500 EV. Such a shame that this won’t come to the US.

More from The Verge

This backpack has it all: Kevlar, batteries, and a federal investigation. You want to read Ashley Carman’s incredible profile of an $800,000 Kickstarter failure and the person behind it.

This Xiaomi-backed smartwatch has incredible battery life. Sam Byford likes this watch, I might give it a try. Earlier Amazfit watches had software on Android that put me off the whole idea of testing it even though a bunch of readers had asked for it.

I would not describe the Amazfit software as an advanced smartwatch OS, but it does the job well enough that the battery life tradeoff will probably be worth it for some people with more passive use cases like fitness tracking and notifications. Power users of more advanced smartwatches from the likes of Samsung or Apple will find it a clear step down.

Quibi has raised close to $2 billion, and it hasn’t even launched yet. Quibi is the Mike Bloomberg presidential campaign of streaming apps. An expenditure of money so colossal that people feel as though they have to pay attention because surely there’s something real and potentially very successful behind it all.

Then Super Tuesday comes.

(Disclosure: Vox Media, which owns The Verge, has a deal with Quibi to produce a Polygon Daily Essential, and there have been early talks about a Verge show.)