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LA's Scooter Wars Sound A Lot Like The Early Days Of Automobiles

People ride Lime and Bird scooters along the strand in Santa Monica, Calif. on July 1, 2018. (Photo by Richard Vogel/AP)
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Hard to believe but it's only been about a year since electric scooters started buzzing along the streets of Southern California, causing turmoil on sidewalks and spurring an outpouring of complaints.

As cities struggle to regulate the zippy new mobility option, the lines have been drawn: some see the scooters as an affordable, green alternative to driving, others as a threat to their peace and safety.

QUIZ: Cars vs. Scooters, which gets the most hate?

But it's worth pointing out that there are echoes of the contempt directed at e-scooters today in what greeted another innovation introduced more than a century ago: the automobile.

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There are insights, too, to be drawn from the response to the belching cars that once rumbled down streets past horse-drawn carts and how we might consider new mobility technology today.

A car crash in Washington, D.C. from the early days of automobiles in cities. "Automobile Wreck." Between 1918 and 1920. (Courtesy of the Library of Congress)


Stop people in any urban area where scooters operate and you might hear something similar to this:

"I'm totally against it," said Aldo Mimoun, who watched with disdain as scooters passed by his outdoor table at a coffee shop in Santa Monica recently. "These scooters should be banned."

"They come on the sidewalk, and I feel like they're going to run me over," added his sister, Denise Mimoun.

Voices like theirs, and even more vociferous ones, are filling neighborhood forums, public meetings and social media about the dangers and inconvenience they say are caused by the scooters.

There's even an Instagram account showing the myriad ways people have taken their hostility out on the devices -- running them down with cars, throwing them off buildings, lighting them on fire or throwing them into the ocean.


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It sounds all too familiar to historian Peter Norton, a professor at the University of Virginia who wrote "Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City." The book covers a similar period of social turbulence when automobiles were first seen on city streets.

"It's a new version of an old problem," Norton said. "It's the same clash between people who say 'we have to restrict these crazy drivers and their machines,' and people who say 'progress is about changing how we do things.'"

Before cars came along, he said, our streets were very different: full of people walking, playing, biking, riding horses, pushing carts and getting on and off streetcars. All were jostling for the same space in a kind of chaotic ballet.

But cars were big, heavy and faster than anything else. They caused deadly chaos on crowded city streets, killing tens of thousands of people each year.

A graph from the "National Journal of Insurance" published in 1924. Courtesy of Norton, author of "Fighting Traffic" (MIT Press).

News of the day was filled with grisly stories of crashes and cartoons of evil drivers depicted as grim reapers.

You can see those fears reflected in novels, like the "Great Gatsby," and silent films with villainous drivers mowing down innocent pedestrians.

Back in the day, automobile makers and proponents worried the bad press could put the brakes on car sales and cause cities to restrict the vehicles. So Norton says they started a coordinated campaign to shift the conversation from deadly drivers to careless pedestrians.

It was the birth of jaywalking.

"A 'jay' in old slang was a foolish person from the country. We would call them a hick. It's an offensive term," said Norton.

The aim was to shame pedestrians for walking into the streets, which the automobile backers wanted cars to own.

One of the first cities to make jaywalking a crime was Los Angeles.

By the 1920s, the fast-growing city of L.A. recorded one of the highest car ownership rates in the country. Drivers wielded their influence through the powerful Auto Club of Southern California.

8th Street & Broadway in downtown Los Angeles, 1927: a mix of pedestrians and vehicles on a busy street. The city of L.A. was one of the first places to make jaywalking illegal. (Photo from Auto Club of Southern California Archives)

"We represented the motorists, and we wanted to make sure that the streets were safe and that everyone knew what to do," said Matthew Roth, the group's historian.

The auto club worked hand in hand with the city to come up with new laws to govern the streets, and new technology to help drivers understand the rules.

They turned the street in front of their historic headquarters south of downtown into a kind of testing ground for new ideas, like lane striping and one of the first traffic signals.

An experimental signal at Adams and Figueroa, installed by the Auto Club in front of its headquarters in 1924. The man in the suit is Ernest East, Auto Club engineer. (Photo from Auto Club of Southern California Archives)


Standing at that intersection today, you can see the legacy of those efforts: a street that is much more ordered than the old days, but also more dominated by cars.

"The victory of automobiles in the 1920s is proof that what streets are for can be changed," said Norton.

Fast forward to today, and Norton believes the very popularity of scooters is evidence there's the will to change the streets again.

"If we in 2018 take the same kind of approach of re-examining our laws, our social norms and our infrastructure, we can reinvent streets again."

Retooling of our laws are already underway, with cities like Long Beach, Santa Monica and Los Angeles launching pilot programs to regulate dockless devices like scooters, restricting their numbers and, in some cases, mandating how and where they can be placed. Other cities like West Hollywood and Beverly Hills have banned them altogether.

Several state laws that predated the electric scooters have been applied, such as prohibiting riding on sidewalks and requiring riders to be at least 18 and hold a valid driver's license. But others have already been changed, reversing a requirement that riders must wear a helmet.

There's also discussion about where in our transportation infrastructure scooters can operate -- and if we need more safe spaces for them. They are prohibited on sidewalks because of the dangers posed to pedestrians, but they are also banned from operating in streets with cars and speed limits above 35 mph.

Cities like Santa Monica are using some of the revenues from fees imposed on scooter companies to expand infrastructure, like bike lanes where scooters can safely operate. And the scooter company Bird has offered to contribute funds to cities to expand such facilities.

As for social norms, those are still evolving. Auto Club historian Roth notes that in the case of cars, it took generations for attitudes, behaviors and the streets to change.

"There's fluidity in how society accommodates certain techologies, how technologies change society," he said. "We don't know what the future is."

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