Landfill Capitalism: You only have two weeks to gather up all those free microcontrollers, servos and batteries that are littering the sidewalks of San Francisco!

Scooter Companies Have Two Weeks to Get Off the Streets:

A joint ruling was issued today by the City Attorney of San Francisco, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, and San Francisco Public Works. It orders the startups -- the most well-known being Bird, Spin, and Lime -- to remove their scooters and cease operations by June 4. Bird alone has more than 1,600 scooters in San Francisco, according to recent estimates by the company. [...]

Any scooters left on the street will be impounded, and could also result in daily fines of $100 per scooter. Refusing to remove its scooters will disqualify a company from obtaining a permit, said SFMTA.

Disrupting the Commons: Dockless Bikes and Scooters Create Layers of Community Instability:

This has created a problem that has not been seen before: voluntary, intentional, migrating, mobile, functional, litter.

The bikes and scooters are disruptive to the locations where they are abandoned and, because they are constantly moving, the issues of abandonment and refuse are constantly cycling (sorry) throughout an urban region. Yesterday's bike or scooter blight might be around today, or it might move for a few days and then return. In short, the bikes and scooters share a civic pattern similar to that of homelessness. Thus, in an unexpected way, the dockless bikes and scooters are also competing with the homeless for pieces of urban space upon which to temporarily rest. [...]

It is one thing to create a transportation sharing system with vehicles that require, either due to sufficient expense or size, some type of accountability or responsibility. It is another to dump a set of bikes and scooters in a city without racks, or places to "put" them. When companies "disrupt" the Commons by installing products aimed at "disruptors," there will be disruption. However, for those disruptive companies to expect their customers to then follow rules, is naive at best.

One argument against these transportation-share companies area is similar to one that has been made against Google busses, Uber, and Lyft: that these companies profit from using publicly funded roads, bus stops, and other parts of the Commons, without significantly contributing to their upkeep, and without concern for others within them. The strongest argument for San Francisco has been that the abandoned (parked) bikes and scooters are dangerous and create safety hazards.

Meanwhile, back to the headline:

We can see from the photo at the top that these scooters have a Particle Electron inside: that's a microcontroller with 1MB RAM, built-in cellular modem and 30 GPIO pins. It's like a $70 value! I haven't seen a breakdown of what other gear is in there, but it's safe to assume that there are two pretty hefty electric motors and a sizable battery. I'll bet you could make a pretty decent robot, or even a drinkbot out of these parts.

I eagerly await reading someone's "Instructable" tutorial on such a project. Maybe you can re-purpose this parasitic, Commons-destroying litter into something fun.

Please get on that.

But don't be a Joey. Disconnect the modem or pop the SIM before you take it home.

Given my general anti-car stance, a few people have expressed surprise that I'm so down on these (fucking) scooters. While getting people out of cars and into other modes of transport is generally great, I can't overlook the vileness of the business model of the people behind this. The enemy of my enemy is not always my friend. As the article above enumerates, these companies follow the same business model as Uber and AirBnB: "Move fast and raid the Commons". Build your business by turning the majority of (what should be) your business expenses into "externalities" that you get someone else to pay for.

I call these companies "Landfill Capitalism".

Here's their business model:

  1. Get a bunch of funding from VCs;
  2. Dump a bunch of cheap, junk hardware onto the sidewalks;
  3. Have no maintenance or recycling plan;
  4. Collect underpants;
  5. Eventually be felled by the grim specter of regulation, from that slow-moving "legacy" operation we call "the Government";
  6. Go bankrupt, close the doors, cancel your AWS account, and walk away;
  7. Leave it to DPW or MTA to drag all those now-bricked and un-ridable scooters to the garbage dump.

See? The Market works!

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35 Responses:

  1. Other Jamie says:

    I was hypothetically wondering if a road flare left under one's deck would ignite the batteries.

    • MattyJ says:

      I'm hypothetically wondering if there is a backpack-sized electromagnetical device that could abruptly reverse the direction of the motors so I could start a mobile faceplant-on-demand business.

  2. CTD says:

    If they can be "repurposed" before the company goes broke, why would you expect that they would be bricked and only fit for the dump after the company goes broke?

    • jwz says:

      Because I don't think there are 30,000 hobbyists interested in building barbots. Nor an interest from the board in making any effort to eBay them after they've already written off the loss and are thus personally absolved and free to go move fast and break the next thing.

    • Stripes says:

      They can be repurposed by people that are near them, and have the time to grab them. I could "maybe" do something interesting with the micro controller, but I'm also like an hour away from SF. So an hour to get there, and hour to get back, plus however long it takes to find one of these? Maybe I should buy a Raspberry Pi (although that has a higher power budget, and no ADC...and doesn't have the battery) for $35. Plus if I just take the parts I want I've left a useless husk in SF. If I take the whole thing home I've got trash to dispose of at home.

      I'm not sure anywhere near enough people that are actually close to these things have a use for the majority of the parts...and they are not valuable enough to pay anyone to grab them and ship them (or alternately, they are too heavy and bulky to ship for the value of the parts).

      ...and all of that is assuming that everyone actually has the right of salvage over them. The cost benefit ratio goes even more wonky if you have to factor in the risk of getting caught and arrested.

  3. Schmoe says:

    But where does one acquire said scooter. You can't just scoop one up if you see it. Are they going to have a big auction or something...

  4. Wout Mertens says:

    Ok,so if there was a designated scooter parking spot every 200m on both sides of the road, would you be happy, or is your opposition stemming from the 1.disrupt,2.???,3.profit!$$$ business model itself?

    • MattyJ says:

      Parking spots for scooters are akin to trashcans for trash. Since the scooters are trash with no trashcans, they're litter on the sidewalk. And I mean every 20 goddamned feet on the sidewalk around where I work.

      Fuck these stupid things and fuck 30 year olds riding a goddamned scooter. They were stupid in the 90's when we called them Razors an they're stupid now. Get a skateboard, be a man. It's only a block from Civic Center station to Twitter, two blocks to Uber, you can walk. With your legs.

      • Gement says:

        I absolutely agree with the first half of this. The litter aspect has been bothering me in Seattle too. (Here it is bikes and e-bikes.)

        On the second half, though, as a 38 year old with janky hips, fuck your assumption that everyone standing upright is able-bodied, or only going a couple of blocks today. And if they are, so what? Accessible transit options help everyone.

        No, I'm not saying this model is good. But shitting on it because thirty year olds should exercise more or be judged lazy by you is shitty.

        • Elusis says:

          Yes, this. Telling people they ought to bike or walk like you know what their body needs/can do is shitty and people who do it should feel shitty.

          I'm of a mind with jwz on how crappy these companies and their business models are. And anything that encourages people to ride vehicles down the sidewalk at speeds faster than pedestrians can move is also a shitty person and should feel shitty, because I'd like to not get a broken limb from someone crashing into me when I do walk, thanks. (another disability issue, because people with some kinds of disabilities are more likely to be slow-moving, less stable when upright, and/or frail.)

      • Thomas says:

        I personally sometimes take one because I am late. Sometimes I take one because it's fun and I feel like it. Most of the time, I just walk. I am 38.

      • Chas. Owens says:

        I am over forty and have quadriceps tendonitis in both legs and I can walk the mile from my hotel to my company's headquarters when I visit it, but it isn't pleasant. I could take a taxi (I wouldn't touch an Uber or other car sharing service with a ten foot pole), but that is just silly and too expensive for a mile. The Bird scooters are a godsend for me. They turn a twenty plus minute trudge into a five to eight minute breeze. I always follow the law (bike helmet, follow traffic laws, etc). I considered the various bike rental solutions (as there is a rack near the hotel), but the walk from/to the rack nearest to the office is almost as much as the whole walk itself. I could use one of the dockless bike solutions, but people complain about those almost as much as the Birds.

        The only thing I don't like about the Bird experience (I can't speak for other scooter rentals) is that they are using the same bullshit "contractor" model as the ride sharing companies for charging the scooters. Hopefully California's new law will fix that.

        • Doctor Fever says:

          Thanks for posting! You are both the person for whom electric scooters should be targeted and - alas - the exception to the rule, which is most often helmet-less (illegal but their problem), sidewalk-laden (our safety and annoyance problems) and litter-laden (The pending CA legislation's storage reference appears to leave the enforcement tool choice mostly to municipalities). Quad tendonitis sounds hellish; good luck with relevant therapies!

      • Wout says:

        From what age is it appropriate? Not all of us are blessed with perfect health.

        I have my own scooter, I do 10 miles on it daily. I used to do that on my bike but between the maintenance and not always feeling great I now do it on my scooter and I have a ton of fun doing so.

        Littering sidewalks and breaking traffic laws is not cool but that's a people problem and is solvable.

        Imagine what SF would look like if cars were limited to main streets, 20 mph, and only allowed to park in parking skyscrapers, one per square mile.

    • Kitty says:

      Came for the libertarian dipshit "just asking questions" responses. Was not disappoint. Thank you fren.

  5. Joe Luser says:

    Along with a delivery service that paid you to have something delivered, a sock worth a billion dollars, and Whoopie Goldberg hawking alternative currency, one of the Clear Signs of the Coming Apocalypse of the First Dotbomb was scooters. I'm holding out hope that scooters 2.0 is also a reliable sign.

  6. cxed says:

    It is one thing to create a transportation...system with vehicles that require, either due to sufficient expense or size, some type of accountability or responsibility. It is another to dump a set of [these vehicles] in a city without ... places to 'put' them.

    This is what I love about these scooters! And the bikes. I love hearing people whine about them lying around everywhere taking up space, boo hooo. Yes, that's awesome! Because if that's such a disaster, can I interest you in what must be a real problem? How about the exact same situation but with 1000kg vehicles taking up 5m^2 of the public commons each by the millions and passing the cost on to society in general. Because, yes, we have that problem too and it's much, much worse. But hey, start with the scooters if you can't think of a solution to that serious problem.

    • Christoph says:

      Alle Dinge sind Gift, und nichts ist ohne Gift; allein die dosis machts, daß ein Ding kein Gift sei. just like Paracelsus put it, about 500 years ago. Dumping tons of cheap bikes or scooters into an area is as much of a problem as tons of cars... Further, because of "cheap", those bikes/scooters soon fail to provide their original use - that's the point where we arrive at "landfill".

      • cxed says:

        I love your thinking! Let's attack this problem proportional to its tonnage!

      • Wout says:

        So the car parking poison was countered with parking spots, likewise the scooters can demand being placed into scooter parking or fining the user.

    • MetaRZA says:

      So if I understand correctly, we shouldn't oppose the deliberate creation of a new problem until we solve all the old problems.

  7. Zach says:

    Two weeks to get the scooters off the streets. *Followed by putting them back out again a couple weeks later with city-issued permits.

    Unless permit technology has developed rapidly, making scooter companies write a (laughably small, since prop 218 means we can't actually make money off these things) check to the city won't magically make people stop riding them on the sidewalk or dumping them everywhere, so at most we're just taking a brief scooter vacation before starting over again.

    We're truly in the stupidest timeline.

      • Derpatron9000 says:

        Reminds me of the 'rise of the idiots' scene from Nathan Barley: https://youtu.be/ZptMIcdCcpI

        • Tim says:

          And before then:

          Nathan Barley rides a tiny metal scooter along the pavement in the direction of an overpriced 'gastro-pub' in order to attend a meeting with a group of worthless toffee-nosed shits intent on setting up an internet radio station with an elaborate Shockwave interface, eternally doomed to be of interest to absolutely no-one other than themselves.

          TVGoHome June 2000 et seq.

    • MetaRZA says:

      Based on what I know of bureaucracy that the check would only be one part of the permitting process. The other part would be some kind of contract to make sure scooter don't become litter.

      • jwz says:

        Yes, exactly. There will be a contract, with associated limitations, requirements and penalties for violation. The devil is in the details, obviously, but right now there are no penalties because their business model is "LOL we're under the jurisdiction of nobody".

        • MetaRZA says:

          Obviously. And the devil is also in the compliance, in the city forcing compliance and the clean up when the VC money runs dry and the company goes bankrupt.

  8. Erica says:

    Can these scooters be used as-is as a personal scooter? I’ve actually wanted to buy one, so if enterprising entrepreneurs suddenly flood the eBay market, I’d be thrilled to pick one or two up cheap. I live in Austin or I’d do this myself.

    • jwz says:

      You'd still have to hack their firmware, because as soon as they can't talk to The Clown any more they won't take your credit card.

      • Erica says:

        I would like to just use it as most people do a bicycle—a transportation device I own and can run errands with. Don’t care to pay Bird any $. Right now they sell new for $500. If there’s going to be a flood of them on eBay for $200-$250 and I can use it as a personal transportation option, that would make me happy.

        If that is the case, even if it involves flashing firmware, there’s definitely a business here...for someone.

      • Chas. Owens says:

        The Birds appear to be slightly modified Xiaomi m365s. There is already hacked firmware for the m365 (people reverse engineered the communication protocol because they didn't like the software speed governor), but I don't know if Bird has done something "clever" to stop that.

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