Misadventures in Alt-Mobility

For complicated but unimportant reasons, I’m in Los Angeles this week, and today instead of renting a car, I tried an appallingly large number number of ways to get around that did not involve renting a car. 

It started with a yellow cab. Grant, our driver, was friendly and chatty. He took us where we needed to go, we paid cash including a tip. Easy peasy. 

Because the place we’re staying is near the beach, and the parking is a nightmare, we stashed our luggage at my friend’s house and took a Lyft from his house down to a breakfast joint. Also easy-peasy. 

I should mention that I’m late to the game for a few reasons, including all the ways that Uber showed it was a totally skeezy company, and how companies like Uber (and Lyft, and Google, with Maps) operated on the model of trampling the local laws or busting taxi unions, and then arguing that the laws should change anyway, because people like their service.

At this point we were in the heart of Venice, where it’s impossible not to notice a profusion of white, green and orange rental bikes, and rental scooters scattered around. And sure enough, after breakfast and a short stroll on Venice Beach to see the teeming throngs, the teenagers wanted to hit the Santa Monica Boardwalk and the rides. 

According to the whiz-bangy maps app, it’s a 10-minute drive in stop-and-go traffic, or a 42-minute walk .. but only a 12-minute bike ride! Along the beach! Palm trees! California sunshine! You get the picture. 

Imagine, at this point, a fast-forward montage of four people fiddling with four phones and then various combinations of rent-scooters and rent-bikes. The teenagers did their digital thing super-quick, and zipped away in a couple of Lime scooters. My wife and I fuddled longer, and one of us ended up with a Lyft scooter, and one of us with an Uber.

Next shot: the boys receding into the distance (speed! joy! sunshine!) while for reasons we can’t explain, our scooters were slower. After about five minutes, the boys were long gone, and my wife had been passed by a … jogger.

One of our little scooters (let’s call him “Lyft”) was lagging so badly, the slower generation stopped, to try and swap for one that wasn’t useless.

Nope. Not happening.

To switch to the new ride you have to end your current one, and the little Lyft that couldn’t couldn’t be persuaded that it was in a safe and happy place to be dropped off. To its credit, the app had the big red-ish No Fly Zone Where You Can’t Drop Off the Scooter. OK, well, if you walk a block away, into the rest of the world where you can drop it …

Nope. Not happening.

Farther and farther we walked/scooted, in the wrong direction, while the minutes ticked away and the cost ticked up, and the Lyft app stubbornly insisted that most of the known world was a No Fly Zone Where You Can’t Drop Off the Scooter. Meanwhile, my internal monologue was a homily about the good old days, when your analog friend loaned you his analog bike.

After various expletives, we caved, and headed toward the destination, in the hopes that something better would happen, or at least we wouldn’t lose our kids. When we crossed into Santa Monica official, the beach path was off-limits, and we had to head for the street.

At which point, two more random events: First, my little scooter (let’s call him “Uber”) finally discovered it could go as fast as the Limes. And as we crossed the parking lot, my wife tried to end the Lyft scooter ride again. And this time, she could.

As badly as we wanted to leave the little piece of shit on its side in the parking lot, we dragged it to the side and leaned it against a post. And as we left the parking lot, we had to step over another Lyft scooter, on its side, no doubt abandoned by a pissed-off customer.

After tooling around the boardwalk, we wanted to head home, with a brief stop at the pharmacy. This time, on Limes. But we were in a California bike lane this time, otherwise known as contested space. One of us almost got doored. Another driver started a three-point turn by cutting in front of my son. Two other cars were parked in the lane, forcing us to swerve into a lane of traffic.

Then, to make matters even more interesting, my wife’s phone was a two percent, so as we were leaving the pharmacy, she wasn’t sure she could re-up the ride without her phone dying. And I wasn’t sure if I could rent two scooters, one for each of us.

So we tried Lyft again. Our first driver (let’s call him Edgar) couldn’t find us. So we waited, on the corner, which was littered with scooters and bikes. So this is our world, first the streets cluttered with pirate taxis, and now the sidewalks cluttered with people’s cast-off scooters in bikes.

After our second driver got us home and I had a snack, it was time for me to get the luggage at my friend’s house. This time I thought I would try the LA Metro bike share, which is cheap, so long as you drop the bikes at little station.

No problem!

Correction: A problem. I couldn’t make heads or tails out of renting a bike at the first kiosk, until I saw that the back side door was open. So I hiked to another kiosk and got a card-swipe error. Three times.

So, the heck with it. It was getting late and kind of cold, I didn’t know where to find a cab, it was too damn far to scoot, and I didn’t have any luck with the other rental bikes. So, back to Lyft. I had a good driver, and we had a good chat about Venice, and the locals’ dislike of the Shapchat tech-bros, and the gentrification that entails. (He did not, however, mention that he was working a job that used to be regulated, and might have been held by someone in a union.)

But he did mention that the locals hate the scooters … And, just as we were slowing for a stop light, he gestured to the right.

Two scooters were abandoned in the middle of a parking lot.

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