A Smarter Way to Scoot Through the City

5/15/08

If you ride a bike to work this week, chances are that somebody will give you, if not a free lunch, then at least a free breakfast. The meals are one of the activities organized during Bay State Bike Week.

If not even a muffin and a cup of coffee will convince you to start pedaling there might be a less strenuous, but still eco-friendly, two-wheeled alternative in the not-too-distant future: a foldable, electric scooter. Or rather, thousands of scooters, available for use just when you need them.

That, at least, is the vision of Smart Cities, a business concept from a group of students and researchers at MIT’s Media Lab. The electric foldable scooters are more than just an idea, group member Ryan Chin told me.
“We have a collaboration with a Taiwanese manufacturer, SYM, and they are ready to produce them. We also showed a prototype scooter at the Motor Show in Milan last year.”

Last week, Smart Cities were one of the 20 teams competing in the semi-finals of the MIT Clean Energy Prize Competition.

Even if the Smart Cities team didn’t make it to the finals, I find their vision interesting. You can pick up a scooter whenever you need some quick transportation—for shopping, to catch a commuter train, or to do any other type of short errands. In a way, the idea is similar to how a car-sharing service like Zipcar works. But there is one big difference. Zipcar is strictly a two-way solution: it requires you to leave your hired car in the same spot you picked it up. Plus, sharing vehicles more widely reduces the total number needed and requires less land for parking.

In contrast, Smart Cities wants to combine the scooters with an intelligent infrastructure that keeps track of all the vehicles at all the combined parking racks and charging stations around town. Then you can just pay with your credit card, pick up a bike, and scoot off to do your errands, leaving the vehicle at whatever station is most convenient for you.

In that respect, the system is supposed to work very much along the same lines as the shared bicycle service found in cities like Washington, DC, and Paris.

So, why not just stick to human-powered bikes—wouldn’t that be even more eco-friendly? Well, a bike is fine for riding short distances, but you are not going to take the bike if you live in Boston and work in Cambridge, the Smart Cities team explained when I met them last week. (On that point, they were actually mistaken, that is just what I do every morning. But then I’m used to the harsh biking conditions in Sweden. Hey, here in Boston you don’t even need studded bike tires in the winter.)

Using a scooter might also complement public transportation, by solving the “first and last mile access problems”—that is, how to get to and from the train station or subway stop on each end of your commute or journey. This might lead to a 10 percent increase in the use of public transportation, according to Smart Cities estimates.

The team hopes to get a first system running in one of the big cities in Taiwan, where a lot of people already use both gas-powered and electric scooters for every day transport. “We continue to develop our plan, and to develop our relationships. Our goal is to make this into a real business,” says Chin.

Erik Mellgren is a Swedish journalist who worked for Xconomy Boston in 2008 as part of the Stanford Innovation Journalism Fellowship program. His real job is with Ny Teknik, a leading technology and innovation magazine in Sweden, but he loved seeing the Red Sox at Fenway. Follow @

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  • http://scootersonthego.com Mike

    Great concept!

    Bike sharing services also tend to fail because people equate bikes to exercise and recreation.