Many of us spent last week lamenting the tragic football death of a promising Baltimore area native and the latest viral video depicting undeniable police brutality. Between those disturbing headlines and the daily drumbeat of crime stories, sunny images of our mayor zipping around on an electric scooter are hard to enjoy. But these days Baltimore has to savor its small victories. And Mayor Catherine Pugh’s deal-making with two electric scooter companies is not only a win for city transit, it is also a reminder that decisive, even maverick leadership — on crime and so much else — can make a real difference.
Soon to replace the disastrous Bike Share program are 2,000 dockless scooters promoted by two cool, entrepreneurial companies that have agreed to give discounts to low-income users and ensure that at least a quarter of their fleets serves mixed-income neighborhoods.
No doubt there will be critics with legitimate concerns: More of an opportunity for public input and greater transparency about the terms of the deal would have been appreciated, a clear plan to avoid them lying around like litter would be helpful, and above all the public needs confidence that the safety risks of electric scooters on city streets and sidewalks are understood and under control.
But the alacrity with which this was accomplished should also be applauded. There were no work groups or task forces, no hemming and hawing or self-destructive games of chicken. City Hall saw an opportunity and seized it. In a town whose transit deficits are as widespread as they are neglected, companies developing leapfrog technologies like electric scooters are a beacon of hope. Baltimore is in desperate need of a few overnight, starter solutions.
Truth is, “micromobility” options will help immensely with the stubborn last-mile problem, an actual and psychological obstacle that keeps so many Americans in their cars. And electric scooter companies like Bird and Lime promise to bring with them local, living-wage jobs — from repairmen to rechargers. To be clear, they won’t make up for Gov. Larry Hogan’s indefensible disinvestment in the Red Line, and they can’t patch the innumerable gaps in an inequitable, Swiss-cheese transportation grid that leaves too many resorting to selling drugs around the corner rather than commuting to a legitimate job two hours across town.
Still, the mayor deserves credit in this case. To appreciate the audacity of City Hall inking this agreement, consider the allergic reactions of so many other cities. Several cities including Miami, Denver and San Francisco banned scooters soon after they arrived, and Milwaukee sued one electric scooter company when it refused to leave. In Nashville, Cleveland and Los Angeles, scooters have been impounded, tossed into the ocean, even set on fire. Places that saw a company to tax or a nuisance to avoid are missing out. For once Baltimore wisely saw promise in innovation where others perceived only pitfalls.
Indeed, some of Baltimore’s best moments have been when we act with urgency and when we lead rather than follow, breaking from the unimaginative blueprints of other cities. It was a year ago last week that Mayor Pugh had another defining moment, when she brought down Confederate statues without the needless discussion and debate that paralyzed and divided other cities. Odd as it is to relate the historic dismantling of symbols of hate and evil to swift negotiations with electric scooter companies, both were good days to remember in a city that has too few.
Part of why the challenges of Baltimore appear so intractable is because true durable solutions require investments whose returns are years away. But appreciating the need for long-term strategies should not prevent us from taking decisive, short-term actions.
As a candidate for state’s attorney, I often said fighting crime is both a marathon and a sprint. That is true for so many of our city’s greatest problems. To be sure, electric scooters will no more solve the transit crisis in Baltimore than removing Confederate statues will end racism in America. But taking a moment to celebrate even modest progress — and learning (with a helmet) to ride a scooter this weekend — could do our city some good.
Thiru Vignarajah is a a lawyer and previously served as deputy attorney general of Maryland. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @tvignarajah.