Suzanne Perez Tobias

Wichita’s freak-out over e-scooters is nothing new

Since appearing on Wichita streets in July, electric rental scooters have incited their share of wrath.

Critics call them “stupid,” “trashy,” “an absolute menace” and “all kinds of bad.”

Supporters, including transportation officials and members of the city’s Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Board, say the initial frustration is understandable, but things should improve as e-scooters become a part of Wichita’s landscape and culture.

What neither side may realize: This battle began more than a century ago.

Motorized scooters, first called autopeds and powered by an air-cooled engine over the front wheel, debuted in 1915.

Within a year they were raising eyebrows and ire, as a headline in the New York Sun in October 1916 cautioned: “Solo Devil Wagon Taken Up in a Serious Way Might Add New Terrors to City Life.”

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Solo devil wagon?

The phrase could have been ripped from The Eagle’s letters to the editor, circa 2019.

A recent episode of Pessimists Archive — a podcast focused on people’s natural resistance to innovation — chronicles the fascinating journey of the motorized scooter, from its debut amid bicycles and horse-drawn carriages to the current debate in urban areas nationwide.

The New York Sun article’s anonymous author described the 1916 scooter craze this way:

“The first time you see a man riding on one, the inclination is to ask him why he is not at school and what he means anyway by going about the streets, courting disintegration.”

By the end of the piece, though, the writer decides to take an autoped for a spin — “the sensation of disapproval wears off, and one begins to wonder how it would feel to ride on one of the contraptions” — and decides they’re not so bad after all.

The machine “had the disposition of a bronco and the guile of an eel,” he (or she) writes. And I wonder if that wouldn’t be such a bad slogan for Spin or VeoRide?

What’s clear from the scooter’s history is that it remains a fun and popular mode of transportation, despite all the rancor. After they were introduced in Wichita, it didn’t take long for people to climb aboard and scoot around town.

What’s different now, 100 years after the scooter’s debut, is that people see city streets as the sole domain of cars, trucks and SUVs, and our natural inclination is to preserve and protect the status quo.

Wichitans had the same reaction to bike lanes a few years ago, but leaders held firm and continue to expand bike-lane routes. And don’t get skateboarders started on public opinion, but at least Wichita maintains a couple high-quality skate parks.

It’s too early to tell whether scooters will take off in Wichita. I think local motorists, cyclists and pedestrians eventually will accept and adapt to them. Let’s just hope it doesn’t take 100 years.

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