Courtesy of Matt Culbertson

Gas-fueled motor scooters like Vespas and non-motorized scooters like Razors have been around for ages, but with the rise of companies like Lime and Bird, electric scooters have become a common sight on city streets.

At the start of 2020, I found myself riding around on electric scooters instead of taking more costly Uber and Lyft rides. So in February, I decided to bite the bullet and buy my own. 

Riding around San Francisco in my small but speedy Xiaomi Mi electric scooter was one of the highlights of this very weird and mostly indoors 2020. The way I felt as I rode down the San Francisco Embarcadero at sunset in view of the Bay Bridge is an experience imprinted in my mind, and one that I can’t wait to recreate once we return to work in the office.

Cheaper than renting 

My introduction to electric scooters was at the 2019 South by Southwest conference, where more than 8,000 electric scooters from Uber, Lyft, Bird and Lime took over downtown Austin, Texas. Although it the sheer number of scooters and conference goers made it feel like mayhem, cruising up and down the modest Austin hills was a blast.

I’ve lived without a car for five years, and I typically get around San Francisco by walking, using public transportation or taking shared Lyft and Uber rides. I generally only needed ride-sharing for the weekends or getting to and from my rec-league soccer games, and for a while that was affordable. But that changed in January 2020 when Lyft and Uber raised their ride prices in response to a new California law. Fortunately for me, electric scooters had returned to the city after a brief ban, so I replaced my shared rides with scooter rentals. 

I began zooming through San Francisco’s Mission District and Mission Bay neighborhoods, paying about $4 to $9 a ride. It was so much more fun than an Uber carpool that eventually I started to do the math and consider whether it’d make more sense to just buy my own scooter. At the rate I was going, I was averaging nearly $20 a week on scooter rides, which would come out to a little more than $1,000 over the course of a year.

I started to research the different models of electric scooters I could buy. The best rated model was the Xiaomi Mi electric scooter. At the time, it was available on Amazon for $377 (these days it’s listed for $499.99). I budgeted that I would likely have to spend $150 per year on maintenance for repairs like flat tires, and I assumed I could likely get at least two years out of the scooter. That meant that the cost owning a scooter would likely come out to $700 over two years, far more affordable than continuing to rent, which would’ve easily cost me $2,000 over the same time span. I placed my order, and the metallic black ride arrived from Amazon just a few days later. 

Courtesy of Matt Culbertson

The perfect pandemic ride 

The Xiaomi Mi can go pretty fast. Its top speed is listed as 15.5 miles per hour, and that I wouldn’t be shocked if it actually hits faster speeds riding down one of San Francisco’s numerous hills at full power.

The scooter also gets good range. On Amazon, it’s noted as 18.6 miles per hour per charge. Most of the trips I knew I’d be doing were 6 miles or less, so this was perfect, especially since I can always refill the battery if I bring its charger with me. 

I bought my scooter in anticipation of riding it to my soccer games, but the coronavirus had other plans. But it came in handy at the start of the pandemic, when every grocery store was a toilet-paperless madhouse and Amazon Prime Now was unable to fulfill most orders. 

The virus made me nervous to walk past anyone on a sidewalk or spend much time in crowded grocery stores, so instead I would grab a duffel bag and ride my Xiaomi around my neighborhood, hitting up Mexican markets and nearby corner stores for all the goods I needed. 

Over the course of the year, my scooter came in handy for those many times I was in too much of a rush to walk but didn’t want to expose myself to others on public transportation. I rode nearby parks for outdoor meetups with friends and to restaurants for outdoor dinners. If I drank, I could easily fold it up and put it in the back of an Uber. Other times, it was simply fun to just ride around the city in such a strange and isolating year. In early November, I used it to drop off my mail-in ballot at one of the city’s polling locations. 

Courtesy of Matt Culbertson

Accessories you’ll want

Over the course of the year, I also picked up a number of accessories that made owning a scooter a better experience:

Helmet. At the top of the list was a helmet. As I mentioned, these scooters can go fast, and with one wrong turn or some object misplaced on a bike lane, you could easily fall off. Fortunately, I’ve yet to have an accident, but I don’t want to take any chances. This is why I bought a helmet even when I was just renting scooter rides. [Ed note: Talk to any emergency room nurse or doctor and they will tell you that one preventable brain injury is all they needed to see to become life-long helmet-wearers.]

U-lock. The lock itself is designed for bikes, but it works on scooters as well. I hook the u-lock around the scooter around the tube that connects the steering stick to the deck. Although I barely trust San Francisco bike thieves enough to leave my scooter outdoors and out of my sight for too long, the u-lock was useful for when I would do my grocery runs. 

Salvador Rodriguez/CNBC

Tile Sticker. As a back-up to the lock, I also bought the Tile Sticker. This product is a tracking device that you can stick onto any object you don’t want to misplace. The device communicates with your phone as well as other Tile products using Bluetooth. Fortunately, the Tile Sticker is available in the exact shade of black as the Xiaomi Mi, so I was able to stick it onto the bottom of the scooter’s deck without it being noticeable. 

Salvador Rodriguez/CNBC

Phone mount. The $12 phone mount i bought from Amazon was also key. I like to think I know how to get around San Francisco pretty well, but navigation instructions are helpful, and holding your phone while riding a scooter is a disaster waiting to happen. The mount is made for bikes, but it works perfectly on the Xioami Mi. 

Courtesy of Matt Culbertson

Kickstand cover. Finally, I splurged a tiny bit and bought tiny red Converse knockoffs for the scooter’s kickstand. This helps prevent the kickstand from scratching up the hardwood in my apartment, but mostly, they’re just stylish. 

Salvador Rodriguez/CNBC

Why it’s better than a bike

After a year of riding around, I’m super happy with my purchase. Living through this pandemic with only walking, Uber and public transportation as my means for getting around would’ve been more expensive and a lot more stressful. Buying the scooter helped me save money and made it possible for me to get around faster and go further without exposing myself. 

I would recommend a scooter to anyone who lives in an urban area and mostly walks. The scooter is an inexpensive alternative for getting around just a little bit faster. I’d also recommend it to any 90s kids who grew up opening a box with a Razor scooter on Christmas morning — they’ll get a nostalgic kick out of an electric scooter. 

A scooter is also a decent replacement for a bike. I’ve owned and used bikes numerous times in my life, but they can require lot of maintenance, and the risk of theft is just too high for my comfort. Although I do have a u-lock, in most cases I can fold up my scooter and bring it wherever I go. I’ve done this at the dentist, and I’ve put it under my legs at outdoor restaurants. If we ever return to offices, I know my scooter can easily fit under my desk. 

With my scooter, the only bit of maintenance I had to do was a few months ago when I caught a flat tire. This is something that you can do yourself, although from the YouTube videos I’ve seen, it can be quite complicated. Instead, I found a shop in San Francisco that focuses on scooters, and had somebody else fix the issue for me for $50 — well within the annual budget I had predetermined when I bought the vehicle. 

At this point, my only regret is not buying a scooter with a little more power. 

When I bought the Xiaomi Mi, I lived in San Francisco’s Mission District, which is pretty flat. I’ve since moved to the Pacific Heights neighborhood, and that’s certainly got more elevation. The Xiaomi Mi can handle this new area, but it’s more of a struggle. 

At its price point, the Xiaomi Mi has been an excellent starter scooter, but now that I know I love owning a scooter, I will be shopping for something with more speed, range and power whenever the time to upgrade is right.

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