Think of motorised scooters, and you’ll probably think Bird was in at the start, launching its shared electric scooters back in 2017, but you’d be wrong. The amazing history of motorised scooters goes back over 100 years and the similarities to today are incredible.
The first motorised scooters were available for private purchase back in 1915, over 100 years ago. Launched by the Autoped Company of Long Island City, New York, they featured an air cooled 155cc four-stroke engine powering the front wheel. They included a wide range of safety features, such as 15 inch air-filled wheels (wouldn’t those be great on today’s roads!), a headlamp, tail lamp and a klaxon horn. The handle bars activated a clutch, push forwards to engage the motor to the front wheel, back to release. The handle bars also folded flat for easy storage, and at only 100lb (45kg) would classify as micromobility by many of today’s definitions.
But the history of motorised scooters is far more interesting than the nuts and bolts. They were promoted as a modern new mode of transport for everyone from children to doctors, as this text from an original advert makes clear:
“The Autoped is an ideal short distance conveyance for business or professional men or women to and from their places of business; for women to go shopping or calling; for physicians to make their regular daily calls or to answer hurry calls; for the older children to go about quickly for outing or school; for servants when they are sent on errands; for grocers, druggists and other merchants for quick delivery purposes; for commercial salesman to call on the trade; for employees to ride to and from work; for collectors; repairmen; messengers, and for anybody else who wants to save money, time and energy in going about. All will enjoy the comfort and pleasure of AUTOPEDING.”
The similarities between the marketing message of 1915 and today’s shared scooter schemes are notable: short distance trips, save time, save money, and suitable for a wide range of journeys. Maybe targeting children and servants is less appropriate today, but the overall pitch is spot-on.
At $100, they were not cheap to buy. The average salary in 1915 was $687, so this was more than a month’s salary for most people, but considerably cheaper than a car. Although this very positive advert calling for resellers of the Autoped claims that the “price is so low almost everybody can afford one”! For those counting their pennies, 125 miles to the gallon would have been a very attractive feature. It is not know exactly how many were produced, but it seems likely that total production fell far short of the millions they planned.
The Autoped may have helped secure votes for women in the United Kingdom. Lady Florence Priscilla Norman, an active member of the Liberal Women's Suffrage Union and the Women's Liberal Federation was photographed riding an Autoped in London in 1916. Obviously an early adopter as the scooter was only launched 1-year earlier. The freedom offered by the motorised scooter must have appealed to her spirit of liberation and independence.
Another notable woman rider was Amelia Earhart, the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean. She was photographed riding an Autoped several times, even after it ceased being manufactured in the USA. This was unlikely to be a paid promotion; she must have just loved using her micromobility vehicle. Like Lady Norman, Amelia was active in fighting for equal rights for women. She was a member of the National Woman's Party and an early supporter of the Equal Rights Amendment. It seems that independence of mobility and fighting for independent living go hand in hand.
Things are not all sweetness and light with the early launch of micromobility. The first ticket was issued to a rider of a Autoped in 1939, for riding without a licence. Something that would still be an offence today in some countries, including the United Kingdom, but not everywhere that modern electric scooters are legal.
It is also reported that “Groups of rowdy youth were soon terrorizing the boroughs of Brooklyn, Queens and Manhattan” on Autopeds, something that even today has led to many shared scooter schemes having night time curfews, where either scooters become unrentable, or are taken off the streets entirely.
In conclusion, the availability of small powered personal mobility isn’t as new as we might have thought. The appealing independence offered by easy to use, cheap to operate personal mobility is universal, but seems to strike home with those fighting for broader rights and the modernisation of society.
Today, shared micromobility is seen as a way to solve transport poverty in areas poorly served by public transport and low levels of car ownership. Improved mobility leads to opportunity. Being able to affordably and reliably commute to work, or a place of education, can transform lives. The challenge of keeping the streets safe for pedestrians, riders and drivers when a new form of transport is introduced has been around for over 100-years. This time around, many governments are actively supporting the growth of micromobility to help meet climate change targets by reducing the carbon emissions of the transport sector.
The next 100-years of micromobility should be even more exciting.