We tried to cross downtown Tampa via scooter. Here's how it went.

Tyler Killette, left, and Tampa Bay Times reporter Christopher Spata tool around on electric scooters at Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park in Tampa. [Courtesy of Chris Fasick]
Tyler Killette, left, and Tampa Bay Times reporter Christopher Spata tool around on electric scooters at Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park in Tampa. [Courtesy of Chris Fasick]
Published June 5, 2019

Someday, when we contemplate the history of Tampa's downtown, we will think of it in two eras.

There was the time before scooters — Tampa's B.S. period. And there was the enchanting post-scooter age that came after.

Or maybe the city's yearlong trial to assess the viability of motorized, dockless, shared scooters will end and we'll stick the scooters wherever we put all the fidget spinners. We'll promise never to speak of this again.

The future can't be seen. What I did see over the weekend was downtown Tampa on a sweaty Saturday where scooter-sharing was The Thing. Everyone seemed to be talking about it or attempting it, even if they were not actually doing it.

The scooters arrived quietly (they are electric, after all) and under cover of darkness over Memorial Day weekend. They instantly became a favored topic in local media. Thousands of people rode them, some in forbidden areas such as the Riverwalk. We did not learn if they were fun or worth the cost, which is what I went to downtown to find out.

Tampa is getting more residents, restaurants and entertainment options. Traffic and parking are as bad as ever. The scooters are part of an evolving mix of balms meant to ease Tampa's car-centric pains.

Coast Bikes arrived a few years ago. Then came the Cross-Bay Ferry. Tampa's TECO Streetcar became free in the fall in an effort to boost ridership. Scooters could be a "last-mile" option that can tie other methods of transport together.

Along with my girlfriend Tyler Killette, my co-worker Meaghan Habuda and her boyfriend Chris Fasick, the goal was to travel from Armature Works in Tampa Heights to Sparkman Wharf in the Water Street district with a stop at GenX Tavern in downtown proper. Yes, we would take the trendy, new transport to the three trendiest places in range to decide if it was good or even possible.

Before our trip, we enjoyed a round of expensive craft beers at Armature Works and asked each other questions:

Who are these scooters really for? Serious commuters or people just screwing around? Both, we guessed, but on that Saturday it felt like the second one.

Do you have to know how to ride one in order to ride one safely? Having once jumped a Razor scooter into a swimming pool of green water and dead leaves on a dare, I felt somewhat experienced. But others were a little nervous.

Do you have to wear a helmet? Not by law, but the scooter apps do remind you that it would be a good idea. No helmets were spotted on Saturday.

Can you get a DUI on a motorized, dockless, shared scooter? It's possible, but while I have no idea if anyone in Tampa was drinking too much before scooting that day, many people at Armature Works were having drinks, and many people were getting on scooters. And just as I was making a note of that, a guy rode by on a scooter holding two empty beer cups in his teeth.

Our group walked to the nearby scooter corral and found about a dozen scooters waiting in three varieties: Spin (owned by Ford Motor Company), Lime and Bird.

On attempting to move a Spin, it made a sound like an angry Transformer, so I stopped and downloaded the app and entered a debit card. All around, people were staring at their phones doing the same, saying things that weeks earlier would have sounded insane: Should we both get a Bird? I think I'd fit better on a Lime. This Spin just yelled at me!

All scooters charge varying amounts per minute, but some require you to load $5 or $10 up front. Then you scan a bar code with your phone and you're off.

There are other minor differences. Some have foot brakes versus hand brakes. Some have slightly higher handlebars. Some have bells that are handy for alerting pedestrians that you're scooting up behind them on a conveyance you haven't practiced stopping. Some announce how much carbon you saved the environment at the end of your ride.

Our group ended up with two Spins, a Bird and a Lime. We were cruising along for a few minutes, picking up speed, when the scooter made the Transformer sound again and slowed to a crawl. Everyone else's, too. We weren't on the forbidden Riverwalk, but we were on the sidewalk that runs parallel to the Riverwalk just a few yards away. Apparently, the scooter's GPS isn't precise enough to know the difference and had throttled us down as punishment.

No big deal. We ventured farther from the forbidden zone and the scooters came back to life. Before long, we hit a downhill slope and the digital speedometer on the Bird hit 15. In a car, 15 is maddeningly glacial, but on a motorized, dockless, shared scooter it was fast enough to make a me consider my own mortality.

It never felt crowded on the sidewalk with the scooters and pedestrians, though I did nearly clip a couple of empty Limes with my Bird near a parking garage by the Straz Center. They were just sitting there like their riders had been raptured mid-ride to a Curtis Hixon margarita fest in the sky.

It is clear the landscape of downtown has already changed. Here and there, scooters sat abandoned on street corners and leaning against trees. It's not really as ugly as it is eerie.

I was nearly hit by a car turning off Ashley Drive as I crossed Kennedy Boulevard. But I have been nearly hit by a car crossing that intersection on foot so many times I can't say the scooter had anything to do with it.

We arrived at GenX Tavern safely in about 25 minutes, including a detour to ride through the splash pad at Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park, and left the scooters on the sidewalk out front. Minutes later, we watched through the window as another group scooted away on our only rides.

We knew that was a possibility. The scooters can be locked after reaching a destination — they'll show as "in use" — but that also keeps the meter running. We had taken our chances.

We added up the cost for the first leg of the journey. We had each paid around $6 to $10 for the 1.6-mile trip, for a total of roughly $33. I checked the cost to Uber from the bar to exactly where we had started. It would have cost $7.38.

We left GenX Tavern an hour later and began the great scooter tribulation of our own making. The various apps showed available scooters many blocks away, but since none looked convenient, we decided our best move would be to wander in the hot cement desert until we came across some free ones.

Chris informed me that this type of search was called Bird hunting, or Lime harvesting. We could not think of a clever name for Spin.

We walked south and sweated through our shirts and found a couple of Birds at MacDill Park. Dead batteries. A scooter sat lonely under an overpass. Dead.

Meaghan looked toward the horizon, squinted into the sun and asked wearily, "Is that one over there?" A couple passed us in the opposite direction moments later and said, "Is that one over there?" They walked on toward the dead ones we had already checked.

We found seven dead scooters before reaching Harpoon Harry's on Franklin Street, a scooter hot spot. This is, perhaps, a problem that will be resolved when the number of scooters on the streets goes from several hundred to several thousand in the coming weeks.

I booted up a Spin with 16 percent battery. A guy with a large gold chain rolled up on a traffic-cone-orange variety of scooter we had not seen yet and informed me that "you need to get one of these Jumps" because they're "the best," and also he had just started working for Jump, which is owned by Uber and is compatible with the Uber app.

I stuck with the Spin. Chris ended up with a Jump. By then, he had installed and entered his credit card into four new apps in a single afternoon.

This final leg of the journey is when it became clear it's nearly impossible to ride these scooters without smiling. Cruising past Fort Brooke Cotanchobee Park and the waterfront at a thoughtful pace, seeing the ongoing rise of the Water Street district from a new perspective — while moving fast enough to stay relatively cool and breezy — was lovely.

"I did not realize these were going to be so fun," Tyler said, and the group agreed.

That made it worth the $51.47 total it took for four people to reach Sparkman Wharf from Armature Works. It was about 3.5 times what Uber would have cost.

After paying for snacks at Sparkman Wharf, we were happy to wait eight minutes to get picked up by the free Downtowner for the return trip.

But the scooters called to us. Late that night, after dinner at Lee's Grocery in Tampa Heights, we encountered a lone Bird on a dark, residential sidewalk. Nobody needed it for anything, but Tyler fired it up anyway and scooted down the street.

Contact Christopher Spata at Follow @SpataTimes.