Thoughts on communication in an over-connected world.
© COPYRIGHT 2015 • Jeremy C. Broussard • ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.
All at once, the scooters were gone.
But it wasn't always that way. I can remember just a few months ago when the scooters arrived, landing here and there on every street corner. At first, no one knew what to do. When someone took one out for a spin, people pointed and stared. Then, after a few weeks, they were everywhere, buzzing through streets and sidewalks.
Before you knew it, finding an available scooter was fairly difficult. So more arrived. Then another service. At their peak, you could choose from two brands of scooters to zip around this 200,000-person, Southern town ... a city in the oil and gas belt where pickup trucks outnumber cars and people complain when the price of gasoline gets too cheap.
But they disappeared.
Today, not a single scooter can be seen. It's as if they migrated from the winter storm to find some warmer place to live. And that's not too far from the truth.
A friend in the local cigar shop was quick to tell me the story. He said the city asked the scooter services to withdraw temporarily. Apparently there were concerns over safety. That seemed to include, in his description, the safety of riders, pedestrians and motorists. An agreement was struck for the scooter services to discontinue until Louisiana state government could determine a set of laws designed to increase safety.
His story seemed legit. What he didn't know, before relaying the news to me, was that I had heard a similar story just days before. None of the riders were using a helmet. They were riding (illegally) on sidewalks. And, in a town where motorists still honk and curse at bicyclists when they're on the road (because many motorists here still believe bicycles don't belong on the street), there was some discussion about whether scooters had the right to be on the roads at all.
This whole scenario is typical of South Louisiana "progress" ... if that's the operative word. Something new comes along and you can almost hear the complaints from barber shops and salons across the city. This is especially true when it comes to transportation. Some of the most prominent neighborhoods, after all, were built without sidewalks. That was an intentional cost-saving measure that was not seen as a detriment (the conventional wisdom was that sidewalks invited people to walk in your neighborhood ... people who weren't your neighbors). So in this Southern setting, any transportation beyond firing up an automobile is looked at with suspicion.
Perhaps one of the best examples is a story of a woman who decided to begin walking to the health club. After all, she lived only a few blocks away and, since she was going to exercise anyway, it made sense to walk there as a warm up.
Note: This woman lived in one of those Lafayette neighborhoods built, from the ground up, with no sidewalks. And yes, the health club (one of the largest in the nation) is located smack-dab in the middle of that neighborhood with no sidewalks. That's right. She was going to walk as a form of exercise and transportation, to a place of exercise, through a place that was intentionally built to discourage just such a thing.
She walked to the health club, worked out, then walked home. It seemed uneventful. That was, until her husband called her. He said that several friends saw her walking and were worried something was wrong. They asked if her car was broken. They warned him that it's dangerous to walk in that part of town (yeah, one of the nicest neighborhoods in town and it's "dangerous" to walk there ... not because of crime, but because it doesn't have sidewalks). A few of them said she was crazy for thinking she could walk anywhere.
Whether it's electric scooter riders, walkers or cyclists, anyone who attempts to transport themselves in anything but an automobile will stir the rumor mill in Lafayette, Louisiana. And that's what we're left with, these days.
There was a time when you walked through this town (and many others across the country) and noticed people reading the newspaper. Printed. Large-format. Newspaper. Those days are over. Now, also like towns across the country, they're looking at a screen of some sort. And that screen, be it a phone or tablet, has access to even more news than ever before. And there, in the competition for space on the screen, appears headlines about the president, congress, foreign governments, cooking, exercise, and whatever Oprah is up to this week. Noticeably absent from the screens? Local news.
When it was in print, local news dominated the available space. National news was important, but it almost never came first unless something incredibly significant occurred. And the rumor mill existed but was put in check by the paper. It commented on the conversation of the day. It cemented the facts by going to the source. It solved discrepancies between hearsay transfers of second-hand accounts.
Today, the national news does a far better job of competing for screen space. That's because the organizations who build the primary platforms for sharing news want to sell advertising for large audiences. It's an economy of scale situation. The local news still exists but now their updates take up a much smaller percentage of our screens than they did in print, our in-boxes are so full the newsletters have gone to junk or become ineffective, and the postal mail is just a repository for advertisers.
So what's left of local news? The rumors.
Then this happens: One person comments that the scooters are gone. Another person, a few days later, tells a story that it's all about safety and new state laws. And, if you're in-box is full, your social media feed is full of political yelling and screaming, and you read and watch mostly national news from a news app or news page, then you've just stepped back in time to word-of-mouth local news. The rumor mill was always there. Now, for some towns, it's all that's there.
When local news struggles for any attention, what's left is the rumor mill. There's no cemented, end the discussion fact-checker to be the true determination of what's going on. Our local environments are fundamentally different without the dominance of local reporting. If it's drowned out by national conversation, the local conversation suffers.
And when you're walking (or taking a scooter) to the health club to exercise, if you hear someone blow their horn, you can bet that the story they'll be circulating around the city won't be that we need more sidewalks, or that walking is good exercise, or that alternative forms of transportation might actually reduce traffic congestion. No. It'll be about anger and calling people crazy for trying something different. You know. The stuff rumors are made of.