The electric scooter craze is officially one year old — what’s next?September 20, 2018
The electric scooter frenzy is turning one. The two companies that kicked off the new transit trend when they first started dropping motorized scooters on city streets without permission a year ago — Bird and Lime — are celebrating their first 12 months (or in Lime’s case, 14 months) in operation by touting strong ridership numbers and renewed promises to work collaboratively with cities. The companies are also reflecting on what comes next for this much-hyped and certainly polarizing new mode of transportation.
But while the scooter startups are busy patting themselves on the back for a year of solid growth, they are also keeping a nervous eye on the moves of Uber and Lyft, which are looking to take big bites out of their market share. Earlier this month, Lyft launched its first scooter sharing service in Denver. Next was Santa Monica, where Uber is also expected to drop its first scooters. Other startups are growing aggressively, which suggests the early pioneers can’t afford any missteps if they hope to maintain their pole position.
Bird first launched its scooter sharing service in Santa Monica in September 2017. Since then, it has grown to over 100 cities, facilitated over 10 million rides, and raised cash at an unprecedented pace. It recently became the fastest startup to achieve a $2 billion valuation.
If Uber and Lyft were the first phase of ride-sharing, then electric scooters represent “ride-sharing 2.0,” said Bird CEO Travis VanderZanden in an interview with The Verge. As Bird enters its second year, VanderZanden says the company is “doubling down” on its recently announced “GovTech” collaboration with cities, in an effort to make shared e-scooters “the most community-focused, people-friendly, car-reducing, and safest mobility solution.”
VanderZaden said he had no idea how popular the scooters would be when he launched Bird a year ago — nor did he anticipate the fierce backlash. “I certainly didn’t expect it to be as polarizing,” he said. “And I didn’t think we would be able to do 10 million rides.” Lyft only did 1 million rides in its first 15 months, VanderZaden notes by comparison.
“It doesn’t mean we don’t have a lot of work ahead to work with cities to see how do we make it less polarizing,” he added. Dedicated parking, so scooters aren’t left blocking sidewalks or littered in front of businesses that don’t want them, is one challenge. To that end, Bird recently unveiled a miniature “parklet” in Santa Monica that could serve as a model for the future.
As electric scooters return to Santa Monica, Bird is offering a glimpse of the micro-parks it plans to build as a condition of its city permit. Best part imo is that it actively takes space away from cars. (1-2 on-street parking spots) pic.twitter.com/moW1O9ybbt
— Andrew J. Hawkins (@andyjayhawk) September 17, 2018
Building a better, more rugged scooter is another goal. VanderZanden said Bird is working on its future vehicle now, which includes a 55 percent more powerful battery, more durable shaft, fewer exposed cables, and solid core tires. The present model isn’t really designed for heavy fleet use, and problems with the supply chain could slow down Bird’s growth, according to The Information.
Bird’s main competitor, Lime, is celebrating its own milestone. After 14 months in operation, the San Francisco-based company says it hit 11.5 million rides on its shared scooters and bikes. It took Lime just one year to get to 6 million rides, and another two months after that to nearly double that figure.
Like Bird, Lime operates in 100 cities across the globe, and the company plans to expand into 50 new markets before the end of the year. Lime is particularly focused on launching in global markets: it recently landed in Paris, and it’s eyeing other international cities for launch, too.
All of this probably sounds familiar to anyone who has been following the ride-hailing industry for the last half-decade. In the early days, Uber’s mantra was “growth above all else.” Launch in a city unannounced, win over customers despite protests from regulators and established players, then beg for forgiveness. The scooter companies followed that playbook in the early months.
Uber was especially good at congratulating itself every time it hit a new trip milestone: 1 billion rides, 2 billion, 5 billion, etc. Earlier this month, Lyft completed its one billionth trip. These are nice, round numbers that are obviously worth celebrating, but they’re largely meaningless compared to more tangible metrics like gross bookings, revenue, and profit.
It’s also not the numbers that are most relevant to cities. How these companies deal with local governments going forward will remain a sticking point for the scooter industry. The earliest markets, like San Francisco and Los Angeles, have introduced new regulatory schemes to better manage the distribution and deployment of dock-less scooters on their streets. Other cities are following suit, ordering the scooter companies to pack up their fleets until regulators can finalize new permitting rules.
“What’s been most surprising from a public perspective is the pace at which the e-scooters are being formalized into cities,” Juan Matute, deputy director of the UCLA Institute of Transportation Studies, said in an email. “They provide a direct and tangible mobility benefit. Now a year after launch, Santa Monica, San Francisco, Los Angeles and other cities have formalized their existence. The public sector doesn’t always move that fast, but I think that it has is estimate to the e-scooters viability as a beneficial, zero emissions, low-footprint mode for places seeking to move beyond the dominance of the automobile.”
As scooter-related injuries rise and personal-injury attorneys circle, cities are demanding more detailed safety plans from the scooter startups. The Washington Post recently reported that ER doctors in seven cities said they are seeing spikes in severe accidents after scooters launched on their streets. VanderZanden said all of Bird’s scooters are capped at 15 mph, whether cities require it or not. And the company also introduced “geo-speed limiting” feature, so the scooters automatically slow down to 8 mph when, for example, entering the beach bike path of Santa Monica.
Cities also want access to anonymize data, such as the number scooters operating on their streets and the types of trips (starting and ending locations) that riders are making, as they think about how these new devices fit into their overall transportation systems. Bird and Lime both say they are willing to share that data. But they’re still coming to terms with new restrictions imposed by cities.
“They’re a weird new category of small transportation that’s also super fun and helps fill the gap in existing transportation networks,” said Mike Ramsey, a mobility analyst at Gartner. “All that said, Uber and Lyft created clear lessons. And cities are snapping back on this. Laws are being created. The fun will be wrung out of the scooters to a certain extent.”