I was walking down the street the other day, and saw myself sharing the sidewalk with an unexpected companion. Parked next to me was an e-scooter, and not a Bird or Lime scooter. It was a new company I’d never seen before named "Link."
In 2019, the streets were littered with sharable electronic scooters and bikes. They were weaving through traffic, zipping past walkers on the sidewalk, and blasting through stop signs. It seemed no traffic laws applied to the scooters, but there’s no doubt they were popular. Different parts of the country were exposed to different brands, but San Diego seemed to start with Lime. Then Bird showed up and became the majority. In the months prior to the pandemic, other brands had become common. Lyft got their foot in the game, as did Jump by Uber. There was also a company named Spin and Razor got involved with the modern scooter game.
When the pandemic hit, it felt as if these scooters vanished. They never truly felt sanitary prior to the pandemic. After COVID cases began to rise, it was viewed as hazardous to be picking up a scooter off the street and riding it around town. As such, there were almost no scooters on the street for the bulk of 2020.
Seeing my first Link scooter reminded me of the traffic that will return as we approach normalcy. Companies are positioning e-scooters for a return to popularity. Part of the reason e-scooters became popular was the fact that they were just there. Every time I set foot outside, I was within 50 feet of a ride. Companies are placing there scooters all over the cities once again. Now that they’re visible in public, will people hop back onto the trend?
The Problem With eScooters
The concept of an e-scooter is designed to emphasize convenience. They’re considered “dockless,” meaning users unlock them by scanning a QR code. Riders can end their trip and put the scooter wherever they desire. It can be on the sidewalk, in a parking spot, or the middle of a crosswalk. In San Diego, they started to paint banks next to the street parking as designated e-scooter parking. This helped somewhat, but it’s not a foolproof system. Plus, it kind of defeats the purpose of riding a dockless e-scooter. If you need to find a special spot to park the scooter, the convenience of riding is reduced.
There’s also the challenge of integrating these scooters into existing traffic. The scooters are technically motorized vehicles, but they’re not capable of reaching the speed of a car. However, they’re much faster than foot traffic. When riders are on the sidewalk, the scooters become a burden. People need to squeeze to the side to create space for passing scooters. Perhaps the worst part of dealing with scooter traffic is differentiating between street traffic and sidewalk traffic. It’s up to the rider, and they often choose whichever is most convenient in the moment. This means they’re riding on the sidewalk until they get a “no walking” signal. Then, they flex into the street traffic.
These problems make it difficult for pedestrians dealing with scooter riders, which then imposes a burden on cities. Now, cities are enacting laws to restrict scooter traffic. E-scooter companies are going to need to adapt to ever-changing laws. Some will have minimal impact, such as a ban on boardwalk traffic. Other laws could make it nearly impossible for riders to quickly pick up a scooter and go. Right now, California doesn’t enforce a helmet law on scooters. If this type of law was enforced, the risk of riding an e-scooter would outweigh the convenience.
Right now, apps tend to take measures to encourage safe riding. They want you to wear a helmet and follow local traffic laws. Does anyone pay attention to these rules? Probably not. If you’re riding a Bird scooter, you probably weren’t preparing for the venture with a helmet. Similarly, you might not even know local traffic laws for scooters.
The concept of dockless scooters seems like a good opportunity to improve mobility in cities where driving isn’t opportune but walking may not be time efficient. When you consider how this service will integrate into the existing traffic, it becomes an extra layer of complexity. Then, there’s the challenge of maintaining the scooters and abiding by local laws. Prior to the pandemic, cities were making efforts to demonstrate that e-scooters were unwelcome, but that wasn’t stopping new companies from entering the competition.
Is There Money in the Scooter Market?
Prior to the pandemic, you could walk down a street in San Diego. Within about five minutes you’d pass two dozen e-scooters. Clearly the market was growing, but were the scooters actually making money?
The answer isn’t clear, but it doesn’t seem very lucrative. Bird and Lime are privately funded, so their profits aren’t public. However, the business model is clear to any user. They scan a QR code and unlock the scooter for a small fee, usually about $1. Then, riders are charged $0.10-$0.25 per minute on the scooter. A 10 minute ride down the street is about $3. The scooters aren’t particularly cheap to produce, at a reported price of $375 per vehicle. It will take many rides before a company can even cover the cost of the scooter itself.
This is before maintenence and charging are factored into the equation. Companies rely on the public to charge the devices, paying individuals a small about for each scooter charged. If Bird pays $5 for a scooter to be charged at night, that’s a decrease in the daily profit. Plus, it’s common to find damaged scooters. This added expenses to an already questionable business model.
However, these “micromobility” companies are venture-backed. They were in the process of proving there’s a market for dockless scooters and growing as rapidly as possible. Smaller companies probably hoped to get acquired, and short term profits were overshadowed by a bigger picture. That big picture didn’t have a pandemic in it.
The Scooter Market Toppled
When the pandemic struck, many companies panicked. Lockdowns began at an awful time for companies like Bird and Lime because it was the start of Spring 2020. In California, scooters can be ridden year round. In other markets like New York, this was the time of the year when travelling on a scooter became feasible again. Suddenly, all those plans were cancelled.
(photo via LAist)
Wayne Ting, chief executive at Lime, stated that the company lost 95% of its profits in Spring 2020. Bird was clearly hurting as well. They infamously laid off 406 employees in 2 minutes via a Zoom meeting. On one hand this looks like a cold move. On the other hand, duh. Their model can’t exisit when cities are being locked down and travel is being restricted.
This threw the micromobility market off track. In 2019, it was predicted that the market could be worth nearly half a trillion dollars by 2030. This would include expansion in European and Asian markets, but that expansion can’t happen without employees working and scooters on streets.
In the second half of 2020, I started to see some Bird and Lime scooters reemerge on the streets. Their presence was much smaller, and the number of riders are far fewer. Now, those parking banks remain mostly vacant. Each week I see a couple more scooters, and we’ve reached a point where companies are positioning for a return.
Can The e-Scooter Market Return?
For companies like Bird and Lime, the return to popularity will likely be slow. The pandemic hit the industry hard and added more barriers to an already challenging business model. However, it doesn’t seem impossible for micromobility to recover. Whether you ride them or not, e-scooters are going to stay on the streets.
The biggest challenge will be combatting sanitation. Most people will hold a level of uncertainty in a post-pandemic world. Picking up a scooter off the street seems like a bad idea, and it will be a challenge for companies. Likely, their approach will require them to change some strategies. They may cater more to a younger crowd, potentially a college-aged demographic. These riders may be less weary of using a scooter they found on the street. They can also focus on other benefits of riding an electric scooter. Most specifically, they could double down on eco-friendly initiatives. This will highlight a benefit of micromobility and entice people to ride again.
At the moment, the challenge is gaining visibility. New scooters are being placed in cities, but there’s no benefit if people aren’t riding. In 2020, Lime introduced subscription models. A single monthly fee can unlock unlimited rides. Not only will this help to produce revenue, it will also force people to look at e-scooters again. While many people find e-scooter riders annoying, you do have to pay attention to them. The more people who ride, the harder it is to ignore.
In early 2021, Bird and Lime joined other companies in the Micromobility for Europe coalition. This attempts to create more unified regulations for riders on e-scooters and bikes. European expansion is part of the longterm growth for companies like Bird and Lime, and they want to make sure they have the ability to perform in these foreign markets.
We have every indication that e-scooters want to stick around. Companies haven’t given up their electric dream yet, and 2021 is continuosuly showing signs of a return. It’s not like riding an e-scooter was particularly safe in 2019. Now that regulations are being lifted, people may continue to throw caution to the wind. The only question is whether or not this is too little too late.