Last week’s “Micromobility America” conference near San Francisco was the first physical trade show I’ve attended since the arrival of the virus, helped by the fact that a lot of it took place outside, since a fair bit of the activity was trying out new scooters and e-bikes offered by the industry. What was interesting though, was to see how this industry has changed after suffering a big hit at the start of the pandemic, when people were scared of even grabbing the handlebars of a scooter somebody else had just ridden.
We’ve learned that the virus rarely spreads by contact, and in fact now people may prefer a bike or scooter to a crowded bus or subway if the weather approves, and companies are bouncing back. Last year, Lime declared it was cash flow positive in the last quarter, and other scooter companies posted much better results compared to the early days when they bled investor money on scooters that were barely lasting a month in the field and gigworkers to charge and repair the devices.
It is telling that at least 3 exhibitors were promoting hardware and software to make their scooters better behaved for cities. This included systems to make sure people park the scooters correctly, rather than leaving them lying around, and even to discourage them from riding on sidewalks. Early scooter efforts got a lot of negative pushback from cities over issues like these, and cities are demanding the companies do better or get booted out — thus the demand for such devices. Companies are also starting to put locks on scooters, either because of regulations or because they naturally limit how and where they are parked, and reduce theft. (At the same time, such scooters can start flooding bike racks so cities have to take care in what they mandate.)
More and more designs of scooters and bikes feature batteries that can be removed (with the right keys.) Instead of having gig works wander out and grab scooters to take them home and charge them for a bounty, more full-time staff are just going out and swapping batteries if the scooter doesn’t need moving. This is much more energy efficient, particularly if the battery swapper rides an electric scooter or other green vehicle. In the past, the gasoline to take the scooter somewhere to charge could use more energy than the scooter spent moving customers around.
Scooters are now also being designed for longer life and easier maintenance, and theft is down simply due to the passage of time.
That’s good news, because micromobility is ridiculous green. Typical vehicles move a person for less than 20 watt-hours per mile. Compare that to the New York MTA Subway — the most efficient transit system in the USA — which uses about 160 watt-hours per passenger-mile, or an electric car with 2 people in it, which uses about 125 watt-hours per passenger-mile. (City buses don’t use electricity, but if you had to convert, the average transit bus in the USA uses about 1/35th of a gallon of diesel per passenger-mile, which if burned to make electricity would work out to about 400 watt-hours per passenger-mile.)
Scooters and e-bikes take up very little road space and parking space, as long as they are parked reasonably well. They’re a big win if they can be a reasonable business.
It’s the proposition of bikeshare operator Drop Mobility that they aren’t a good business. Taking an eBike from a service like Lyft’s “Bay Wheels” runs about $12/hour with monthly membership. If a person spends 40 minutes round trip in their bike commute, that’s over $8/day, which is quite a bit more than the (heavily subsidized) transit fares, particularly with a monthly pass. They believe the best model is for cities to subsidize bike share and make rides compete with the also subsidized transit to get more people onto bikes. Many other companies feel they can make a go of it, without subsidies, though most would probably take them given the chance.
For a long time bikeshare systems have relied on large sponsors who want their names plastered on the bikes and their docking stations, but it’s not clear how sustainable that is, either — though a recent new sponsored effort in London added 800 e-Bikes which are free for 10 minutes and 15p/minute thereafter. This reversal of the normal $1 or larger “flag drop” just to start will be interesting to observe. In general, e-Bikes are soaring in popularity both for private ownership, monthly rental and replacement of non-powered bikeshare, which lost the popularity war to kick scooters. While regular bikes are good exercise and green for most riders, people like not having to do the work. The consumer e-Bike world is exploding with vast numbers of different brands and a very wide price range — one can easily pay from $500 to $5,000, though most agree that below $1,000 lacks quality. As the vehicles get made in large quantities, like cars, quality units should become quite affordable.
There was also some minimobility at the event in the form of the Arcimoto