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Privately Owned Scooter Companies Don’t Have a Future

Whether you hate or love the scooters clogging the sidewalks of many cities in the United States and around the world, one thing is clear: the terms of their use need to be decided democratically, by the public.

People ride Bird shared dockless electric scooters along Venice Beach on August 13, 2018 in Los Angeles, California. Mario Tama / Getty

For decades, cars have dominated the streets, relegating pedestrians and cyclists to the fringes. But in recent years, more and more people have become fed up with traffic and the struggle to pay for a car. Cities are increasing investing in transit, cycling, and pedestrian infrastructure. But no attempt to meet these challenges has been more visible than electric scooters.

Nearly two years ago, dockless e-scooters started appearing on the sidewalks of major cities across the United States, eventually fanning out to Europe, Asia, Australia, and beyond. In most American cities, the companies didn’t bother getting permits or checking their services would be legal; they just dropped off their scooters, provoking what some journalists dubbed the “scooter wars.”

Cities scrambled to update regulations and implement permitting programs, as residents complained about scooters blocking sidewalks (a major issue for accessibility of wheelchair users, people of limited mobility of all kinds, and pedestrians attempting to use sidewalks), users hitting them as they walked, and the scooters themselves being unreliable and causing injury. Scooters have accelerated a conversation about the future of the streets. But their imposition on public space has been troubling. And as more details come out about the economics of scooter companies, it’s clear they will eventually have to become a public service if they are to survive at all — a shift that will grant cities more control over them.

 

Elite Bias

It’s not just scooters; tech companies have become very interested in all forms of transportation. In cities everywhere, Uber and its ride-hailing peers have made congestion worse, increased vehicle travel, and declared war on transit. Uber’s eventual solution is to start offering flying cars for people to escape the problem it helped reach a breaking point, while Elon Musk wants to send cars underground in a system of tunnels, because any future that doesn’t involve everyone in a personal vehicle is simply beyond the realm of possibility for the world’s biggest genius.

These visions of the future are constrained by the elite position of the people making them. Transport consultant Jarrett Walker has called tech’s inability to accept that the spatial constraints of cities cannot be solved by technology an example of “elite projection,” failing to recognize that what works best for them might not work if it’s used by everyone. (Elon Musk responded by calling him an idiot.) But this isn’t the first time that people pushing the transport narrative have been unable to recognize their biases.

In a prescient 1973 essay, social philosopher André Gorz described the automobile as a luxury product whose promise of speed did not work when everyone had one: “Having promised everyone they would be able to go faster, the automobile industry ends up with the unrelentingly predictable result that everyone has to go as slowly as the very slowest, at a speed determined by the simple laws of fluid dynamics.” Despite decades of building new roads and widening highways, the problem of congestion cannot be solved because every attempt simply attracts more and more cars.

Mass automobility, Gorz wrote, is “an absolute triumph of bourgeois ideology,” because it “supports in everyone the illusion that each individual can seek his or her own benefit at the expense of everyone else.” After destroying the alternatives and killing the city to make room for cars, people were left with no alternative. But after several decades of that status quo, the tide is turning against automobility.

The decisions around what that future looks like can’t, however, simply be left to another group of aloof billionaires driven by capital accumulation rather than what’s best for promoting equitable and livable communities.

Private Scooter “Sharing” Doesn’t Work

The influx of scooters has not been a complete disaster. They forced an important conversation about public space and who has a right to the street, and made it easy for thousands of people to try e-bikes and e-scooters as an alternative to their current commuting patterns. But the result can’t simply be to let scooter companies define the parameters, which will inevitably privilege their expropriation of public infrastructure for private profit, as ride-hailing companies continue to do.

Even though the companies would like people to believe otherwise, the long-term viability of private dockless scooter and e-bike services is very suspect. Just as Uber continues to lose vast sums of money ten years after its founding with no prospect of profitability in the foreseeable future, the scooter companies are also struggling to get a grip on their finances — but at a much earlier stage of their existence.

Scooter companies like Bird and Lime have successfully raised hundreds of millions in venture capital, but they’re burning through that money, and investors aren’t being as free with their bank accounts as they were with Uber. Bird CEO Travis VanderZanden has said that while the focus for 2018 was scale, 2019 is about improving unit economics, but it’s unclear how well that’s going. Scooters are notorious for their short lifespans in fleets.

VanderZanden previously said that scooters will need to last six months in Bird’s fleet in order for the company to break even, and even though he claims the newer, more “rugged” models will last ten to twelve months, the independent data doesn’t back him up. Bird scooters in Louisville, Kentucky, lasted an average of only 28.8 days between August and December 2018, and 126 days between January and April 2019 in Los Angeles — far below what’s necessary.

Even worse, the data from Los Angeles found that the newest scooter model on the streets at the time, the Bird Zero, had a shorter than average lifespan of only 116 days. Lime is having similar trouble, with its newest model, the Gen 3, suffering significant maintenance issues that may make the hoped-for cost savings illusive. Even with the claims of longer lasting scooters, Bird hiked prices in a bunch of cities in April, creating further questions about whether its product strategy is working out as hoped.

Things aren’t much better for dockless e-bikes. Uber subsidiary Jump has also been increasing its prices recently, going so far as to double them from $0.15 to $0.30 per minute in Los Angeles. That compares to just $1.75 per 30 minutes or $17 per month for all rides under 30 minutes for L.A. Metro’s public bike-share system, which has been adding more e-bikes and allows them to be locked to bike racks instead of docks in some parts of the city.

These private services are already more expensive than existing public systems for anyone who uses them regularly, and these price hikes will only make them more of a niche product — at a time when they still can’t cover their costs. Public data from Austin, Texas shows that daily trips per scooter are declining and 80 percent of rides are clustered in a district with only 10 percent of the population.

Like ride-hailing services, their prices will inevitably have to rise further to achieve profitability, putting them out of reach of most residents. The private model simply does not work.

Public Mobility for Equitable Cities

If scooter rentals have a future, they will inevitably have to be integrated into public bike-share systems through a hybrid model that primarily relies on docks, but allows dockless use in areas without good dock coverage. They will also have to be paired with a plan for the expansion of infrastructure where bikes and scooters can be used without having to inconvenience pedestrians, which will mean taking road and parking space currently allotted to cars. (It would also be nice if these shifts were accompanied by a public education campaign to convince scooter users not to ride like assholes.)

Simply painting a few squares where private companies can drop off their dockless vehicles isn’t enough, and accepts their presence as fait accompli. These companies will weaponize the all-too-common neoliberal refrain that this, like so many other urban public services, should be left to the private market. But they have already proven that they do not place the public’s priorities before their own goals of market dominance and capture of public space. They have proven not to be partners but invaders.

It may, however, prove that scooters do not work well in a fleet, whether publicly or privately managed, and cities should not hesitate to further restrict the services in favor of ownership if that’s the case. The rising prices of dockless scooter services are already incentivizing regular users to buy their own, as they start at only a few hundred dollars and are more portable than a bicycle. Incentives could be used to encourage the purchase of e-scooters and e-bikes; the latter have proven popular in Sweden and will soon be offered in British Columbia to people who ditch their cars.

Ownership should not be seen as a failure. Tech platforms have embraced a rentier business model “where an asset owner charges others to access that asset, just as a landlord charges tenants to rent a home the landlord owns,” and scooter “sharing” is no exception. Encouraging ownership of bikes and scooters for regular users is the preferable outcome, as they’ll last much longer and will always be available to their owner. It doesn’t matter if that doesn’t align with the preferences of Silicon Valley capitalists.

A transition away from automobile dominance is necessary not just to meet environmental goals, but to create more equitable cities by reallocating street space currently captured by cars for active transport and urban public spaces, as Oslo did when it removed most on-street parking and restricted vehicle use in its downtown core.

Scooter companies have helped to accelerate this conversation, but their private model has the wrong priorities, making a democratically controlled and expanded public system essential. However, public mobility must be embedded in a larger socialist program for cities to ensure improving livability doesn’t simply result in gentrification that pushes those who would benefit most into sprawling, auto-dependent suburbs. Mobility is just one aspect to creating cities for all, not just those who can afford skyrocketing urban rents.