If you say you saw this coming, I don’t believe you. In 2018, electric scooter-share stole the mobility show. They arrived unannounced in cities. They provoked fierce council meetings and protests. They launched debates about who owns sidewalks, anyway, and what role regulators play in bossing around big business. They sucked up VC dollars, mountains of them, as upstarts crowed about the revenue generated per scoot. They got damaged and fixed, they launched their own new gig economy jobs.
Why it happened is part crystal clear, part murky. Thanks to Uber, Lyft, and bike-share programs, the smartphone-toting masses have become more comfortable with the idea of using vehicles they don’t own. Traffic is on the rise (thanks in part to ride-hail!), which no doubt pushed some sick n’tired commuters to try the two-wheeled things that just showed up. The scooters are also easy to ride, even fun. Putting Insta-friendly models and celebrities on the things probably didn’t hurt. (Congratulations to the scooter companies’ marketing teams. Ish.) But why does any trend happen, anyway? Investors got hyped about scooters, so they poured money into it: The Wall Street Journal reports Bird is currently raising money at a $2 billion valuation, and Lime between $2 and $3 billion. Remember, pretty much no one had heard of these companies less than a year ago.
But now, the Journal has reported that investor enthusiasm for scooters has cooled amid questions about the economics of the whole concept. So in 2019, expect scooter companies and scooter-ed cities to get to the grind—and enact some shake-ups. Here are our biggest outstanding questions:
Who will win the hardware throwdown?
In the second year of the post-scooter era, competitors will continue to differentiate themselves by hardware. They will need to make their products easier, safer, more reliable, and more satisfying to use for customers. They need to keep them easy to clean and maintain, and hardy enough to survive for longer on the streets, vandals be damned. (Both companies operating scooters in San Francisco right now have openly admitted that theft and vandalism is a big problem.) The companies also might need to make some modifications to satisfy their real overlords: city governments, which often retain control of the sidewalks and parking spots where scooters rest.
To that end, Lime and Bird both introduced a new generation of scooters this fall, with plans to add sturdier wheels and tech that might help them get a handle on users’ bad behavior. San Francisco-based Skip has rolled out some scoots with retractable locks, to make sure their vehicles don’t get in the way on streets. (Execs say this is a feature that cities worried about sidewalk clutter have asked for.) Scoot has too. Some Skip scooters will also now come with rear-facing cameras, which will help the company monitor whether their riders are complying with local regulations.
Another important innovation, that may or may not appear in 2019: swappable batteries. Uber-owned Jump just announced its next-gen bikes will come with this new-ish tech, which will make operations much easier for its teams. Right now, many companies’ charging is done by freelance “chargers” and “juicers,” who gather bikes and scooters, bring them inside, plug them all in, and put them back on the street once they’re charged up. Swappable batteries would keep the entire fleet on the road. You’d just need a few people to go around popping charged packs into tired rides.
However companies choose to change up their scoots in 2019, know that their goal is to make these things less fun diversion, more legitimate transportation option. As they run out of markets to expand into, there will be fewer and fewer riders who take their products for a spin out of pure curiosity.
“We need to be able to provide robust, reliable service instead of people trying it for fun,” says Lime CEO Toby Sun. (The company began the year as LimeBike—how things have changed.) “We hope to see mass adoption in 2019.”
What do regulators do?
Then there’s whatever city governments decide to do. A year into scootermania, most local officials have moved pretty quickly, at least by their standards. They’ve set up pilot projects to learn more about how scooters might fit into their transportation mix, demanding data so they can examine their biggest questions—who rides these things? Are they accessible to low-income people? Are they fairly distributed throughout the urban streetscape? Do they get in the way?
The problem for scooter companies comes when cities curtail their launches. Many governments have capped the number of the vehicles, with the rationale that they’d like to understand them better before they let them go wherever they want. But caps make the network difficult for customers to use—I can never find one when I want one!—and make the entire business less workable as the companies struggle with economies of scale. Other startups have been banned entirely from city streets. Witness San Francisco, which allows just two companies to operate, and only for a limited one-year pilot. (Lime, which did not win a permit there, is vigorously protesting the process.)
Scoot-friendly infrastructure is also mostly out of companies’ control. That’s unfortunate, because research finds that some people (women, especially) will not ride alternative vehicles in mixed traffic, amongst the multi-ton caprice of cars. Most companies have offered funding to build protected scoot- and bike-lanes themselves, but governments can get hamstrung by the things that always hamstring governments: vociferous neighborhood opposition, lawsuit threats, the near-unbelievable cost that comes with just putting paint and planters down on roads. So yes: The future of scooters is also full of lobbying.
What will the research say?
2019 will also be the year that everyone learns more about what scooters are actually doing on city streets. One nice about scooter-government relations thus far is that city halls have managed to extract more serious promises about data-sharing than they ever did with the companies leading the last wave of transportation disruption—Uber and Lyft chief among them. Now, companies are even working with officials on open data standards that will make their wheeled things easier to track. (Of course, those companies now include Uber and Lyft.) Which means there’ll be info for researchers to work with.
The biggest question those folks will ask is probably, are these scooter genuine transportation options, or overblown toys? Are they replacing car trips and making it easier for people to connect to public transit, or are they replacing walking for riders who are in a hurry and maybe a little lazy? How much are they actually reducing emissions? Thus far, outsiders have to rely on the companies’ own internal data for these all-important queries. Soon, though, there should be more impartial sources of information.