The rise of micro-mobility companies has been well documented over the last few years with companies like Ofo and Mobike in China and Citi Bike and Jump Bikes in the US providing consumers with convenient options for last-mile transportation. All these companies have gone on to raise venture capital or be acquired, showcasing both the consumer and investor demand for last-mile transportation solutions. In 2018, this micro-mobility trend was re-energized with the emergence of the shared and dockless electric scooter (e-scooter for short), pioneered by Lime and Bird in the US. These e-scooters quickly found such strong product-market fit that Bird and Lime became the fastest ever US companies to reach billion dollar valuations, with each achieving this milestone within a year of inception. The trend of e-scooter companies quickly scaling into large companies has continued into 2019 with Grin and Yellow announcing a merger to form the strongest micro-mobility competitor in LatAm less than a year after they were founded. (Disclosure: Base10 is an investor in Grin and Yellow). Moreover, additional e-scooter companies from all over the world – Skip, Spin, Scoot, PopScoot, Beam, Tier Mobility, Wind Mobility, Voi Technology, Vogo, Dott, and Flash – all recently announced large capital raises. In Europe alone, five e-scooter companies have emerged and raised over $150 million of capital since the start of 2018.
However, negative headlines about e-scooters ending up in lakes and oceans, congesting sidewalks, being stolen, causing injuries, and experiencing intense competition have tempered the narrative and suggest e-scooters are not the best micro-mobility option after all. There is even talk of a “scootergeddon.” Despite all the positive funding news and frequent use by consumers, plenty of questions remain about the viability of e-scooters as a long-term micro-mobility solution.
Do cities need electric scooters?
Megacities worldwide are facing an epidemic of congestion and pollution caused by rapid urbanization that is increasing gridlock and putting severe pressure on public transportation systems. 46% of car traffic in the US is caused by cars on trips less than three miles and micro-mobility solutions could help alleviate a significant portion of this last-mile gridlock. Data from INRIX suggests the average commuter in the US spent 42 hours in traffic congestion in 2014.
But do cities actually want e-scooters, or other micro-mobility solutions?
It depends which city you ask. However, what most cities agree with is that e-scooters, electric bikes, and pedal bikes, whether docked or dockless, are viable solutions to help alleviate traffic congestion, especially at rush hours, and they are excited about that. (Note: based on multiple conversations with senior MTA officials across the country). The main concerns with micro-mobility vehicles, and e-scooters in particular, are safety and whether cities current infrastructure can support the massive influx of these vehicles. Common questions include “how do we keep the e-scooters from being parked where we don’t want them?” and ”how do we modify our bike lanes to keep e-scooter riders and bike riders safe while also keeping enough sidewalk space for pedestrians?”
Most of the large micro-mobility companies have been working with cities to address these concerns including using electronic geo-zones to prevent riders from either riding in an unsafe area or parking in an area where the city doesn’t want them to park (this could also be used to prevent people from riding on sidewalks), and e-scooter companies require riders to be 18 years or older and with a valid driver’s license scanned before you can open an account.
Additionally, municipal transportation data companies like Remix and Swiftly, who help cities plan bus routes and track their vehicles in real time, are beginning to develop products and dashboards for transportation authorities to track and analyze all micro-mobility vehicles across platforms to see where they all are located, where the broken ones are, and where their use is being concentrated at any given time. It will take time and a track record of safety and compliance, which is not guaranteed, for most cities to believe micro-mobility companies do better good than harm, but through data, cooperation, and intelligent regulation, the chances that cities become more open to these solutions should increase.
Do people actually like e-scooters as much as they like other micro-mobility solutions?
Docked bikes, dockless bikes, and e-bikes are all popular last-mile transportation methods. However, if you have been to Santa Monica or San Diego on a sunny day, you would have seen hundreds of locals and visitors race to find any open e-scooter before going to a nearby dockless bike. Data from Lime showing how fast they reached one million and six million e-scooter rides sheds some light on the product-market fit of e-scooters, especially when compared with rideshare over a similar point in each solutions lifecycle.
Additionally, 30% of riders report using e-scooters to replace car rides on their most recent trip, signaling the positive impact micro-mobility solutions can have on reducing congestion.
Micro-mobility and e-scooter demand is also not exclusive to the US. As noted above, Tier Mobility, Wind Mobility, Voi Technology, Dott, and Flash are all European based e-scooter startups who have recently raised more than $150 million over the last several months alone. Part of the reason they have been able to raise such large amounts of capital is due to Lime and Bird’s success in European cities like Paris, Madrid, London, and Vienna.
But are they safe?
It is being reported that ER rooms are seeing an uptick in e-scooter related injuries, but the reports also say most are due to rider neglect such as multi-riders on one e-scooter or riders using their phone while riding. To combat this, e-scooter companies have safety videos on their website and there is also a safety tutorial when riders first sign up for each app and safety instructions clearly labeled on the e-scooters themselves. Accident rates will likely decline as riders become more familiar with e-scooters, especially when considering they have only been on the streets for a year.
Aren’t theft and vandalism a big problem for dockless micro-mobility solutions?
Currently, yes. Vandalism and theft are a byproduct of placing hundreds of dockless micro-mobility vehicles across major cities. However, micro-mobility companies are seeing a decline in theft and vandalism as they move to negate the problem. To date, most of this has come from innovative oversight efforts and anticipating where issues are likely to occur. In the future, technological advances around security that incorporate things like remote monitors and improved locking systems should further help alleviate the problem.
Can e-scooter companies be profitable?
Early e-scooter unit economics have been inconsistent and subject to seasonality, so it is too early to say one way or another. However, previously announced tech innovations by some manufacturers should help to reduce unit costs and increase useful life.
The most important of these tech innovations seem to be:
- Increased battery life and / or interchangeable rechargeable batteries, which will significantly reduce the cost of juicers.
- Sturdier e-scooters with better materials, efficient construction, and larger wheels which will increase e-scooter life by a factor of 2x or more.
Since Bird put the first e-scooters on the streets at the beginning of 2018, the vast majority of shared e-scooters have been manufactured by Segway, a subsidiary of Chinese hardware manufacturer Xiaomi, and InMotion. Xiaomi and InMotion e-scooters, however, were not initially designed to be shared and have enjoyed a near duopoly in the industry which has deterred either from spending significant R&D on e-scooter innovation. This is changing as new entrants are offering improved models. These new entrants should kick start innovation and competition among manufacturers that will hopefully increase scooter life and unit economics as a result.
So why don’t Uber and Lyft just dominate micro-mobility?
They’re certainly trying. Uber bought Jump Bikes and invested in Lime and was recently rumored to be in acquisition talks with Bird while Lyft bought Citi Bike and has already launched their own e-scooters and is currently operating across several US cities. However, despite what Lyft and Uber eventually do, there remains an opportunity for the larger independent micro-mobility companies to leverage their operating experience into an advantage against the rideshare competitors as municipal transportation authorities will likely emphasize certain characteristics in the micro-mobility partners they choose to work with. These include:
- Recognized by users as a dependable last-mile transport alternative and with operations in many cities across geographies.
- Unique experience operating complex e-scooter or dockless bike networks where they are learning how to increase safety and efficiency in real time (something Uber or Lyft can only replicate with the requisite experience).
- Pre-existing relationships with other regulatory authorities who can validate their ability to operate successfully and safely in cities across the world.
Nonetheless, even if the large independent micro-mobility companies possess these characteristics, there is certainly a strong argument that the endgame for all the independent micro-mobility players is to combine and / or partner with rideshare companies or risk losing significant market share. The idea of a consumer being able to open their Uber or Lyft app and compare ride times and cost against an Uber car ride, Jump Bike ride, or e-scooter ride all from one app is a very powerful idea.
One more thing…this might actually be all about payments?
“The next phase of micro-mobility is meeting the localized needs of the mass market consumer with new services like payments and food delivery,” said Hans Tung, managing partner, GGV Capital, an investor in Grow, Grab, Lime, Hello Chuxing, and Didi who has seen this strategy play out around the world.
Micro-mobility companies like Grin and Yellow in unbanked and underbanked countries are offering convenient digital wallets and digital payment functionality. These companies will allow customers to purchase ride credits with cash, usually at a discount, and then allow them to use these ride credits for other purchases and payments like utility bills, shops, and restaurants, as well as for money transfers between friends. Similar to past examples, it is possible the winners of the micro-mobility wars in under and unbanked populations will have an opportunity to build a large financial business on top of their micro-mobility businesses.
There have been several examples of high adoption consumer platforms in similar geographies that have created payment platforms and been incredibly successful. Two prominent examples are Alipay, which was incubated by Alibaba, and GrabPay, which was incubated by Grab. GrabPay has been a huge catalyst for SE Asia rideshare company Grab, which recently raised $1B from Toyota at a $10B valuation. Grab Co-founder, Hooi Ling Tan, said in June she expects GrabPay to eventually generate 20x the revenue for Grab that rideshare does. The highly engaged and frequent user base of the leading micro-mobility companies holds enormous potential for the emergence of payment solutions on top of these platforms.
In conclusion, no matter what side of the micro-mobility and e-scooter argument you fall on, the data indicates society needs a viable last-mile alternative to the current transportation options that are congesting and polluting the world’s most populous cities. Time will tell if the best last-mile alternative ends up being e-scooters, dockless bikes, or some new form of transportation yet to hit the streets.