- A woman rides a Bird scooter in Los Angeles.
- This year marks the first spring and summer where well-funded scooter startups, such as Bird and Lime, will be fully operational in Europe.
- It’s an important test because more people are likely to choose to hop on scooters as the weather warms up.
- But these companies are fighting multiple regulatory battles around the world, as various cities try to stem a flood of scooters either through licensing schemes or banning them altogether.
- City regulators have, by now, heard lots of talk about the future of mobility from well-funded companies such as Uber, Mobike, Ofo, and Taxify who then caused major headaches.
- Business Insider spoke to scooter startups Bird and Wind to find out how they will balance expansion with avoiding their predecessors’ mistakes.
The story is, by now, familiar.
An ambitious, multi-billion dollar company thinks it can help solve one of the biggest problems facing humanity right now: Climate change.
Too many people rely on driving their cars to get to work, the argument goes, and that’s bad for city congestion, air pollution, the planet, and overall health and happiness.
This bolshy, well-funded upstart says it has the right solution, if only your city would consider changing the rules.
Its name? Uber, Taxify, Mobike, Obike, Ofo, Bird, Lime – delete as applicable.
Scooters are the third wave of companies promising a radical change to city commuting
The summer of 2019 promises to be the summer of scooters, at least in Europe.
Bird, the California poster child of the scooter startups, only launched in Europe in July 2018. Rival Lime similarly only expanded in June 2018. European peers, such as Sweden’s Voi and Berlin’s Wind, have also expanded through 2018.
In other words, this will be the first time big, well-funded scooter startups are fully operational during Europe’s warmest season – and it’s a crucial test. Scooter firms expect that the warm weather will herald an increase in demand, since people are more likely to zip around outdoors while it’s sunny.
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“Springtime is where it gets really exciting,” Matt Turzo, EMEA chief operating officer for Wind, told Business Insider. “These last few weeks, as the weather turns, have been enormous. People see Wind scooters are they walk around the city. The weather is so nice, they just jump on them.”
But this crop of startups will need to prove to regulators they can handle the additional load, both in terms of wear-and-tear on vehicles, and ensuring scooters aren’t just dumped around cities.
They will also need to prove they’re different from some of their predecessors in mobility.
- Former Uber CEO Travis Kalanick, who was widely perceived to have encouraged a culture of rule-breaking.
- Thomson Reuters
London’s regulators, for example, may well be feeling jaded after several waves of venture-backed companies arrived promising to relieve the city’s congestion and instead caused further headaches, or simply disappeared.
The capital’s transport regulator had a lengthy fight with Uber over safety issues, and ended up granting the company only a temporary licence for London.
The regulator separately banned rival Taxify, which skirted the city’s licensing rules.
Then the Chinese bikesharing giants Mobike, oBike, and Ofo arrived, promising to get the city’s population exercising. Obike dumped bikes all over London without asking local authorities, then shut up shop a year later. Mobike pulled out of the UK after a year in operation. Ofo is reportedly close to bankruptcy.
- oBikes dumped on the top of a bus stop shelter in Melbourne.
It is a delicate time, then, for newcomers to wade in with promises of a transport revolution.
Patrick Studener, Bird’s European chief (and an Uber alumnus), told Business Insider in an interview that the company was aware of the sector’s short history.
“We have to be respectful because we’ve seen other companies or other modes of transport roll out very quickly, and there’s a backlash to innovation, if innovation passes too aggressively or in the wrong way,” he said.
“I certainly know, I feel sometimes there’s scar tissue there from time to time. When you talk to people, it’s like, ‘Oh no, not another innovation on mobility.’ But it’s up to us to explain why there should be room for us. I think we’ve been showing this.”
Studener said Bird’s approach was not about growth at all costs, but launching sustainably. “I don’t want to launch in all of the cities,” he said. “We want the right cities, we want to launch the right way.”
Studener said Bird had spent “a lot of time in advance” talking to various cities before launching scooters there.
“We’re the new kids on the block, so people should ask questions, and we should have good answers for those questions,” Studener added. “That’s resulted in us having great relationships with regulators and city planners, who are ultimately stewards of the city… that’s certainly what we’ll do going forward, instead of just rushing in.”
That may be true now, but Bird certainly ran into regulatory trouble when it first got started in the US. The company had to cough up $300,000 in fines in Santa Monica, its first ever city, over allegations it didn’t secure the right business licenses.
- People ride Bird scooters in Santa Monica, California, U.S. July 23, 2018. Picture taken July 23, 2018.
- Lucy Nicholson/Reuters
Wind’s Matt Turzo came to the startup from Lyft. Lyft, although it has run into the same regulatory issues as Uber, doesn’t quite have the same reputation for a growth-at-all-costs mentality.
Like Bird’s Studener, he said the firm tries to be as open as possible with regulators.
“At Wind, we take a Lyft-esque approach of having that conversation and being willing to have a discussion,” he told Business Insider. “We enter those discussions with the assumption that regulators want to do the best for their constituents, they have a job to do.”
Some cities are more receptive than others.
Bird launched in France with comparatively few problems, which Studener described was keen to trial technologies that would reduce CO2 emissions, and work new regulation out as it went.
But in London, electric scooters are technically illegal thanks to a 135-year-old law originally designed to regulate horse-drawn carriages.
The UK government, lobbied by the likes of Bird and Lime, is making friendly noises about change but progress is likely to be slow. Both firms have hired former UK government advisors to help make their case to European city regulators. And Bird has won the right to carry out an extended trial of its scooters in the Olympic Park in east London.
- Salwan Georges/The Washington Post via Getty Images
And Madrid banned the bulk of e-scooters of its street last year, but then granted thousands of licenses to a range of companies including Voi, Wind, and Uber’s Jump scooter service. Bird was one of seven scooter startups to be declined.
Ultimately, Studener is optimistic, since most countries want to reduce their emissions. Bird and its rivals, of course, bill themselves as an environmentally friendly way to commute – although researchers say the picture isn’t so simple.
A summer of scooters will probably mean a summer of injuries too
When Business Insider rode a scooter last week at Bird’s offices in east London, it was undeniably exhilarating.
The appeal is clear, particularly on a sunny day: hop on a scooter and you can get from A to B while also getting to know a city. It’s also distinctly more pleasant than suffering through the fug of London’s metro.
Wind’s Matt Turzo said this is a key selling point for his firm’s scooters. “There’s a role to play in terms of liberating the commuter, and getting people to engage with their city in a way they never have before. It’s about not having to plan a journey two hours in advance, to make sure you can get across the city.”
A rise in scooter usage will probably mean more accidents too, which will be another test for startups.
Reliable injury data on scooter injuries is difficult to obtain. In the UK, the Department of Transport measures vehicle accidents, but doesn’t break out electric scooters into a separate category.
What data has come from the US suggests scooters can cause serious injuries, and possibly a higher rate of injuries. There have also been a number of deaths in the US related to e-scooters.
A study by Portland’s Bureau of Transportation found the e-scooter injury rate to be 2.2 accidents per 10,000 miles – much higher than the US national average for motorbikes (0.05 per 10,000 miles) and cars (0.1 per 10,000). Not all of these incidents relate to rental e-scooters, so the average is probably lower.
Tarak Trivedi, an emergency physician and health services researcher at UCLA, conducted a comprehensive study last year about how scooters could send people to A&E departments.
The study found electric scooters were associated with 249 emergency room visits between September 2017 and August 2018, with injuries reported including bone fractures, lung contusions, and dislocations. Only a tiny fraction of riders had been wearing a helmet.
(Bird criticised the report for not focusing on road injuries and deaths from motorcycles and cars too.)
Trivedi told Business Insider he decided to research emergency room visits after using electric scooters himself when they first rolled out in Los Angeles.
“I recognised that once [scooters] became a billion dollar industry, these would come to all parts of the world,” he said. “These are vehicles that can move you up to 15mph, but some people we saw were disrespecting the nature of the beast. There were people who were intoxicated, or riding irresponsibly with two people on one scooter. It’s about recognising this isn’t just a toy, it’s like an automotive.”
- It’s not a good idea to ride these things with two aboard.
- Getty Images
Trivedi added that earlier designs meant the scooters didn’t work properly. “There was a certain type of thumb brake, which stick. You want something that you can clutch and the mechanism won’t fail when you need it most,” he said. Small wheels, he added, would throw someone off the scooter if they hit an obstacle.
Despite records of some fairly horrifying-sounding injuries, Trivedi thinks scooters are ultimately a good innovation.
“Anything that reduces car rides is a good thing for the environment and for us as a society,” he said. “There’s definitely a focus on safety that could be encouraged… maybe there should be slower speeds, and proven safety designs.”
Both Bird and Lime have promised to take steps on safety, with Lime’s chairman saying last year the firm would lock out drunk users. Both firms have also given away free helmets as part of marketing campaigns.
Studener said: “Everything we do starts with safety, the development and design of the scooter, to tutorials that we lay out.”
He said, if used correctly, scooters were “on par” with bicycles in terms of safety, and that most road accidents could be attributed to cars rather than other vehicles.
The UK will miss out on scooters for the time being
The UK, for now, will miss out on the summer of scooters.
While the Department of Transport (DfT) announced in March that it would review the legal status of electric scooters, it didn’t say when such a review would take place.
A spokesman for London’s transport regulator emphasised the safety of scooters in a statement to Business Insider: “We welcome the review’s focus on safety as this aligns with our commitment to Vision Zero and ensuring that any new forms of transport are safe. However, the key question is on timing as there no indication when the review will take place.”
Bird’s Studener acknowledged it could be many months before rental electric scooters are available en masse in the capital.
“Regulatory reviews can go on for many months,” he said, adding: “I’m really excited about this. Any movement in the right direction, I’m excited about. If they had come out and said ‘Scooters are fine starting Monday,’ that would have been lovely. But that’s also a bit unrealistic.
“A lot of the regulation is quite old, and [the Department for Transport] said it’s not shy about updating the law, and that’s what we’re for. I appreciate that whatever they do, it’ll be around for a while, so they have to think about all the knock-on effects.”