The internet has spoken and it hates electric scooter rentals. The non-internet, however, seems to be in conflict with it’s more image conscious self. It appears that when people aren’t posting videos of how badass they are for kicking them over they are, in-fact, riding them. Some municipalities have straight up banned them, while other areas are in an uproar about sidewalk’s being blocked and the safety of non-helmet wearing riders, though I am skeptical of their motivations on the latter.
To be clear, I am writing in defense of the idea of this business idea, more than any specific player. I don’t profess to know anything about the operators of Bird or Lime (beyond Lime’s related bike program) so I am not defending an owner or company. Rather, I want to take a stab at explaining why they are operating the way they are and give my experience as a business owner in a couple of neighborhoods accessed by them.
Those Arrogant Schmucks Don’t Care About Our Laws!
Some variation of this seems to be where the bulk of the complaints are coming from. There are very real safety and mobility concerns of ramps and crosswalks being blocked that need to be addressed. But I think most of the complaining stems from what appear to be operators with zero respect for the rules of the cities in which they are operating. Which is sort of fair because that is what is happening. Most people care about fairness. Even if it’s not a business you really intersect or compete with at all, the idea that someone else is (seemingly) getting rich ignoring the rules while you are clocking in and paying your taxes feels like a slap in the face.
What Is Actually Happening.
It’s fascinating to see people with clear e-com backgrounds in the physical space. Digital and physical business people tend to think about scale quite differently. In retail, for instance, scale really just means your margin gets a bit better the larger one grows, because you have a bit more leverage over the supply chain. But one can be at least somewhat profitable pretty quickly at a small scale.
Digital folks tend to go one step further. They understand that the sliding scale of their margin better, and they tend to think in terms of how much revenue per day each unit of whatever can generate. If you’ve read Good To Great, it’s the idea of really knowing that one metric to focus on. It allows them to be way more disruptive because they can think of industries in totally new ways. Pick your industry where an operator couldn’t fathom their margin being below x% per unit and you have a disruptor with a digital background figuring out how many cents they can make on each unit of the same and how many units per day they need to sell to make a profit. It’s really the same math, but the way one looks at it allows for significantly different trajectories.
Why I bring that up is… Both Bird and Lime are anticipating regulations but this was their only play. This business model needs scale to succeed in a way more extreme than most. I am shot in the dark guessing they profit a few bucks per day per scooter. If one bird gets rented 10 times in a day and ridden an average of 10 minutes, you’ve generated $11.50 for that scooter. It needs to not be set on fire in protest or thrown into the ocean, causing a huge amount of damage, by a well meaning beach dweller, for 20ish days before it’s paid itself off and starts covering any other costs and then eeking out a bit of profit.
With that in mind, their only option was to grow into as many communities as possible as fast as possible, force the hand of the ones they started in to regulate them for better or worse, and hope other communities demand their entry. It’s really no different than AirBnb or Uber. Neither of those companies could have gone city to city, asking for operating rules for something that did not yet exist. I am not sure if you have ever lobbied your city for changes in rules. It is not a fast process. As arrogant as they seem/are, asking for forgiveness (and structure) is the only way this kind of business could happen.
It’s clear we do need some structure. I’ll admit a bit of nimbyism the first time I looked out of one of my storefronts and saw 7 scooters lined up. But I’ll also admit that my neighborhood is going through an access problem right now due to construction and these nimble things are getting a lot of people in my doors that likely would not have come otherwise.
I’ve been advocating for a raised platform, subway style, bus system in Columbus for years. I know many people are saying we need to be focusing on mass transit, not this. I don’t know why we cannot advocate for both. It isn’t like these companies would be dumping money into Columbus, OH (or Cleveland or wherever) to work on their mass transportation issues regardless.
If a suburban commuter can leave their car in the work garage and hop on an electric scooter for their afternoon meeting, dr.’s appointment and back to work, why wouldn’t we celebrate that? To me this doesn’t erase their need for mass transportation, it erases their anxiety about how they make the last 1-2 miles once they hit their stop.
Here are a few common sense rules I think our city (and others) should adopt:
- Scooters cannot be left within 10’ of the entrance of any business. This eliminates the complaints of the odd business owner who doesn’t realize a scooter is likely 10’ from their door because a customer rode it there but… Whatever. Easy rule.
- Scooters cannot be left in any street.
- Scooters cannot impede the right of way on sidewalks, crosswalks or wheelchair ramps.
- Scooters cannot be ridden on sidewalks. Or as an alternate cannot be ridden on sidewalks beyond the pace of walking (slow setting).
I am sure I am leaving out some important stuff, but basically write some rules like this and fine the hell out of the company when they are broken. If it’s profitable they can figure out how to deal with those problems, not the cities. If they need space for parking or distribution, or need to figure out a way to penalize riders for leaving scooters in prohibited areas. One example would just have the operating agreement state that the fine for scooters left in prohibited areas is passed along to the rider. No different than getting a ticket in a rental car.
I have seen the evidence first hand that these can be tool for efficient transportation that I believe could work hand-in-hand with a robust mass transit system. They are great for local businesses. I hope all cities, mine in particular, will consider all of the angles before listening to the loudest voices and get rid of them before they have a chance to work out the kinks.