Vultures are circling around shared micromobility.
E-scooter operators like Bird, Lime, Jump, and Spin were confronting financial headwinds even before Covid-19 drastically reduced urban trips worldwide. Faced with plummeting usage, the companies have yanked their fleets off the street and retreated from entire continents. Their financial outlook is bleak: Bird recently laid off nearly 40 percent of its staff, while Lime is reportedly seeking an emergency round of financing at a sharply reduced valuation.
Dockless micromobility’s biggest uncertainty is no longer the extent to which cities will accommodate a new form factor, but whether shared scooters will still be available when we emerge from the current pandemic. The time has come for local officials to consider an idea that would have seemed anathema two months ago: Should they stop imposing fees on e-scooter operators and start — gulp — subsidizing them?
Such a question may initially sound absurd. After all, we’re in the midst of a near-global lockdown, with urban residents worldwide instructed to stay home unless a trip is essential. Local transportation officials are scrambling to keep their employees safe, expand street space available for social distancing, and ensure essential workers can get to their jobs. Should a micromobility mode that’s famous for amusing tourists and angering sidewalk users really be a priority right now?
A number of signs say yes. Virtually all scooter and bike riders will maintain the six feet of distance from others recommended by the CDC, one of the reasons why Citi Bike in New York City trips rose 67% when the virus emerged. Like bikeshare, shared e-scooters can fill gaps where bus and train service has been cut in response to the virus. Cities including Denver, Tampa, and San Francisco have classified e-scooter businesses as essential. E-scooters aren’t yet legal in Pennsylvania, but Pittsburgh Department of Mobility and Infrastructure Director Karina Ricks hopes that changes soon, because they could fill gaps created by restricted bus service: “I think they could be a missing link right now between essential workers and the places they need to reach.”
Officials in Portland, Oregon, have provided financial incentives to keep e-scooter service available. On April 6, the city announced a partnership with Spin in which the city will temporarily waive e-scooter daily fees of up to $0.20 per scooter and $0.25 per trip in exchange for Spin reducing the cost of a ride by around 50 percent. Providing a net subsidy — a step we are not aware of any city taking to date — would go still further.
If cities want to keep e-scooters available during the current pandemic, they may need to consider flexible steps like Portland’s to bolster operators’ bottom line. With dwindling cash reserves, e-scooter operators are exiting markets around the world, and there is no timetable for their return. In Minneapolis, Department of Public Works Director Robin Hutcheson says she is “watching carefully and with some hopefulness” that Bird and Lyft will deploy 2,500 e-scooters as planned in her city this spring, but she has received no guarantees.