THE COLLEGE HILL INDEPENDENT


Urban Birding

Do e-scooters herald an electrified micro-mobility revolution?

by Lucas Smolcic Larson

Illustration by Katya Labowe-Stoll

published September 15, 2018


On March 27, 2018, Travis VanderZanden, founder and CEO of Bird Rides Inc., released an open letter to the CEOs of four of his competitors: Lime, Ofo, Mobike, and Jump. “We’re witnessing the biggest revolution in transportation since the dawn of the Jet Age,” he wrote, a movement that will “transform the cities in which we live.” If VanderZanden, a Silicon Valley veteran, is to be believed, this revolution is being televised, backed by venture capitalists, and just zipped by on two eight-inch wheels.

Bird’s insurgency came through placing electric scooters throughout American cities and making them rentable through an app. The company launched a year ago in Santa Monica, California, and in Providence on July 20. The e-scooters, in futuristic black and red, just need two kicks to get moving, after which an electric motor propels riders along at a maximum of about 15 miles per hour. When riders (VanderZanden calls them his “flock”) reach their destination, they leave the scooters on the sidewalk, to be unlocked by the smartphone of the next user.

E-scooters’ viral popularity made quick converts of urbanites, fueled by word-of-mouth and breathless reporting by local outlets. The Providence Journal released a video shot from the point of view of reporter Kevin Andrade cautiously doing laps of downtown (Andrade: “I was nervous at first but, you know what, this ain’t half bad!”). The New York Times quoted curmudgeons (the scooters were “a symbol of entitlement and arrogance” and a “plot of the young people to kill all us old farts so they can have our rent-controlled apartments” said retired reporter Fran Taylor).

The scooters provoked hand-wringing by critics concerned about their safety, impact on urban aesthetics, and Bird’s ‘ask for forgiveness, not permission’ approach to city regulators. But the most pressing questions about the e-scooter takeover remain unanswered. Whom do the e-scooters benefit? How should cities regulate them? Are they here to stay? And, if they are as revolutionary as VanderZanden suggests, who is being overthrown? Digging into these uncertainties, e-scooters become a window into the future of city life—its logistics and inequities—as well as the movement toward a post-carbon world.

 

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As e-scooters spread from city to city, reporters cast local governments as the embattled establishment standing in the way of the e-scooter “revolution.” Some city governments, like those in Cambridge, Mass. and San Francisco issued outright bans after Bird and other e-scooter companies set up shop. The unannounced arrival of another sharing economy startup promising radical urban transformation had many cities immediately wary. Local officials had reason to be suspicious of Bird and VanderZanden, a former executive of both Lyft and Uber—two companies famous for disregarding local regulations (Uber used a software tool called Greyball for years to systematically deceive police and city officials across the world, reported the New York Times in 2017.) But Uber, Lyft, and Airbnb have also grown from scrappy ‘disruptors’ into billion-dollar household names that partner with and are regulated by city governments. The unannounced arrival of Bird scooters in Providence over the summer—and its regulatory fallout—gives a rare glimpse inside this process.

Emails between Providence city officials and Bird representatives, obtained through public records requests by the College Hill Independent, show a city wrestling for control of its streets. “Permissions are required,” stated Providence Deputy Chief Engineer Chris Hochman in an email to Raymond Sullivan, a lobbyist representing Bird, on the morning of Bird’s launch in the city on July 20. “While we aren’t opposed to systems like this, we must ensure that things are done correctly.”

Other officials encouraged Bird to remove the scooters promptly and cited violations of city ordinances governing the placement of vehicles in the public right-of-way. Despite the emails containing discussion of confiscating the scooters, they stayed on the streets. Sullivan responded on July 23 that Bird attorneys believed the company was in violation of no law. Bird’s “goal is to continue providing the community with a valuable service,” he wrote.

On August 10, Bird’s scooters disappeared from the streets of Providence, removed by the company. That day, the Department of Public Works released five pages of regulations “governing the placement and operation of electric scooters on a [one-year] pilot basis in the City of Providence.” These stipulate that companies must apply for a permit to operate in the city, pay fees, maintain liability insurance, and produce an equity plan for access to their scooters. The regulations affect would-be operators over the course of the next year, after which the rules will be revaluated.

The approach of one of Bird’s competitors, Lime, to the Providence city government was less brazen, the Independent found by obtaining emails between officials and Scott Mullen, Lime’s director of expansion for the Northeast. “Sounds like you woke up to the same surprise I did,” wrote Mullen to Martina Haggerty, Associate Director of Special Projects for Providence’s Planning Department on July 24, “an unsanctioned launch of Bird electric scooters.” Mullen continues, “Lime also operates e-scooters, but we take a much more proactive and collaborative approach to our municipal partners.” Mullen sent officials “draft regulations that we share with cities before we come in to operate” (Bird’s representative did the same, although its model regulations were less detailed).

Finally, after meeting with officials, Mullen submitted an application for Lime to operate in Providence on August 17, in accordance with the city’s newly-released regulations. The application documents state that Lime hopes to operate 300 scooters, the maximum allowed by the city. Victor Morente, Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza’s press secretary, told the Independent that as of September 4, only Lime had submitted an application. None had been granted, he said. Bird previously told the Providence Journal that it intends to return to the city.

 

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Providence joins many other US cities, such as Santa Monica and Washington DC, in proposing a pilot program to allow for long-term evaluation of e-scooters’ impact. Morente reports that Providence used regulations issued by other cities in drafting its own. They are in line with what Populus, a private data analytics start-up, lists as the primary goals of local government in approaching e-scooters in its July 2018 report “The Micro-Mobility Revolution: The Introduction and Adoption of Electric Scooters in the United Sates.” These include ensuring rider safety, promoting equitable access to services, and evaluating the scooters’ impact on sustainability and transportation goals.

Safety tops this list because critics cast e-scooters as threats to their riders. Bird provides helmets to riders, but users must order them online and pay shipping. Consequently, e-scooter accidents have become major press events, notably so after a driver struck and critically injured two women riding e-scooters in Nashville. But, as Christopher Cherry, Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Tennessee and a scholar of non-motorized transit systems, told the Independent, “The car driver imposes greater risk on pedestrians, cyclists, and Bird scooter riders than Bird scooter riders impose on the rest of the system, and yet there’s this fixation on new emerging technologies because they’re easy to point at.” In contrast to electric bikes and scooters, cars kill between 30,000 and 40,000 people each year in the US—without receiving hyperbolic media coverage labelling automotive technology as inherently dangerous.

Providence's scooter regulations focus on equitable access is also well-founded, given the profit motive of emerging scooter start-ups. In May, Bird became the fastest start-up ever to reach “unicorn” status (a valuation of over $1 billion), taking just six months and beating the previous record holder by more than a year. Some observers credit the flood of venture capital Bird received to investors’ fear of missing out on the next Uber or Lyft, each of which have recently acquired their own electric bike and scooter companies, Jump and Motivate, respectively. In contrast to ride-sharing apps, Bird buys scooters and pays people to collect and charge them. Skeptics say that e-scooter operators profit margins per-scooter are slim, but proof of this has yet to emerge.

In the meantime, city officials observing the scooter investment craze in Providence moved quickly to ensure that e-scooter operators served all parts of the city. Regulations stipulate that the scooters be  distribuited equally throughout different zones each night. The city’s ordinance also requires companies to include low-income and cash payment options in an equity plan they must submit with their application to operate. Bird and Lime each have existing plans for users who are eligible for any state or federally-run assistance program offering steeply discounted fares. Bird waves its $1 per ride fee, charging just its 15 cent per minute rate. Lime’s program cuts its unlock fee to 50 cents and charges 7 cents a minute, as well as offering the option to deposit cash into a user’s account and operate the service via SMS text (eliminating the need for a smartphone and bank account).

The Populus study (conducted via an online survey with a representative sample of 7,000 people across the country, according to an email from Populus CEO Regina Clewlow) found that public support for e-scooters is about 10 percent higher among low-income groups. Further, a 2015 Harvard study of upward social mobility singled out access to transportation as the strongest factor in the odds of escaping poverty. E-scooters are pitched as a solution to the “last/first-mile problem” of public transit systems—the distance between transit nodes and users’ final destinations or origin. Plausibly, they could fill holes in public transit systems at very low cost to the public. If they complement public transit infrastructure—at this point still an uncertainty—their effects may ease social urban inequity.

 

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Perhaps more certain is e-scooters’ potential to decrease carbon emissions. Cherry, who has studied personal electric vehicles in Chinese cities where they are ubiquitous, explained that with e-scooters, “most of the energy is devoted to moving the person rather than the vehicle.” This doesn’t seem radical until you consider that “when we drive around in our personal car by ourselves almost all the energy is just moving the metal around and that’s not the purpose of transportation.” According to the US Department of Energy, in 2017 60 percent of all car vehicle trips were less than six miles, meaning e-scooters have the potential to disrupt car usage.

Low-emission electric scooters and bicycles are decades-old technology, said Cherry. Bird and other scooter companies’ innovation is the pairing of this tech with smartphones and data networks to create a system where people can rent, rather than own, the scooters. Although his research hasn’t focused specifically on scooters, Cherry has found that use of electric bike shares (like the JUMP bikes recently launched in Providence) replaces car trips at a higher rate than conventional bicycles—a finding that bolsters e-scooter advocates sustainability claims.

But e-scooters skeptics say that the vehicles don’t necessarily replace car trips to the extent that advocates suggest. In June, Matt Chester, a Washintgon DC-based energy policy analyst, published “The Electric Scooter Fallacy,” a back-of-the-envelope analysis of e-scooter sustainability claims, on his personal energy blog. In an email to the Independent, Chester said that the lack of data proving e-scooter companies’ claims, namely that the scooters were a (revolutionary) green form of transit that solved the last/first mile problem, prompted his post. In his article, Chester factored in the emissions generated by charging scooters and by the cars that are used to collect them each night. These figures vary by city and distance the scooter is driven, but in Chester’s least-efficient scenario if less than 27 percent of scooter trips replace car trips then e-scooters are generating more emissions than the cars would otherwise. Chester’s work is a far cry from a comprehensive study but helps to contextualize electric vehicles within a supply chain that still relies on fossil fuels.

Cherry said that the sheer efficiency of electric scooters and bikes means that they will most likely reduce emissions, even if they only pull from car traffic at very low rates. Having the vehicles operated by one provider also allows for mass recycling and disposal of the lithium-ion batteries that power e-scooters. “Shared mobility generally has a tendency to at least concentrate the externalities,” in this case the generation of batteries, said Cherry. “Presumably if it’s a responsible corporation they can handle it in a better way.”

 

Concerns about the responsibility of e-scooter companies have also focused on the data they collect from users’ ride history. One of the most comprehensive sections of Providence’s regulations restricts what data companies can access from riders, forbidding companies from requiring that customers consent to sharing their data with third parties to use scooters. Scooter operators must also share ride data with Providence. Morente reports that it will “be used to determine routes that users choose to travel on to potentially inform future decisions about safety improvements to city streets.”

Such information could guide the implementation of sustainable micro-mobility transportation infrastructure. For e-scooters to displace car traffic, the urban environment must allow for their safe use. Providence allows e-scooter traffic on roads and sidewalks. When asked if fees collected from future e-scooter operators in Providence would be channeled towards investments in micro-mobility infrastructure, Morente said that the e-scooter pilot was in its early stages. “Funds have not been allocated or dedicated to any program or investment in particular at this time.”

 

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“When you ride a Bird, it reminds you of being free,” says Travis VanderZanden in an April 2018 New York Times profile. This author and thousands of others who have zipped through their streets on an e-scooter know that he’s, well, not wrong. Will they dethrone the automobile, while providing a low-cost and efficient means of connecting transportation system dots in a way that is accessible to people of all incomes and backgrounds? No technological innovation will accomplish all of this at once, especially one fueled by venture capital and led by Silicon Valley businessmen. Micro-mobility proponents’ claims of revolution have yet to bear fruit. But e-scooters have tested the capacity of city government to regulate new modes of transit and offered the possibility of greater equity in access to mobility—all while giving us a glimpse into a car-free, electrified urban future.

 

LUCAS SMOLCIC LARSON B’19 is a veteran of the admittedly short-lived Providence underground Bird racing circuit.