Image by LimeBike used with permission.

The pilot period for dockless bikeshare in the District of Columbia hasn’t concluded yet, but it’s already been disrupted by the next innovation – sharable electric scooters — and disrupted again with Uber’s purchase of JUMP last week. GGWash contributors flagged these developments as a particularly significant evolution for the personal mobility space.

Sharable scooters – with extra juice

One of the existing dockless bikeshare companies, LimeBike, has added e-scooters to their fleet, and two new competitors have also entered the motor-assisted personal mobility market: Bird (founded by a former Uber executive) and Waybots. Both of the latter companies are already on the ground in other US cities.

The LimeBike fleet now consists of more than 50% electric scooters (so something close to or over 200 of their 400-vehicle maximum, per the terms of the District’s dockless pilot program), according to Jason Starr, LimeBike’s DC General Manager. Bird spokesperson Kenneth Baer withheld their fleet size for “competitive reasons,” but also because they manage the fleet size dynamically based on demand, so it’s always changing. Similarly, Waybots exec Sanjay Dastoor said their fleet size ranges “from 50 to 400.”

All of the dockless scooter companies are charging $1 to start and 15 cents per minute, and using equipment capable of up to 15 MPH. However, each scooter type is different. LimeBike scooters can go 37 miles on a single charge, while Bird scooters go only 15 miles (this may help explain Bird's advocacy in California to have all dockless companies commit to removing all of their vehicles from the street every night).

This is a serious trend to watch

While children using scooters for fun or mobility is a common sight in urban areas, the terms of service of all of the dockless e-scooter companies require users to be 18 and older. But are grown-ups really going to get on board these in a big way? According to Starr, “Our scooters have done exceptionally well in DC, especially given the weather conditions since we launched. In fact, from February to March alone, we tripled our DC rides month-over-month.”

Some of this might be novelty. Waybots' Dastoor pointed out that “many of our users are tourists and visitors to the city who use them for sightseeing and exploring.” However, even that market is big enough in DC and in many other cities for venture capital to take serious note. GGWash contributor Patrick Kennedy guessed that “part of the reason the scooters are popular is nostalgia — the same reason that all of these '90s sitcoms have all of a sudden been brought back and are successful.” Similarly, Brent Bolin sees the attraction of scooters that are “dope for tricks and neighborhood riding.”

The minimal entry price point and easy-to-use equipment clearly distinguish these devices from Segways – and even bicycles. Alex Baca observed that “lots of people don't know how to ride bikes or aren't inclined to pick them back up again. It's great that mobility devices are expanding to provide non-SOV options for people who might want to move more quickly than by foot but don't want to hop on a bike.” Potentially broad appeal to seniors, nostalgic ‘80s kids, and teens alike makes these scooters a multigenerational trend to watch.

Are they safe?

GGWash contributors who have seen the scooters in action immediately raised potential red flags about their safety – for riders and passers-by. Gordon Chaffin said “every scooter user I've seen has been riding them on the sidewalks.” David Cranor pointed out that under DC Code Sect. 50-2201.02(15), these electric scooters are “Personal Mobility Devices,” which means that it’s legal to use them in the street, on sidewalks, and in bike lanes, but that their legal speed limit is 10 MPH.

As DDOT moves towards formalizing regulations for dockless sharing of bikes and personal mobility devices, it’s the right time to take a hard look at the fact that the equipment used by all of these companies is capable of 15 MPH, which is 50% over the legal speed limit (although with an adult male weight load, actual speeds are around 8 to 10 MPH). If these devices are going to be on sidewalks with the most vulnerable users of our public rights of way – pedestrians – then they should be throttled to the legal limit.

A sharing option to watch – and a new private personal mobility option as well?

Scooters address one of the primary criticism about dockless mobility, which is that they are much lower profile when they are left parked at random. While sometimes finding one using the app can feel like looking for a Skulltula in Zelda, their slim stature and smaller profile makes them a bit less invasive in the urban landscape. The e-scooters also go home at night, as companies collect many of the scooters in the evening for charging.

The trend in e-scooters also is a continuation of solutions to the “first/last-mile problem” of getting, say, from home to the Metro and from the Metro to work. For commuters outside of the traditional half-mile transit sweet spot, there are many other solutions: for example, the Commons of McLean apartment complex offers private shuttle vans to and from the McLean Station, and Alexandria offers the free trolley shuttle connecting the King Street Station towards the riverfront. Traditional Capital Bikeshare and dockless bikes also bridge the gap on either end of the commute.

Personal first/last mile solutions have always included “bike and ride,” but bikes are prohibited on Metro during the peak period with the exception of special folding bicycles. Segways are far too bulky and expensive. If you cannot take the vehicle on the Metro, then it only serves one end of the first/last mile problem.

E-scooters have the potential to expand in the sharing model we see, and also in personal ownership. Generally, models run from $400 to about $1,000, depending on specs, from companies such as Segway, E-Twow, and Inmotion (who also manufactures the futuristic unicycle-wheel-things you have have seen rolling around). Because the models are foldable, they can be brought on the Metro and serve both ends of the first/last mile.

Retro-fit

New technologies have been changing the mobility space much faster than our urban form can keep up since the car was invented. Electric scooters are a feasible, scalable, inclusive, appealing solution for integrating active mobility into a region where highly walkable, transit-accessible housing is at a premium. However, there is a clear need for new policies and a lot of cultural adjustment in order to completely and safely integrate scooters into our streets.

It is a move in the wrong direction if pedestrians are forced to accommodate scooters, and both scooter users and the walking public would benefit from a rationalization of street priority in law and design in which all other modes defer to pedestrians.

Tracy Hadden Loh loves cities, infrastructure, and long walks on the beach looking for shark teeth. She holds a Ph.D. in city and regional planning from UNC-Chapel Hill. By day, she is a data scientist at the Center for Real Estate and Urban Analysis at George Washington University. By night, she is an activist, a law enforcement spouse, and the mother of a toddler. She served two years representing Ward 1 on the Mount Rainier City Council in Prince George's County, MD.

Michael Rodriguez, AICP is Leader for Market Research and Insights at CBRE, Inc., and visiting Director of Research at Smart Growth America. He focuses on transit-oriented design, walkability, housing, and the economic impacts of infrastructure decisions. He is also a PhD student at the GWU Trachtenberg School of Public Policy and Public Administration, focusing on urban policy of agglomeration economies. He lives in Tysons, Virginia and walks to the Metro.