A version of this article was first published on Medium.
Does DC have the biggest scooter fleet in America? Not quite. The best all-year scooter weather? Haha, hardly. But the District is nevertheless leading the battle charge in micromobility policy, with open data requirements that help it punch above its weight.
Because DC compels micromobility operators to make the locations of parked vehicles public, it means operators, cities, and apps like Transit (where I work) can work in concert to build thoughtful, integrated transport. The results make it possible for DC riders to find the closest scooter across different fleets, minimize commuting times, and plan efficient transit connections — without having to flit across a half-dozen scooter apps.
Last year we took advantage of DC’s open data policies to publish Docked vs. Dockless Bikes. We were curious about which bikeshare services had better access, and about how riders were interacting with those services in our app,Transit.
One year and millions of rides later, dockless bikes have mostly gone and been usurped by dockless e-scooters.
So what does “a day in the life” look like for your average DC scooter rider? Moreover, what broad inferences can be made that might help operators and the policymakers who shape mobility strategy?
Scooters: early days
Rome wasn’t built in a day — and neither were scooter empires. Of the infinite-seeming scooter apps launched last year, DC got several new ones, including Lime, Bird, Skip, Spin, JUMP, Lyft, and Bolt, which participated in the city’s dockless pilot program.
Using the last six months of scooter data from Transit’s ~200k monthly users in Greater Washington, we saw scooters grow like sequoias on steroids. The summer started with 4.8% of those Transit users having a scooter app installed, while today almost 9% have one.
That’s 85% growth in just a few months.
Close to 10% adoption — not bad
Compare that, though, to the market share of mature mobility apps like Uber and Lyft. In DC, close to 70% of Transit users have a ridehail app, while in San Francisco, the OG ridehail city, that number jumps to 80%.
Clearly, there’s plenty of room for scooters to grow.
What’s preventing scooters from reaching their full potential sooner? One factor we found was download fatigue.
You’d think with multiple operators, all with different availability/pricing, a savvy rider would be downloading all of the scooter apps. Why restrict yourself to one operator’s fleet when you could have access to all of the scoots?
Except that’s not at all how riders behave. Among “dockless” riders (i.e. someone who has Bird, Lime, Spin, Skip, or JUMP), half only have one dockless app installed. About a quarter have two. An eighth have three… etc. If we could spell out a Law of Dockless Downloads™ it’d be that for every dockless app you download, you’re half as likely to download one more. And it’s not just DC: this pattern holds across cities.
Download fatigue makes it hard to find the closest scooter
Here’s how we know: We took an anonymous sample of Transit app launches in DC, and pulled the locations of scooters within a quarter-mile. Since Transit is used more frequently in dense areas and during peak commuting hours, the places where our users are opening the app is a good proxy for where scooters are in demand.
With one operator’s app, a user has a 30% chance of finding a nearby scooter. But when they can see all the scooters from all the fleets in Transit, those odds double. In cities without open data policies, riders need to download (and open) every app to reliably find a nearby scooter. How many people will realistically download all the apps, though? Among Transit’s DC users, a whopping 0.3%.
What’s worrying isn’t the fact that downloading/storing/tapping between a bunch of apps is a pain. What’s worrying is the implications for urban mobility.
If riders can’t see all their scooter options, then scooter discovery will rely on in-person “serendipity” — spotting one on the street. But if serendipity only brings up a scooter 30% of the time, how are scooters expected to become a reliable, day-to-day commuting mode? With open APIs, cities can double the number of available scooters — without needing to add any new scooters to the street.
Open APIs help cities get more out of each scooter, especially cities with scooter caps. We’re in favor of more liberal scooter allowances, but it’s equally important that mobility markets aren’t designed so one or two giants suck up all the riders — then weaponize their privilege of being a rider’s first dockless download to vaporize newer competitors.
What about when you can see every scoot?
What we’ve discovered is that even smaller players can compete with the giants once they get onto a rider’s phone. If you’re a smaller player that has managed to get your app into the hands of a rider, you get just as much attention in Transit (taps, engagement, and — probably — rides) as bigger players.
When Davids and Goliaths can be sized up against one another, the barriers to competition drop immensely. Among Transit riders, most operators get just as much in-app engagement as one other over time. Open data is the great equalizer.
By requiring real-time open data, and encouraging open booking and payments, cities could instantly get a more vibrant, connected, and competitive micromobility market.
Still, it’s too early to divine the future. If last year is any indication, in 2020 we’ll be writing about sentient pogo sticks. Whatever the mode is though, we predict the same type of behaviors will echo: among riders, an aversion to downloading lots of mobility apps, and among mobility operators, a lion’s share of the market going to one or two early-movers who become the rider’s first dockless download.
What will cities do to level the playing field?