Can electric scooter services like Lime and Bird handle plunging temps and snow?
For the last three months, Michael Schultz and his girlfriend, Mia, have been making extra money working for Bird and Lime scooters in Denver. They’re part of the freelance workforce that gathers and charges the shared electric vehicles overnight. During a normal week, the couple spend a few hours each evening rolling around in his Jeep to collect the battery-powered e-scoots. Sometimes they make a Saturday out of the adventure, together pocketing about $75 an hour.
It’s starting to get colder and it’s already snowed in Denver a few times, but Schultz says business is still good. He finds plenty of scooters that need their batteries charged. “They get used, rain or shine,” says Schultz, a 36-year-old who works as a DevOps engineer during the day. “Even snow doesn’t stop them.”
Living in Denver for the last 11 years and Boulder before that, Schultz knows the Coloradans have a reputation for enjoying all-season outdoor activities. If anything, the cold’s has been good for Schultz’s side hustle as a “Bird hunter” or “Lime juicer,” as the gig economy chargers for the two biggest scooter companies are called. “The competition has thinned out a lot because a lot of the chargers are fair-weather chargers,” says Schultz. “It’s actually making it easier for me.”
As winter formally arrives in the Northern Hemisphere, cities in colder climes are watching to see what plunging temperature and icy precipitation does to the nascent dockless scooter services that many municipalities added in 2018. This season marks the first year that these shared e-scooters will encounter a proper winter; so far, it’s hard to tell how well the transportation fad of the summer will survive the season.
Scooter operators such as Lime, Bird, Skip, Spin, Lyft, and Jump all have plans to continue to deploy scooters where they can, weather-permitting. The companies all have plans to monitor for cold temperatures, icy conditions, and snowfall, to pause service or remove scooters from the roads. It’s all a little vague, with promises to assess each day on a case-by-case basis, with local teams responding to the weather accordingly.
So far, Denver’s experience shows that, while e-scooters may be no one’s idea of ideal transportation in extreme winter conditions, they can still operate. Schultz, who’s active on charger forums on Reddit, says he has seen complaints from fellow chargers about scooters taking extra time to start charging when it’s around freezing. Others have encountered battery reading errors, where charge levels fluctuate from making available scooters because they appear low but then become unavailable for pick-up if they warm up. (The scooters become available for chargers once they reach a 20 percent reading.) Piles of snow can complicate drop-offs, when the chosen spot means leaving scooters in the snow instead of on the sidewalk.
Nationwide, the approach from departments of transportation and public works varies by city, but for the most part, the e-scooters are sticking around for the season. Pilots in Ann Arbor, Baltimore, Chicago, Detroit, Indianapolis, and Washington, D.C., are set to continue, with some caveats about cautious use or pulling back during inclement weather. Boston and Seattle are holding off on their late arrival pilots until the spring, while the Twin Cities and Portland are suspending their pilots until next year. As their valuations cool with the temperatures, the scooter companies are trying to take this slowdown in stride: Bird has joked that the Minneapolis fleet will “fly south for the winter.”
As wintertime bike commuters know, this season provides formidable challenges for two-wheeled travelers; unplowed bike lanes and roads, early darkness, and beard-shattering cold all provide compelling reasons to choose heated, enclosed alternatives. That’s a shame, if you consider that one the main goals of scooters is that they are better for cities and the environment than cars. (And gas-powered cars get worse fuel economy in the winter.) As Eric Jaffe noted on CityLab back in 2016, cycling mode shares typically experience shrinkage in the cold. But we’re also seeing some signs that bike sharing has begun to turn that around: Motivate, which operates Citi Bike in New York, reports that it is seeing higher ridership in New York each winter.
For the e-scooters that do stick around, there are no plans to weatherize the scooters for icy conditions—sorry, tiny snow-tire makers. “Compared to other models, our scooters are better designed for shared use and built to withstand longer distances and harsher weather conditions,” a Lime spokesperson said in a statement to CityLab. “Even though our scooters are water resistant, we encourage riders to always put their safety first and use caution before riding in wet or icy conditions.”
In some of the smaller markets, such as college and university towns, there might just not be enough demand for scooters to merit winter deployment. “Realistically, the students are the majority of the consumers and once they head off for break, they city is not not going to want the scooters all over the sidewalks,” says Rebecca Grey, a medical insurance assistant who charges scooters for Bird in East Lansing, Michigan.
Grey expects the scooter work will be more seasonal. Her college town hasn’t even formalized an agreement with the companies, but it still sees spillover from Lansing, which is still considering its winter permit plans. Besides, the snow has already complicated drop-offs. “We got six inches of snow a couple weeks ago and [Bird] didn’t change the drop-off time and it didn’t give the city time to plow,” she says. “I still had to drop them in designated spot in the snow, but then I got marked down for leaving them on an uneven surface.”
But in bigger cities, scooter startups will be looking forward to testing their weather resistance. “While we’re building out our more robust fleet, Skip general managers [will] also closely monitor forecasts to determine the likelihood of snow and the presence of ice on the roads,” a Skip spokesperson wrote. That company is also throwing in some freebies for intrepid winter users. “Even in the cold, we know our scooters will remain essential in riders’ days, so in D.C., we’ll be giving away Skip winter gloves and hats to keep riders warm!”
The consumer specifications for the ubiquitous Xiaomi MS365 and Segway-Ninebot ES2 scooters—two models used by many scooter-sharing startups—provide a little guidance: The Segway-Ninebot sets its minimum operating temperature at 14 degrees F and minimum storage temperature at -4. But the scooters have not yet sat out for weeks at at a time in sustained freezing temps. (We reached out to Xiaomi and Segway by phone and email to address the scooters’ viability in the winter but haven’t yet received any comments.)
Cold weather can be a challenge for all electric vehicles, and the small size of scooters makes them even more vulnerable. “Lithium batteries don’t like extreme cold. Electric cars often heat their batteries, but in scooters it is not economical,” writes Assaf Biderman, founder and CEO of the e-bike firm Superpedestrian, in an email to CityLab. The company, which invented the Copenhagen Wheel, just announced that it’s getting into the scooter fleet supply business, promising studier vehicles and smarter batteries. “With the right battery sensing technologies and battery management computers,” he says, “scooters can provide both safe operation of the vehicle while providing good power to the rider.”
According to Isidor Buchmann of Cadex Electronic, who runs the website Battery University, even chilled batteries might not be as much of a problem as you would think. “The performance is less when it’s cold, the metabolism and the chemical reaction slows down, but it doesn’t damage the battery,” he says “When it warms, the power is restored.”
Basically, if people continue using the scooters, they will keep going—just more slowly. “It’s a little bit like your water faucet that's got an obstruction. It just takes a little bit more to fill a glass of water,” Buchmann says.
So let it snow, wear a helmet, and take your time. “I bet people will ride scooters a lot for fun a lot less in the winter, but some people will do it out of necessity,” says Schultz, who predicts that his scooter-charging business will keep going in Denver’s winter wonderland. “It’s hard to take a bus for just a half mile. You walk two blocks to the bus stop, wait in the cold a few minutes, and then get stuck in traffic. At that point you might as well fly by everyone in traffic on a scooter.”