Laura Bliss is CityLab’s West Coast bureau chief. She also writes MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Sierra, GOOD, Los Angeles, and elsewhere, including in the book The Future of Transportation.
Cities are desperate to tame the sidewalk chaos of the e-scooter industry. One startup offers a solar-powered parking solution.
To understand the promise and peril of dockless scooters, look at Austin, Texas. This week, at least 9,000 of the zippy rentables are scattered on the capital city’s streets during this year’s South by Southwest festival. Nine different operators are vending cheap car-free transportation for the roughly 200,000 festivalgoers that have descended upon the city.
That might be great in theory, but mixed with big crowds, car traffic, a general lack of bike lanes, and a ton of free booze, the reality is cluttered sidewalks, tripping pedestrians, and some brutal scooter crashes.
Austin, in other words, is experiencing a Class 5 scoot-nado—a particularly intense variation on the shared-mobility disruption that cities nationwide have seen over the last two years. Which is why there’s a growing demand to bring scooter-sharing back to its roots, at least partly: Cities want docks for the dockless.
“We’ve all seen the problems associated with these things,” Colin Roche, the co-founder and CEO of Swiftmile, told me as he packed up his company’s booth at the National Shared Mobility Summit in Chicago last week. “But we also know the promise. In high-impact areas, they need to bring some order to the chaos.”
Swiftmile makes parking stations for e-scooters and bikes in support of what it calls a “semi-dockless” operating model. Their docks can pack in up to 24 Birds, Limes, Spins, and Skips in a space the size of a standard parking spot, using individual holsters equipped with anti-theft locks. More than glorified bike racks, the stations also use solar power to charge scooters while they’re tethered. They accommodate virtually all scooter models, and can gather data about vehicle use and condition.
The idea isn’t necessarily to bring all dockless scooters in from the wild. In high-scooting cities, Roche thinks the sweet spot is making parking available for about 25 percent of the total fleet, especially in areas with heavy foot traffic where sidewalk space is limited and vehicles tend to get carelessly dumped. With the rest roaming untethered, providers can still reap what are seen as the economic advantages of a dockless system, Roche explained: When rentables are freed from their expensive docking infrastructure, companies can invest in the volume and scale that may be needed to grow ridership. For the sake of comparison, docked bikesharing programs generally cost about $4,000 to $5,000 per bike; electric scooters retail for between $100 and $500.
Roche also maintains that Swiftmile’s charging docks mean vehicles can spend more time in use and require less human labor and resources to get recharged. An analysis by Quartz recently estimated that scooters in Louisville have a lifespan of just 28 days, and that Bird, the largest scooter company in the field, loses $293 per vehicle in the Kentucky metro. “The companies spend 50 percent of their operating costs on getting these things charged,” Roche said. Though he didn’t offer numbers, Swiftmile’s website explains that the pricing model is based per charge, and is designed for savings.
Other brains in the business are starting to advocate for more of a semi-dockless model, too. Kyle Rowe, the head of government partnerships at Spin, said he expects to see more dockless-scooter docks emerge in the congested corridors of the country’s scooter capitals, with the majority of the vehicles still ranging freely in residential areas. And Caroline Samponaro, the head of bike, scooter, and pedestrian policy at Lyft, believes that docks should be available for entire fleets of shared scooters and bikes. “What a dock does is mimic that idea of a public transit station,” she said. “It creates a predictable way for people to engage with this mode.”
Lyft, which owns Motivate, the country’s largest docked bikeshare operator, also rents dockless scooters in several cities, and is demoing its own parking racks outside a barbershop at SXSW and at the National Bike Summit in Washington, D.C., this week. Lyft’s racks don’t offer charging, and aren’t formally deployed in any city yet. But they create an opportunity for Lyft to talk about the benefits with interested parties, Samponaro said.
They also offer a way to address the safety concerns and injury lawsuits that have beset the nascent industry. The Washington Post reported this week that an 87-year-old woman in Santa Monica is considering suing Lyft after suffering a fall over a wayward scooter lying in the sidewalk. Some cities, including Santa Monica, Seattle, and Austin, have already tried other ways to contain the devices, such as spray-painted sidewalk “bird cages” and coned-off street “corrals.”
It’s too soon to say if such cosmetic interventions are quantifiably helping with safety and clutter, but anecdotally, at least, “they’re not hurting,” said Francie Stefan, Santa Monica’s acting chief mobility officer. “It’s helpful to have some sense of order and give people an idea of where the devices belong.”
Which is why other cities seem to be keen on proper scooter furniture. Lyft is chatting with at least one major West Coast metro about piloting its parking wares, according to a spokesperson. And Roche said that Swiftmile is in discussions with Los Angeles County, Long Beach, and Portland about testing on city streets soon. At the event in Chicago, he and his partners picked up cards from officials in New York City, Washington, D.C., Memphis, Nashville, and beyond. Then they hit the road for Austin, where Swiftmile caught the attention of civic leaders attending SXSW.
“The San Jose mayor saw us and said, ‘I’m beyond interested,’” Roche said. Steve Adler, the mayor of Austin, was also impressed: He told me that he’d like to see the concept of a generic sharing system tested and proven.
Not everyone believes that the future of shared mobility involves re-embracing the dock. A parking and charging station might sound simple enough to install, Stefan said, but the devil may be in the details: Can solar batteries hold enough charge to keep scooters in action? Who will pay for the electrical bills if not, once the stations are wired into the street?
And others believe that additional costs of adding all these smart charging docks will make the already-dodgy road to profitability for the scooter industry even more challenging to negotiate. “Docks look pretty, but they’re really costly and hard to adapt,” said Dawn Goodyear, a community engagement specialist for the dockless mobility startup VeoRide. “The ridership won’t be there if we go back the way we came.”