RICHMOND, Calif. — Serious transportation, or fun toy?
It’s the policy question that faces the scooter and the e-bike, the smallest forms of electric transportation. They’re surging in popularity among regular people, but the government hasn’t yet adopted them as solutions to solve heavy-duty problems like traffic jams or climate change. And it is not certain that it ever will.
Electric scooters and e-bikes don’t protect against snow or rain like a car, but advocates see them as multipurpose tools that could protect the future city from a host of problems, from traffic fatalities to carbon emissions to housing shortages, while also bringing a bit of a thrill to the morning commute.
But first micromobility, as some call it, has to prove that it is actually useful day-to-day.
“People are generally thinking of it as a leisure activity,” said Julia Thayne DeMordaunt, an urban transformation specialist at the think tank RMI, “and not as something that‘s necessary for commuting, or necessary for getting kids to school, or necessary for getting to grocery stores or a way to get to a greater number of jobs.”
Thayne DeMordaunt spoke at a picnic table outdoors during a break at Micromobility America, a conference held by the fledgling tiny-electric vehicle industry last month on the shore of San Francisco Bay.
As she did, curious specimens whizzed by on the bike path, samples that their creators had brought to the conference for test drives.
Quasi-motorcycles that go 60 mph. Models for the timid that max out at 15 mph. Sleek, self-balancing scooters meant for millennials; cargo bikes for busy parents; tiny bubble cars for retirement communities.
The entrepreneurs and engineers that created these strange creatures came to the conference to swap ideas for surviving the next recession and give lightning-style presentations to venture capitalists. But underlying all the go-go activity were policy challenges that come with being an outsider to the transportation ecosystem. They are unlike any faced by the other modes of transportation that move Americans.
“We have a car monoculture in the U.S.,” Thayne DeMordaunt continued. “We’ve sort of been wedded to the car for so long, it needs this infusion and explosion of technological devices that are more customized to what people really need.”
The micromobility industry was disappointed when it was left out of the Inflation Reduction Act, the huge climate and energy law that President Joe Biden signed in August. The House passed language offering a 30 percent tax credit that would have shaved $900 off the price of an e-bike, but it did not make it into the final text.
It’s surprising these dainty vehicles got even that far.
They have no dedicated lobbyists on Capitol Hill and aren’t part of the coalitions that delivered big wins for bigger zero-emission vehicles, like electric cars.
“Because it hasn’t gotten a lot of federal play, we haven’t focused on it a lot,” said Genevieve Cullen, the president of the Electric Drive Transportation Association, a trade group based in Washington, D.C., whose membership ranges from automakers to component manufacturers to electric utilities — but not makers of scooters or e-bikes.
“It’s pretty micro as a policy matter,” she added.
The silence in the nation’s capital stands in contrast to the vehicles’ fast-growing role on American city streets.
Reliable sales figures for this young industry are hard to come by, but they all point upward. For example, the Light Electric Vehicle Association, a U.S. trade organization, says that 880,000 e-bikes were imported to the United States last year and estimates that sales will reach 3 million a year by 2025. A surge of interest that began during the Covid-19 pandemic has continued into 2022, with leading e-bike makers unable to meet demand.
What micromobility vehicles have in common is an electric motor that, unlike a regular bicycle, either replaces or supplements the rider’s own physical effort. The Transportation Department defines them as “any small, low-speed, human- or electric-powered transportation device” that travels less than 30 mph and weighs less than 500 pounds.
The Biden administration’s demand that the transportation sector lower its emissions has caused nearly every relevant trade association — from airlines to passenger cars — to focus its Washington lobbyists on issues like emissions standards and tax breaks.
Micromobility is mostly absent from these debates because its challenges lie elsewhere: the city.
City councils and municipal transportation departments are the ones making decisions that determine whether a scooter-sharing system is profitable, and where the vehicles can safely travel. The conflicts get hyperlocal, as cyclists, residents and merchants spar over parking and bike lanes.
“It’s a contentious city-by-city battle, street-by-street battle, block-by-block battle,” Thayne DeMordaunt said.
The car replacement theory is starting to resonate at the federal level. The huge spending laws approved in the Biden era contain billions that could be used to build bike lanes. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttegieg made sure the news cameras saw him riding to work on a bicycle.
“Micromobility is going to have an impact on automotive, no question about that,” said Arun Kumar, who analyzes the auto market at consultancy AlixPartners. “But you’ve got to have a lot of the policy right, and in the U.S., I don’t think we’ve gotten the policy right.”
Searching for a breakthrough
Micromobility is in the midst of both creation and destruction. Where Micromobility America held its conference is a perfect example.
Just a ferry ride across the bay from San Francisco, Richmond is a rough-edged place known for its petroleum refineries. Organizers chose the specific venue — the Craneway Pavilion, the site of a 1930s-era Ford Motor Co. factory — in part because the access road had two advantages: little traffic, and great bike lanes.
On these lanes, conference attendees took breaks to trundle back and forth on electric vehicles of astonishing variety.
A one-passenger rickshaw shaped like a red slice of cake. Beefy bikes with huge, knobby tires. Tiny bikes that can be carried in one hand. One company even demonstrated electric roller skates.
The riders, who returned to the conference with exhilarated looks on their faces, may have been unaware that Richmond’s own residents have fewer opportunities for the same thrill.
Just three months earlier, Richmond’s own electric bike-share program had collapsed.
In July, the city discovered that the company running the service — Bolt Mobility, co-founded by Olympic gold-medal runner Usain Bolt — had abandoned the 250 turquoise-blue bikes it had stationed throughout the city. “Bolt apparently went out of business without prior notification or removal of their capital equipment from city property,” said Mayor Tom Butt in his newsletter.
The juxtaposition — vehicles multiplying as companies wilt — is a sign of the industry’s challenges. It is innovating at a furious pace but hasn’t sorted out the business basics, like what customers want and what they are paying for.
“There are 1,000 experiments going on at the same time,” said Horace Dediu, a smartphone analyst who coined the term ‘micromobility’ in 2017 and founded Micromobility Industries, the organization holding the conference.
During an interview backstage, Dediu, a 54-year-old Romania native with an MBA from Harvard University, acknowledged that the fledgling industry is still defining its products and business models. But he is certain of its overall mission: replacing the passenger car, which he sees as a dumb way to travel around the American city.
“A battery the size of your arm and a motor the size of your fist is big enough to move a person,” he said.
Instead, Dediu said, people should use electric scooters or bikes for short trips, which according to Energy Department research are the majority of trips. He said policymakers haven’t yet realized that mass adoption of right-sized vehicles could eliminate traffic jams, slash personal transportation expenses on fuel and insurance, reduce road fatalities, create room for more urban housing by eliminating the need for parking spaces and, as an added benefit, shake the dreariness out of commuting with a little fresh air.
His critique includes electric cars, which he calls using “3,000 pounds to carry a 200-pound payload.”
One reason for his confidence is the sheer speed at which bikes and scooters are iterating. New models appear constantly because, compared to a car, it’s quite easy to turn a new idea into a ridable machine. The essential components — batteries, motors, global positioning systems, gyroscopes, cellular connectivity — already exist. It is “the assembly of off-the-shelf components in clever ways,” Dediu said.
Because they aren’t designed to hurtle down a freeway at 80 miles an hour, they can be sourced more easily and with fewer regulatory burdens.
The automobile “is deeply dependent on its manufacturing, its supply chain, its processes and capital flows,” Dediu said. “It’s a web of dependencies that do not allow it to rapidly iterate.”
Lihang Nong, the founder of Nimbus, an e-bike maker, succinctly summed up the pluses and minuses of cars versus micromobility during his pitch to venture capitalists at the conference.
The nimble bike or scooter, he said, wins on licensing, cost and parking, while the car — with its reclining seats and metal-and-glass shell — wins on weather, safety and comfort.
But for all its brashness, the micromobility movement lacks something the automobile industry has had for a century: millions of users who find it essential.
“We’re nowhere near the tipping point where this really takes off,” Mike Radenbaugh told conference attendees. He is the founder of Rad Power Bikes, a Seattle e-bike maker that this year raised a record $304 million from investors. Serious consumer adoption, he estimated, could come in the next three to five years.
Dediu said he hopes micromobility will one day be compared to the iPhone: a product that revolutionizes an industry by bringing new, previously unimagined benefits to the user. But that day — and that product — are still in the future.
“We’re still in the dumb phone era,” said Thayne DeMordaunt.
How the mini-vehicle sees the city
While entrepreneurs hunt for the killer app, micromobility faces a different set of challenges on the streets of America’s cities, as is apparent in downtown Oakland.
Oakland is the Bay Area’s second city, across the bay from San Francisco but with a population more disadvantaged and racially diverse. It is four cities south of Richmond. After the conference was over, Kerby Olsen, the new-mobility supervisor for the city’s Transportation Department, offered a bike tour to understand the complex factors that determine whether a city turns scootering and biking into a realistic transportation option.
The tour started on 14th Street, a four-lane avenue that goes right by City Hall that will soon undergo, in Olsen’s words, a “road diet.”
For a mile-long stretch, the city will eliminate two lanes of car traffic. Most blocks will see a new bike lane created by either curb, separated from road traffic by strips of concrete and native grasses.
The city did not arrive at this plan quickly or easily. First proposed for funding in 2011, the project won an $11 million state grant in 2017. The City Council approved it this summer, and construction is supposed to start next year.
One reason it took more than a decade was to solve a persistent question: Where do the cars park instead? A crucial component of the project created new parking spaces on 13th Street, one block over.
“In a lot of ways, it all comes down to parking,” Olsen said while speaking a panel at the conference. “Parking is a very emotional issue in America.”
And if the car lobby’s priority is parking, the bike-and-scooter agenda can be boiled down to two words: bike lanes.
That’s “the one thing that everyone in the micromobility space is trying to advocate for,” said Thayne DeMordaunt. The industry views bike lanes as its keystone infrastructure because of a simple fact: Many riders won’t venture forth if there’s a chance they’ll get hit by a car.
Complicating the quest is that not all bike lanes are created equal.
“This is the standard American bike lane,” Olsen said as he stopped his bike at the corner of Harrison and 23rd streets. The tableau is a familiar to any urban driver. A row of parked cars is at the curb, and in the street is car traffic. Sandwiched between them is a bike lane about 3 feet wide. All that separates the bike or scooter rider from the cars is a stripe of white paint.
The standard American bike lane is not what Oakland is striving for.
In 2019, the city came up with a 145-page bike plan looking two decades into the future. It aimed to create 343 miles of bike routes. As of last year, the city was over halfway there, with 192 miles.
Importantly, the plan sought to put 90 percent of Oakland residents within a quarter-mile of a “low-stress bikeway.” Generally, these are lanes that put a physical barrier, or at least a buffer of space, between car and bicycle.
But to highlight the difficulty of achieving that safety, most of the mileage added in the last two decades has been the standard American bike lane, which the city does not deem “low stress.”
Creating a low-stress bike lane can mean eliminating a lane of car travel, or parking spaces, or both. That prospect galvanizes opposition, especially from merchants who believe eliminating parking means cutting off the store from its customers. These clashing agendas guarantee that many bike lane proposals are slow, grinding fights.
“It’s a tough sell,” Olsen said at the conference. “A lot of the merchants, they just don’t believe us that their business isn’t going to go down because of this.”
Cities vs. fleets
Another challenge relates to the urban mini-vehicles themselves: Who owns and controls them?
Oakland, like many big cities across the country, has a fleet of shared scooters and bikes. They are part of a wave of such programs that began a decade ago. In 2018, some programs started becoming “dockless,” meaning that vehicles are left where the rider ends a trip, rather than returned to a central point. These fleets addressed a perennial problem: More people want a bike or scooter ride than have the desire or means to own one.
Now many of those programs find themselves struggling to make money or, like Richmond’s program, folding altogether.
At the heart of their viability is a long-running dispute between city governments and ride-share operators over how much regulation is too much.
Cities’ caution toward sharing programs comes partly from two hard lessons. One is Uber Technologies Inc., whose app-based ride-hailing platform a decade ago spread like wildfire, becoming established before cities could intervene to stop it. Another is dockless scooters, which turned into a trip hazards as they were strewn on sidewalks. In Oakland, dozens of scooters were hurled into Lake Merritt, the estuary that lies next to downtown.
In response, cities have forbidden micromobility sharing platforms unless they operate by the city’s rules.
“We all have to accept there’s a little bit of a culture clash between the high-tech ‘move fast and break things’ and the deliberative process of democracy,” said Libby Schaaf, the mayor of Oakland, in an appearance at the Micromobility America conference. “It’s OK for you to move fast and break things, but its not OK if the thing you are breaking is grandma’s ankle.”
After complaints, Oakland’s government required scooters to be locked up at the end of a ride and, in a bid for equity, required that the larger fleets deploy 10 percent of their vehicles in disadvantaged parts of the city.
Since the locking rules went into effect, complaints have dropped 90 percent, and trip-and-fall claims “have gone away,” Schaaf said. Also, now that the scooters are geofenced so they can’t be locked up by Lake Merritt, they are being tossed in the lake in far smaller numbers.
Such rules, however, can be onerous for the providers.
Philip Reinckens is the CEO of Spin, one of the country’s largest operators of shared-scooter programs in the country. He said in an interview that some rules operators must abide by — offering vehicles in disadvantaged neighborhoods, for example, or shutting down service late at night — along with heavy parking fines, make it “complex for us to achieve financial sustainability.”
Also weighing on financial sustainability is that during the pandemic, use of shared systems went into a tailspin.
In 2019, before Covid-19 shut the world down, each of Oakland’s 800 shared bikes were getting ridden about once per day, Olsen said. Now, a bike is used about once every three days. Ridership “has not recovered,” he said.
The impact of that is that the ride-share program — currently run without subsidies from the city — might not continue if riders don’t return. “We’re right on the edge of being viable right now,” Kerby said.
Compounding the difficulty is the expense of running a ride-share program. High expenses mean that prices passed on to customers are high compared to other modes of transportation. For example, an hourlong ride for a (non-electric) shared bike in Oakland costs $12. Bus fare is $2.10.
“The economics are not very appealing for consumers to switch to micromobility,” said Kumar, the analyst for AlixPartners.
Beyond the city
Though the city is the primary theater of micromobility, states and the federal government are starting to assume a role.
This year, Colorado’s Legislature approved a $12 million e-bike rebate program, and California backed a $10 million initiative. Neither has yet begun. Both were preceded by a wildly popular program in the city of Denver, which offers $400 to $1,200 vouchers for city residents.
On the federal level, recent big spending bills approved by Congress leave a path open for bike lanes to be built.
The bipartisan infrastructure law doubled funding to $7.5 billion for so-called RAISE grants, which target local transportation infrastructure. While most recipients are heavy-duty projects like ports or bridges, some awards this year are meant to create or improve bike routes in cities from downtown San Francisco to St. Augustine, Fla. The infrastructure package also set aside $1 billion for projects that reconnect urban communities that were sundered by freeways.
Another approach to bike paths comes from this summer’s Inflation Reduction Act, which puts almost $1.9 billion toward community infrastructure that aims to “improve walkability, safety, and affordable transportation access” through “context-sensitive” projects.
Though the industry is “in turmoil,” as Radenbaugh of Rad Power Bikes said, the bike-and-scooter industry knows that each new rider is a potential new advocate for better biking infrastructure. That, in turn, could eventually move the tide in the city against the car and its roadways and toward its little EVs and its bike lanes.
That is part of the thinking behind Oakland’s Electric Bike Library, which starting next year will offer electric bikes to city residents on free, long-term loan.
“Policies should be around getting as many micromobility devices in people’s hands as possible,” said Thayne DeMordaunt. “Then, and only then, will there be enough people power to really shift things.”