Jun 15, 2020 - Energy & Environment
Column / Harder Line

Coronavirus creates bigger risks for shared mobility

Illustration of a driving helmet and goggles with a surgical mask.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

The coronavirus is creating new health worries and exacerbating economic woes for the whole concept of shared cars, bikes and scooters.

Why it matters: To what degree our society doubles down on car ownership as the pandemic wears on and eventually recedes could have big repercussions for oil demand, climate change and our own daily lives.

The intrigue: I’m presumably one of countless people grappling with these decisions in real time. I moved in late March from a city with a robust public transit system (Washington, D.C.) to one with a less robust one (Seattle).

  • I haven’t owned a car since I moved to D.C. in 2008, and I was not planning on getting one any time soon after I moved, despite skepticism among many Seattleites that you can live in this city without one.
  • Then COVID-19 hit. Like most of us, my best-laid plans made no provisions for a pandemic.

Flashback: Seattle once represented the great promise of America’s shared mobility. As a high-tech city, it became a breeding ground for mobility experiments. Over the last few years, it offered around 10 different car, ride and bike sharing options, in addition to buses and a limited light-rail network.

Where it stands: Various financial hurdles forming before the pandemic, but exacerbated by it, have now driven many of those firms out of business and thus also out of Seattle and other American cities.

  • Uber’s willingness to burn cash to dominate the market is one reason, but maintaining lots of big inventory in a city — be it scooters or cars — can also be prohibitively expensive.
  • The only car-sharing option in Seattle now (that doesn’t involve borrowing people’s personal cars) is Zipcar.
  • The city has had no bike-sharing options in recent months, though as soon as this week Lime is planning to offer roughly 200 of its e-bikes it had acquired from Uber.
  • The coronavirus has forced Seattle to delay a scooter pilot program it was planning to launch this spring.

What they’re saying: Kevin McLaughlin, a veteran in the shared-mobility space, recalls creating one of North America’s first car-sharing companies in the late 1990s, called AutoShare, now owned by Enterprise Holdings.

  • McLaughlin said he managed to turn a profit — but barely — due to the high costs of maintaining the fleet and other operational hurdles: “If you can’t get bums in the seat, your profit margins evaporate.”
  • Earlier this month, he launched what he calls the first subscription service for personal electric bikes in North America. (Called Zygg, it’s only available in Toronto for now.)

“I’m happy I don’t own a shared mobility company right now because many of them were struggling before this and now it’s really hard in COVID for a lot of them to try and operate,” McLaughlin said.

By the numbers: What data exists about mobility during the pandemic offers a mixed outlook. But transportation is now the nation's largest source of carbon emissions, so if significant new trends hold, it could matter a lot to climate change and oil demand.

  • All car sales plummeted at the height of America’s lockdowns, but used car sales are rebounding fast compared to new car sales, per Reuters.
  • Americans are buying bikes en masse, leading to a shortage, but whether we will actually keep riding them for the long-term is an open question.

My thought bubble: I am resisting getting a car and clinging to our shared economy despite the pandemic, largely because it's by far the most financially sound choice for me right now.

I work remotely from my downtown apartment, eliminating the biggest need to have a vehicle (commuting). But I still need to get around for errands, hiking and socially distant park hangouts. Here’s what’s in (and out) of my transportation plan:

  • Includes: My sister’s bike on loan, Zipcar, rental cars, one close friend’s car and my own two feet. I’m never without disinfectant wipes, hand sanitizer and a mask when using shared mobility, but I still have a persistent dose of pandemic-induced anxiety.
  • Excludes: Most friends’ cars, Uber and Lyft, shared e-bikes and public transit. These were options I thought I would have at my disposal to thrive sans car in a car-dominated city before the coronavirus. I hope to resume use of these in the coming months — except public transit, which I will avoid for as long as I can because of the pandemic.

Threat level: Public transit is the biggest danger when it comes to potential coronavirus spread. Other shared mobility forms present far less risk, though doctors still urge precautions (mask if you’re using a ride-hailing option and thorough cleaning of shared cars, scooters and bikes).

“I wouldn’t hesitate myself to use a Zipcar or scooter. I think the bigger danger on the scooter would be crashing the scooter than getting the coronavirus from the scooter.”
— Amesh Adalja, infectious disease doctor working on pandemic policy at Johns Hopkins University

What I'm watching: For new and innovative ways to get around! Email me with your ideas: [email protected].

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