Nov 5, 2020 - Economy

The great e-scooter debate

Graphic illustration of an electric scooter

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

Fun, helpful and convenient or dangerous eyesores for the young? Whichever side you take, shared e-scooters are coming in March to New York City — that is, to the four boroughs other than Manhattan.

Why it matters: Ride-share purveyors have blanketed the nation with motorized scooters, a trend fueled by the coronavirus — as people shunned mass transit — and likely to continue unless safety or other problems intervene. (Remember hoverboards?)

Driving the news: New York City, which TechCrunch called "one of the most coveted shared micromobility markets in the industry," just started soliciting interest in its upcoming pilot program.

  • This set off "a frenzy among dockless vehicle operators, who all see an opportunity to serve what has, until now, been the largest untapped market in the United States," per Smart Cities Dive.
  • Bird, Lime, Spin and Voi are mentioned as contenders.

What they're saying: NYC is "angling for multiple vendors, but not having that be unwieldy," Phil Jones of Lime told me. "I think we've seen that in other cities in the first iteration with micromobility, where you're having 10-plus operators. That doesn't work well."

  • Maurice Henderson of Bird tells me his company is gung-ho about the market: "From a Bird perspective, if you can make it in New York, you can make it anywhere, right?”
  • Manhattan is off the table for the moment — for all the obvious reasons, which e-scooter operators characterize primly as "having enough transportation options already." (Those options include Lyft's non-motorized shared Citi Bikes.)

The big picture: There are still a few other big U.S. cities up for grabs, either in pre-pilot or later stages — including Boston, Philadelphia, Houston and Chicago — and they are hoping to learn from the early adopters.

  • San Francisco banned e-scooters in 2018 after myriad problems, then reinstated them.

The bottom line: Safety remains a huge concern.

  • One study of people seeking ER treatment for e-scooter injuries found that sidewalks are particularly hazardous and that "e-scooter riders suffered injuries more frequently per mile traveled than bicyclists, but bicyclists were three times as likely as scooter riders to be hit by motor vehicles."
  • Revel, which rents e-mopeds, suspended service in NYC this summer after three people were killed.
  • Per the New York Times: "Operation of the mopeds is not always immediately intuitive to those more familiar with cars and bikes, and 17% of Revel crashes in 2020 occurred on the user’s first ride."
  • Revel, which only rents to people who have driver's licenses, tells Axios it won't raise its hand for the citywide e-scooter program. An answering machine at its Brooklyn location says, "If you were involved in an accident, please press 2."
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