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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.
  • E-scooter usage in Europe is back to pre-COVID levels.

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: amy@axios.com.

Go deeper

Chicago official: COVID-19 allows for transit innovation

Axios' Ina Fried (l) and Chicago Transportation Commissioner Gia Biagi. Photo: Axios

The lull in transit use during COVID-19 has given officials room to experiment with public transportation for all communities, Chicago's transportation commissioner, Gia Biagi, said at an Axios event on Friday.

The big picture: Americans have shied away from public transportation during the coronavirus pandemic. But Biagi argues that declines in ridership provide a window to innovation that wouldn't otherwise be available.

Updated Aug 28, 2020 - Axios Events

Watch: The future of transportation in the era of COVID-19

RNC week: Axios' chief technology correspondent Ina Fried hosted a conversation on the future of how people get around in the era of COVID-19, featuring former Secretary of Transportation and co-chair of Building America's Future Ray LaHood, Commissioner of the Chicago Department of Transportation Gia Biagi and League of Cities CEO Clarence Anthony.

Ray LaHood discussed how the efforts to create more sustainable public transit have stalled with COVID-19, and called on the federal government to financially support existing transit systems.

  • On the need for the financial support: "Just as the federal government stepped up for the airlines...there will have to be a huge influx of federal resources in order to sustain transit systems until they can get back to some sort of sort of normalcy in terms of ridership."

Gia Biagi highlighted how COVID-19 has shifted people's mindset about what city streets can look like with fewer cars, and unpacked the existing inequities in Chicago's public transportation system.

  • How micromobility can supplement existing transit in Chicago: "What we're trying to do is connect the dots with micromobility and investments in the actual infrastructure. [Where we're seeing a need] also overlaps where we've seen the effects of structural racism and disinvestment that are fundamentally policy choices that have been made for many years."

Clarence Anthony discussed transit equity in cities, and the need for federal and state support to ensure that people have equal access to public transportation.

  • "What is our role as city leaders? It is to make sure that the equity is brought into the policy and the process and that we demand that all of those services — like ride share and public services — are brought to all communities in an equal way."

Axios VP of Events Kristin Burkhalter hosted a View from the Top segment with Lyft Chief Policy Officer Anthony Foxx, and discussed Lyft's role in the transportation ecosystem and how they're contributing to racial justice efforts.

  • On Lyft's relationship to public transit: "We feel like we're part of the ecosystem. We've never wanted to overtake public transit because we believe public transit is an essential service that only the public can do."

Thank you Lyft for sponsoring this event.

Ray LaHood predicts bipartisan push to aid public transit

Axios' Ina Fried (l) and former Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.

Former Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said he expects a bipartisan push in Congress to shore up public transportation during the coronavirus pandemic, as it did for the airlines earlier this year and is under pressure to do again.

The state of play: During an Axios virtual event, LaHood underscored that Americans are using cars, rather than public transit, during COVID-19 pandemic. Public transportation as a result has subsequently seen a massive drop in ridership and revenue along with it.