All it takes is a quick stroll down the sidewalk of virtually any big city in the United States to notice the latest craze in transportation: the scooter. In just a few years, dockless electric scooters have taken over city sidewalks while taking the startup world by storm. Bird, one of the first on-demand scooter startups, reached 10 million rides in its first year while becoming the fastest startup to ever reach a $1 billion valuation.
Bird's rapid success attracted more startups into the space, along with venture capital and acquisitions. McKinsey reports that more than $8 billion has been invested into micro-mobility startups since 2015. Suddenly, there are numerous scooter startups, e-bike rental solutions, and scooter manufacturers -- all fighting for a slice of the micro-mobility pie.
With all the buzz around micro-mobility, it's reasonable to ask if these solutions have real value propositions to backup the lofty valuations (and hype). To answer this question, I experimented with scooters, bikes and ridesharing to evaluate their tradeoffs. I wanted to learn if these solutions realistically changed the speed, convenience and cost with which I get around town. This article reviews the different methods of travel and the tradeoffs you might encounter with each one.
I conducted most of my testing in San Francisco, a densely populated area with a variety of transportation options. I recently sold my car, which has allowed me to go deeper into using, and relying on, these solutions.
Method 1: E-scooter rentals
There's no question that on-demand scooter startups have created tension between users, the startups, citizens, and city officials. Yet these same services have revolutionized how we travel short distances.
The benefits of on-demand and dockless scooter rentals (Bird, Skip, etc.) are abundant. The ability to open an app, rent a scooter in less than two minutes and ditch it on the sidewalk when you're finished is the epitome of convenience. Also, these scooters provide a fast, fun, and inexpensive way to travel short distances.
On the downside, on-demand rentals are only as convenient as they are available. In many cases in San Francisco, I could not find a scooter within walking distance unless I was in the immediate downtown area. I live only two miles from the center of downtown and rarely see a scooter in my area. Caveat: San Francisco is currently running a test pilot with only two scooter companies, which impacts supply. Therefore, this may not be an issue for you.
Yet in the case of poor availability, on-demand scooters may not be a good solution for when you need to rely on a scooter. In these cases, I found myself using Lyft to catch a ride to work or back home.
In terms of cost, my two-mile commute is about $3.25 per trip on a scooter. The activation charge is $1 per ride and the usage rate is $0.15 per minute. In terms of time, it takes around 15 to 20 minutes to travel two miles.
Method 2: Owning a e-scooter
Due to inconsistent availability with on-demand rental solutions, I decided to see what would happen if I owned a scooter. For the past three months, I tested the Swagger 5 Elite by Swagtron. The Swagger 5 Elite is fast (up to around 15 miles per hour), has good battery life (approximately 10 miles per charge in my conditions), and is easy to use. It has a number of clear benefits versus renting.
The first benefit is the reliability of knowing you have a ride when you need it. You can plan around it and there won't be any sudden availability issues. It's especially convenient for commuting to work and traveling to other routine parts of you schedule. It's also effective for a quick trip to the store.
The second benefit of owning a scooter is the cost savings. Instead of paying per ride, you pay an upfront cost for the scooter. The Swagger 5 Elite is currently $349.99. If you take $6.50 per day ($3.25 multiplied by two trips), it would take me approximately 55 days to break even on the initial cost versus renting a scooter.
Owning a scooter does require a few extra considerations that are not factors when you rent. First, you'll need to charge the battery. This could be annoying if you do not have a garage or you have flights of stairs to your home.
Second, I sometimes found it challenging to "park" the scooter. In the case of a commute, it's easy to store it under a desk or in the bike area of a co-working space. However, this is not possible at a restaurant or cafe. It is possible to use a thin cable lock, yet it's not hard for a thief to cut it.
Method 3: Motorized scooters ("motos")
If you need more speed or want to travel a longer distance, motos are a good option. Scoot, which operates in San Francisco, charges $4 per 15 minutes on the moto, and an additional charge beyond that time. That means my two-mile commute would cost between $4 to $5. This is slightly more expensive than renting a scooter and $3 cheaper than sharing a car. That's a strong value proposition.
That said, a moto involves a level of proficiency above a bike or scooter. The engine is more powerful and you're riding in traffic with cars, trucks, and buses. You should factor the additional risk and asses if the extra $3 dollars (or so) to ride in a car provides a better risk-reward ratio.
Method 4: A bicycle (ownership and on-demand)
Bikes have been around for ages, and their value proposition is pretty clear at this point. The upfront cost will break even over time and a bike doesn't require charging. It's easier to lock a bike with a thick cable lock and you can add a basket for groceries. There's also the benefit of getting some exercise while you commute.
On the downside, there are cases when I don't want to ride up the San Francisco hills and become hot and sweaty. In terms of parking, there are cases in which it's hard to find a legal place to lock the bike. You also need space at home to store the bike.
Dockless and on-demand bike rentals, like Jump, are a happy medium for those who like to bike. In San Francisco, a Jump bike costs $2 for the first 30 minutes, which is likely enough to get you across town. The good thing is you don't need to worry about parking or storing the bike. The downside is the ongoing cost versus owning your own bike. Yet at $2 per way, it's a strong value proposition.
In terms of speed, a pedal bike will travel slower than most e-scooters on the market. Many e-bikes have a battery assist, yet their speed varies and is based on your physical exertion.
Method 5: Ridesharing (Lyft, Uber, etc.)
Ridesharing is a great way to reduce congestion of cars in a city and reduce the negative impacts on the environment. They also provide a strong value proposition in micro-mobility.
Hiring a private car will be the most expensive method of transportation per trip. However, selecting a shared car lowers the per ride cost substantially. The same two-mile commute in a shared car will cost around $7 each way, depending on time and demand. While that is twice as expensive as renting a scooter, a car allows you to check emails or enjoy a moment to meditate while being driven to your destination. It's also safer than riding a bike or scooter.
Ridesharing certainly has downsides. First, sharing a ride with others adds multiple stops to the commute, which adds time. In one experience, Lyft routed my car to circle a downtown block during rush hour to pick up another passenger. That single move added 10 minutes to the ride. If I had chosen a scooter, I could have been half-way home by then.
Cost is also a downside for ridesharing. Prices are consistently higher than on-demand bikes or scooters, and can get even higher in peak times. That price difference compounds when you compare it to owning a bike or scooter. The last important factor to consider is availability, and the rare occasion when a car is not available when you need it.
Major conclusions and tradeoffs
Here's a list of the key conclusions and tradeoffs I made during this experiment:
- Owning a scooter is a strong option when you have a place to store it. It's faster than a bike, doesn't cost much more than a decent commuting bike, won't make you sweaty, and it's likely collapsible for easier storage.
- Using an on-demand service is more expensive because you're paying for the convenience of not having to worry about parking, charging, or maintenance.
- A shared car ride allows you to be productive, and that's valuable. Again, you will pay for that value with your dollars and your time.
- Buses are not materially cheaper than scooters, take longer to travel the same distance, and are limited to coverage areas.
The key is to customize a solution
This experiment showed me that no option is a silver bullet. The various tradeoffs require you to make choices based on your needs at any time. The beauty is these solutions are modular. You can swap them as needed, using one method to get somewhere and another method to go to the next place.
For example, you might take a rideshare downtown and then rent a scooter and ride to dinner. Owning a scooter might be the best option for the weekday commute, yet a rideshare is appropriate when you're out at night. You have the flexibility to decide.
The world of micro-mobility is exciting right now. The value proposition, profitable business models, and large addressable market make the space attractive from a startup and investment standpoint. The competition and sheer number of solutions is great for consumers. We have a number of great ways to get around town, and we can experiment with the options that work best for us. That's a great position to be in.