Originally published on TechCrunch.
Four years ago, shared e-scooters didn’t exist. Today, they’re on track to surpass half a billion rides globally by 2021, far outpacing early growth in the carbon-heavy ride hailing industry founded by Uber in 2009.
That’s a dramatic shift in urban transportation by any measure, and it prompts a simple but important question: How did we get here?
Understanding the key developments that helped advance micromobility over the past several years can give us valuable insights not only into where the industry is headed, but about how we can successfully shape it to meet the needs of hundreds of millions of current and future riders around the world.
From vehicle design and data to safety reporting and infrastructure, these five innovative moments have helped fuel the global growth of shared e-scooters and are helping lead cities into a healthier, more sustainable future.
#1: Shared Scooters Launched, Fall 2017
The very first fleet of Bird e-scooters was launched in Santa Monica, California in September of 2017. Up until this point, the micromobility industry consisted almost entirely of docked and dockless bike sharing systems that were averaging approximately 35 million trips across the United States every year—more than half of them in New York City alone.
After an encouraging start, shared e-scooter riders in the US took nearly 39 million trips in 2018 and another 86 million the following year. A similar trajectory is being seen across the Atlantic, as nations such as Italy, England and Ukraine join a rapidly-expanding list of countries including Germany, France, Israel, Spain, Portugal, Belgium, Denmark, Poland and others who have chosen to supplement their urban transportation networks with modern micromobility alternatives.
Shared scooters can now be found in over 200 cities on almost every continent around the world.
#2: First Custom-Designed Shared Scooters Released, Fall 2018
The first e-scooter programs taught us two things very quickly: there’s high demand for this type of micromobility offering, and custom-designed vehicles are necessary to successfully meet that demand.
The fact is, shared scooters are ridden more frequently, handle more diverse road surfaces and endure more varied weather conditions than privately-owned ones. That’s why Bird’s vehicle team unveiled the industry’s first custom-designed e-scooter, the Bird Zero, in October of 2018. Equipped with more battery life, better lighting, enhanced durability and more advanced GPS technology, this was the first in a series of comprehensive vehicle evolutions intended to increase safety, sustainability and lifespan—and it worked. Tens of thousands of these scooters are still in use today, and every month of continued service reduces their already-low per-mile lifetime carbon emissions even further.
Subsequent custom vehicle designs, including the Bird One and Bird Two, have added onto this foundation, introducing industry-first features such as:
- On-board diagnostic sensors capable of detecting over 200 faults
- Vehicle intelligence systems capable of running and reporting millions of autonomous fault checks per day
- IP67 or IP68 waterproofing on batteries
- 14,000 mile (22,500 km) battery life, resulting in more than 10 years of average everyday use
- Mechanical design independently tested to withstand more than 60,000 curbside impacts
#3: Comprehensive Industry Safety Report Released, Spring 2019
Safety has rightly been the most important focus, and the most discussed aspect, of shared micromobility since its inception. It’s why Bird launched the industry’s earliest and most comprehensive free helmets for all riders campaign in January of 2018, along with a host of other safety initiatives.
In April of 2019, these programs culminated in a comprehensive e-scooter safety report. This was the first in-depth look at modern micromobility systems, using accident reports and other data to demonstrate that shared scooters have risks and vulnerabilities similar to bicycles. The report laid the groundwork for cooperative safety measures to be taken by both operators and cities to ensure that not only riders and pedestrians but all road users are protected.
Over the past year and a half, we’ve used the findings contained within the report, along with others that have since echoed its findings, to imagine and develop a series of product innovations that are helping set the standard for e-scooter safety across the industry. These include:
- Shared micromobility’s first Helmet Selfie feature to promote helmet use
- Shared micromobility’s first Warm Up Mode feature to assist new riders
- The first and most accurate geofencing for e-scooters to create reduced-speed and no-riding zones
- Responsible data-sharing standards and practices to help cities build new infrastructure for bikes and scooters
#4: Open Mobility Foundation Created, Summer 2019
The last bullet above is particularly important. Cities have a crucial role to play in limiting the number of cars on the road and maximizing the amount of infrastructure available for bikes and scooters. It’s a proven strategy to improve the safety of all road users that depends heavily on one critical input: reliable, standardized data.
Since our first launch, Bird has been a strong proponent of responsible data sharing with cities. What was lacking, however, was a unified body to help guide and develop mobility data standards across the micromobility industry.
All of that changed in June of 2019, when cities like Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco came together with companies like Bird and Microsoft and a consortium of nonprofit organizations called OASIS to form the Open Mobility Foundation (OMF). As Chairperson and General Manager of the LADOT Seleta Reynolds wrote in Forbes, the OMF platform “helps us achieve important city goals like increasing safety, equity, and health outcomes, while lowering emissions, and reducing congestion.”
These collaborative efforts to manage micromobility systems using open-source code and shared data standards might seem wonky, but they’ve had some very tangible real-world effects. In Atlanta, shared e-scooter data has been used to quadruple the city’s protected bike lanes by 2021. Santa Monica recently used scooter data to draft and pass an amendment that will add 19 new miles of separated micromobility infrastructure.
#5: UK, NY E-Scooter Programs Approved, Spring 2020
This year’s decisions by the UK and the state of New York to legalize shared e-scooters and launch respective pilot programs may not be an innovation, but it’s a crucial development that will ensure the industry tops 500 million rides in 2021.
From an environmental and urban mobility perspective, London and New York are two of the most important cities in the world. Combined, they’re home to 17 million people and more than 10 million daily car trips. The introduction of e-scooters into these two densely packed and highly-mobile cities will have a dramatic impact on daily commuter habits, particularly at a time when public transit ridership is still suffering due to COVID-19. That’s good news for cities, citizens and the environment.
The data that will be gained from such a high volume of micromobility rides won’t just help inform infrastructure improvements in New York and London. It will be added to a growing body of research that’s rapidly influencing micromobility technology and accelerating its adoption around the world.
So what can we learn from all of this? What will the first four years and 500 million rides of the shared e-scooter industry tell us about the future of micromobility?
First, we should expect its growth to continue. Adaptable, environmentally-friendly solutions to car congestion and urban pollution were in high demand even before the global spread of the coronavirus in 2020. Now they’re proving themselves to be a necessity. Look for the relationships between cities and operators to strengthen and become more cooperative as scooters transition from a perceived recreational vehicle to an essential part of the urban transportation grid. This will include dramatic, data-informed improvements in protected infrastructure for both cyclists and scooter riders.
Second, we should anticipate that e-scooter technology will continue to develop around two key pillars: safety and sustainability. This applies as much to the form and functionality of the vehicles themselves as it does to the daily operations that manage them. Longer lifespan, improved battery performance, increased durability and enhanced diagnostics will be the benchmarks by which we measure this progress.
Finally, we should anticipate that, as the data from hundreds of millions of annual rides continues to accumulate, our understanding of urban mobility needs will become much clearer and more nuanced. Urban planning decisions will be able to be made based on street and hour-specific needs, identifying potentially dangerous areas and taking low-cost, high-impact actions to remedy them.
If current trends continue, and there’s every reason to believe that they will, the time it takes to add another ½ billion e-scooter rides to the global total will very soon shrink from four years to less than one.
Travis VanderZanden is the founder and CEO of Bird.