The micro-mobility revolution continues apace. On a recent trip to a few cities across the U.S. last month, from East to West coast and across the South, I was struck by the fact that all urban centers are now awash with stand-on—or toppled over—electric scooters.
It’s amazing to think if you go back two years, you’d likely see no e-scooters at all. Bird, one of the pioneering companies in the rent-by-the-minute e-scooter business, didn’t exist until April 2017. But since then, along with rivals such as Lime, the company's equipment has become ubiquitous.
The young industry is naturally still evolving. Cities such as San Francisco rained all over Bird’s and Lime’s parades last year when city officials took exception to these companies "dumping" scooters all over town uninvited. When many local governments did allow scooter rental companies back in to their cities, permits were awarded to other companies that had to comply with newly written requirements, while pioneers, including Bird, were blocked from re-entry.
As such, competition in the business of app-based rentals is fierce, while profits remain a future aspiration for operators. But Bird seems to be one of the most aggressive companies in finding ways to get its product into cities and into consumers’ hands by teasing out new market opportunities.
Circumventing San Francisco’s continuing exclusion of its operation in the rent-by-the-minute market, Bird announced last month that it would instead rent scooters to people on a monthly basis for a flat fee of $24.99. The company will even deliver one to your home and pick it up when you're done using it.
The equipment is evolving, too. Despite the mass deployment of these diminutive vehicles, to date they have been of consumer-grade quality as opposed to industrial-strength quality. Living on the streets 24/7 and being ridden by multiple users numerous times a day was not the design brief of the scooter manufacturers, and so the average lifecycle of a scooter is currently measured in fewer than a handful of months.
Here, too, Bird is switching things up. As a result of being able to scale its business by raising venture capital, the company is in a position to work with scooter manufacturers to conceive of a more robust product that can withstand the rigors of constant city use.
The upgraded and more rugged scooter, named the Bird Zero, has a longer projected lifecycle and should be fit for purpose for at least 10 months of use, according to the company. In a recent interview with The Verge, founder Travis VanderZanden explained, “We’re now seeing that we’re doing 10 million rides, [in] 100 cities, with 2 million riders.” So, it makes sense to extend the serviceable life of a unit, especially as profitability is directly linked to how long a scooter remains in service.
But in a move to build ridership in yet another market segment, Bird has taken things a step further and plans to make an iteration of the Bird Zero, the Bird One, available for consumer purchase. What this will offer customers is a more rugged and durable scooter developed for an urban commuter fleet, which will surpass the standard offered by other consumer e-scooters they can already buy online.
Of course, Bird's scooters will cost substantially more. You can buy a consumer-grade scooter from Amazon for around $500, whereas the Bird One will set customers back $1,299. For that, though, you’ll get a ride which tops out at 19 miles per hour, while providing a very useful range of up to 30 miles on a single charge—and you’ll get a choice of three different colors.
It’s probably a smart move on Bird’s part to cover multiple business models and approaches for getting its scooters into the mass market—rent by the minute, rent by the month and selling units to consumers—because it’s perhaps hard to tell where profits will ultimately be found in the e-scooter segment. Bird will at least build experience by covering more bases, and there should be money in it somewhere.
Research shows that the growth of the electric scooter market is projected to be extremely robust. Grand View Research recently published a paper that revealed the global market size for e-scooters was $17.43 billion in 2018 across all genres, from e-mopeds, to stand-on e-scooters and folding variants, and will continue to grow as lithium-ion batteries become increasingly cheaper.
Despite this, however, the app-based rental market may or may not be where the action remains. In April, transportation reporter Andrew J. Hawkins, writing in The Verge, went as far as saying that e-scooters might not even be around for long. He notes that the fundamental numbers don't appear to add up because scooters don’t bring in enough revenue over their lifespan to cover their cost.
Perhaps Bird’s longer-lasting, fleet-grade scooters will start to change the economics of rental operations. At the same time, Bird selling superior quality scooters to consumers could be the icing on the cake.
Images courtesy of Bird
Phil Covington holds an MBA in Sustainable Management from Presidio Graduate School. In the past, he spent 16 years in the freight transportation and logistics industry. Today, Phil's writing focuses on transportation, forestry, technology and matters of sustainability in business.