When you think about the future of urban transport, what do you have in mind? Flying cars? Self-driving Ubers? Personal drones? Although we may all be traveling around in one of these futuristic machines at some stage, I’ve already seen the future of urban mobility. And it’s a Bird.
Anyone living in San Francisco, certain parts of Los Angeles, and many other US cities will by now be overly familiar with Birds. Birds, and their cousins, Lime, Jump (owned by Uber), Lyft and others, are electric scooters that have been dropped on the sidewalks of major cities overnight within the last few months. These are standing kick-scooters (not to be confused with the Vespa-type moped scooters) which are equipped with an electric engine to give it a bit of oomph. They’re turned on or activated by scanning a QR Code on a mobile app that you have to download. Within a few seconds of coming across one of these on the side of the road, you can hop on, and be scooting around the city. When you’re done, you can just leave them on the sidewalk, ready to be used by the next person looking for a ride. It’s an ingenious business model, incredibly fun to ride, and causing untold angst with the affected municipalities. And so on a recent trip to Los Angeles, I decided to find out what these Birds (this is the brand that has overtaken LA) are all about.
How it works
There is beauty is in the simplicity here. All you do is download the app, enter in your credit card information, and then walk toward any Bird on the street. The first time you try unlock one, you’ll need to scan the front and back of your US driver’s license with your phone camera (this is apparently required by law). And that’s it – once you’re all set up, you can grab any Bird, unlock it, and be scooting away within seconds.
These Birds may not chirp, but they are cheap. You’re charged $1 to unlock the Bird and 15c (US cents) for every minute thereafter. I caught a Bird for a long ride lasting 1 hour and 6 minutes. We covered 6.2 miles (nearly 10km), and it only cost $10.90. (As an aside, scooting along the beachfront by Venice Beach and Santa Monica is a great activity for tourists in LA).
You may be asking yourself, “but what happens if you don’t unlock a scooter and just start riding?” These scooters are equipped with an alarm that will sound if its moved without being activated. Plus the wheels are effectively locked until you start the ride with the app, which makes them quite difficult to transport anyway.
It’s easy to find a Bird, after all they’re everywhere these days, but if you’re having any trouble spotting one, you can locate the nearest scooter using a map on the app. Opening up the app in Santa Monica, I saw hundreds of them in the nearby area.
You’re meant to ride these scooters in bike lines where available (which is easy and such a pleasure). If there aren’t any bike lines, you’ll have to ride on the side of the road which becomes slightly more dangerous as cars may not see you scooting on by and you won’t be able to see cars behind you or in your blind spot without turning your head. Local traffic regulations prohibit you from riding on the sidewalks.
Commercials and business model
The three aspects that I love about the business model are – the commercials, the advertising, and the ecosystem.
There is a reason why Bird and Lime are now considered Unicorns, with valuations of approximately $1 billion. Bloomberg Technology recently calculated how much they think these scooters can actually make. It’s really worth reading their analysis, but the bottom line is that scooters will effectively pay for themselves within approximately 2 months. Thereafter, they’re all profit, netting about $5 per day per scooter. If you can deploy 10,000 scooters in a city, per Bloomberg’s calculations, you have a business easily generating $40 million a year in revenue—per city. That helps explain some of the enthusiasm from these companies and, of course, their investors.
These scooters advertise themselves. People walk the streets and see these cool looking devices on the side of the road, they read the instructions, open the app and start riding. They then transform a stationary billboard into a moving billboard and are advertising these scooters to everyone they drive past. The uptake has been incredible which explains how these companies can confidently just drop hundreds of scooters in a new city and expect people to start using them.
Now you may be thinking, “what happens to these scooters at the end of the day?” and “how are they charged?”. These scooter companies have embraced the Gig Economy with all they’ve got, and they pay people to charge these scooters overnight. You can earn about $5 per Bird (and up to $20 for scooters that are harder to locate) just by finding the scooter, taking it home, and charging it using your own electricity (apparently this doesn’t use much). This is a great way for students to make a bit of money on the side and is apparently really fun, with “Chargers” using the Bird app to go “Bird hunting” (according to one 21-year old, “charging scooters for Bird is like Pokémon Go, but when you get paid for finding Pokémon” ) . Chargers then drop the birds off at a designated “Bird nest” when they’re done (I don’t know about you, but I’m not getting tired of these bird puns). All of this also means that there’s a self-sufficient ecosystem with these companies able to ‘drop-and-go’ and let the rest of the system handle itself. It’s like Uber, except Bird owns the vehicles.
The riding experience
These things are super-fun to ride. Although they’re throttled at 15 mph (24 km/h), it’s fast enough to get a bit of wind in your face and they never feel sluggish (unless you’re climbing a steep hill). Bird tries hard to emphasize that riders need to wear helmets at all time, which is prudent for the rider and is a legislative requirement, and I can imagine the kind of accidents that have happened with careless riders travelling helmet-less on the main roads. Bird even offers to send their users a helmet for a total price of $1.99 (including shipping), but I still never saw one helmeted individual riding around (and there are people riding these wherever you look). I already know 2 people who have crashed their Birds – one who landed up with a broken leg, so even though it may be easy to drive, it’s still dangerous. As mentioned, the app is also really easy to use and this makes the whole experience as easy as walking up to a scooter, tapping a few buttons on the app, and then scooting off.
Now not everyone is a fan of these scooters. They’ve been accused of littering the sidewalks, especially in San Francisco (which reached peak-scooter in a matter of days). I noticed a few that were badly positioned or had fallen over on the streets of Santa Monica, but for the most part I never saw an issue with these. But between the sidewalks being blocked, and the safety issue, cities are starting to clamp down. San Francisco has banned all scooters while they launch a pilot programme to determine the long-term rules for these vehicles and Santa Monica is voting on a proposal which includes higher permit fees, a cap on the number of scooters allowed in the city and tougher rules that, if broken, would result in the rental company losing its permit to operate in the city.
I’ve never been as blown away in recent times by a start-up or a concept as I have by these e-scooters. Firstly, their adoption is through the roof and it was incredible to see them being used wherever I looked, even though they’re still very new. Secondly, the business model is sound and is sure to make the companies who get it right a fortune. And thirdly, these scooters are serving a real purpose by providing a congestion-battling transport solution that is affordable, easy-to-use, and eco-friendly. Watch this space, because the Birds are about to change the face of urban mobility forever.
Also published on Medium.