Smart-tech companies Lime and Bird introduced dockless electric scooters to Charlottesville late last year, as new “micromobility” options have swept in to urban areas nationwide. Forty-six percent of vehicle trips in the U.S. are under three miles, and scooters are fast, green alternatives to climbing into the car.
Smaller cities with university populations like Charlottesville are ideal for scooter travel because of the proximity of workplaces, residential areas, restaurants, and nightlife. A trip from the Corner to Sprint Pavilion is a 30-minute walk or 10 minutes by car, but it’s an eight-minute scooter ride, costing only a few dollars and avoiding the hassles of traffic and parking. The city introduced a pilot scooter program in December and residents have been quick adopters of the new technology.
“The scooters are getting a lot of use, much more than we expected, especially since the program launched in the middle of winter,” says Amanda Poncy, Charlottesville’s bike and pedestrian coordinator. Both Limes and Birds nationally average three to four rides per vehicle per day, but in Charlottesville that number is well above eight. Few accidents or acts of vandalism have been reported, which the city attributes to its controlled rollout of the program, announcing clear rules ahead of time and limiting the number of scooters deployed—100 each for Lime and Bird.
Eric Stumpf, who works at UVA and lives just off the Downtown Mall, began riding a Lime scooter to and from work most weekdays soon after they appeared on city streets. “It’s about $2 to $2.30 each way, and I can usually find one as soon as I leave the building,” says Stumpf. “In the mornings, they are reliably available in designated areas, like by the park.” Zipping past Main Street’s rush-hour traffic on a scooter is both time-efficient and cost-effective—an Uber would cost between $8 and $12 for the trip.
Riding is easy—download the app, find a scooter on the map, scan it with your phone, and take off. Helmets are recommended but not required, and riders must stick to roads and bike lanes, not sidewalks. Prices vary between cities, but here Lime charges $1.00 to unlock the scooter and 15 cents a minute for the trip. When deciding between a scooter and, say, an Uber, riders consider factors like weather, distance, whether they mind getting windblown, and how much they’re willing to spend. “I could take an Uber, which is more expensive, or the trolley, which is slower, but most days I enjoy the fresh air and the fun of the acceleration on the scooter,” says Stumpf.
Despite market optimism about the concept, the per-unit economics of dockless electric scooters are difficult. The vehicles cost $400 to $500 each and are expected to last only three to four months on the streets due to heavy use or losses from vandalism and theft. Bird and Lime pay subcontractors between $5 and $6.50 per scooter to retrieve them and charge their batteries during low-use hours (often overnight) and to relocate them to more visible areas of town, and to perform routine maintenance and repairs as needed.
Add in overhead costs such as credit card fees, marketing, insurance, and required payments to municipalities—both Lime and Bird pay Charlottesville a $500 application fee and $1 per day per scooter simply for the right to operate in the city—and scooter expenses often outstrip revenue on a per mile or per ride basis until the vehicle’s cost is fully depreciated.
Scooter companies expect some of these costs to go down with innovations such as swappable batteries and solar charging stations as well as better-built scooters, and industry competitors and collaborators seem undaunted. Uber plans to launch its own scooter line, powered by the 75 million Uber accounts already on smartphones, to offer scooters as another option in a menu of transportation choices. Autonomous vehicle startups are designing ways for scooters to move to charging stations at night by themselves, and Google is integrating Lime scooter locations into its maps app.
Stumpf, who has commuted by bicycle in New York City, is quite comfortable riding a scooter among lots of other vehicles. “There are two things you have to worry about,” he says. “One, doors from parked cards opening suddenly, and two, people crossing the streets not on crosswalks.” He says that when afternoon traffic is at a standstill and he’s moving in the bike lane, “if someone is crossing in the middle, darting between cars, you won’t see them until they pop out in front of you.”
Does the city need to up the number of available scooters? “No,” says Stumpf, “I’d say they should impose stricter penalties on those who abuse the rules,” such as leaving the scooters mid-sidewalk or on wheelchair access ramps. “Occasionally you’ll show up to the location on the map to find that the scooter is inside someone’s apartment,” he said. “That, to me, should be a one strike and you’re out situation.”
The last six months have been a learning process, says Jason Ness, the city’s business development manager, who has worked with UVA’s scooter program to coordinate “no go” zones where scooters are not allowed, such as the Lawn and the Downtown Mall. “Our job is to balance the needs of the private entities with those of residents and city government.”
“The fee money collected by the city is earmarked for additional pedestrian and bike infrastructure for things like signs to let people know where they can and can’t ride, and designated parking corrals to keep scooters in safe areas,” says Poncy.
Charlottesville’s scooter trial run ends in July when the program will be evaluated and city officials will decide whether to increase, decrease, or eliminate the vehicles. “We’ve been doing an online survey of both riders and non-riders to get feedback on the program and have gotten about 2,200 responses so far,” she says. “As you would expect, the people who ride really like it, and those who don’t ride are very skeptical. We honestly don’t know what’s going to happen.”