The last couple of months have hit the personal transportation industry hard. Shared bike and scooter companies have been brought to a near-screeching halt as many of us are sheltering in place. In some places, like Miami Dade County, the use of micromobility devices has been forbidden, and even where it is allowed, those who are still out and about are feeling less excited about the idea of touching shared scooter handles.
Lime’s CEO Brad Bao characterized the abrupt change well in a recent email:
“Almost overnight, our company went from being on the eve of accomplishing an unprecedented milestone — the first next-generation micromobility company to reach profitability — to one where we had to pause operations in 99% of our markets worldwide to support cities’ efforts at social distancing.”
The near term business impact has been brutal. In late March, Bird laid off 30-40% of its workforce and Lime, Lyft, and possibly Uber are now following suit. This is quite the turn of events considering the rate of growth the industry has seen over recent years, with Bird becoming the fastest company to ever become a Unicorn and McKinsey reporting over $5.7B in investment in the space between 2015 and early 2019.
The Underlying Market Need Is Still Strong and Should Increase
With a longer term lens though, I think there is still hope and even some positive news for this industry. First of all, it’s been awesome to see how these teams have been responding to this new set of constraints. Wheels is now deploying bikes with self-cleaning handlebars, using a material from nanoSeptic. Many platforms are offering free rides to first responders. And some are apparently putting more focus on gig economy workers delivering food. These companies are showing the same agility and ingenuity that fueled their pre-covid growth, and it gives me more confidence that they will navigate this new challenge successfully.
…if there’s one thing that probably won’t go back to normal for a long time, it’s our willingness to get on crowded buses and trains.
Secondly, if there’s one thing that probably won’t go back to normal for a long time, it’s our willingness to get on crowded buses and trains. One indicator we have of this is the behavior in New York when confirmed cases were still very low. Some parts of NYC saw a 50% surge in bicycle use in early March. This article claims that Beijing has seen a 187% increase in bike share rides during their recovery.
As the only form of public transport that is capable of supporting social distancing, shared bikes and scooters are an essential component of an effective urban economic recovery strategy. Michelle Kyrouz does a great job of explaining how and why here. Put simply, as people continue to avoid traditional public transportation, micromobility will allow residents and tourists to navigate the city safely, commute to work, acquire supplies and participate in local economies.
Hope for the Future
I’m hopeful that this “pause” will give cities and micromobility companies an opportunity to take a step back from the frenetic growth to establish a sustainable and profitable path forward. There are things cities could be doing to make for a more friendly regulatory environment for these platforms, and actions the companies could be taking to amplify the positive impacts of their service while mitigating the negatives. As my colleagues have recently written, while investing during a recession is hard, companies who do will emerge ahead of the pack.
This is a really hard and uncertain time, and my thoughts are with all of my friends and colleagues in this industry. But I’m also hopeful about the potential. I feel strongly that the need for shared mobility platforms will be stronger than ever as society recovers from the pandemic, and that the same creativity and determined drive for disruption that created this industry will help it seize that opportunity.