This article featured in Revolve Magazine Issue #25 (Autumn 2017) on pages 60-66.
Writer: Eric Keogh
Shared-mobility services are changing the world of transportation. By offering end-users new ways to move around in cities, bike-sharing, car-sharing, and ride-sharing complement public transport with more individual mobility solutions. As they match the growing trend towards not owning a car (that is associated with high congestion, high pollution, and the shortage/expense of parking space) these new shared-mobility services are flourishing at a global scale. The newest trend is e-scooter sharing: having started in Barcelona, Paris, and San Francisco less than 18 months ago, it combines with digital technologies to provide even more innovative and more individual transportation solutions.
Individual electric mobility – “green” and convenient
Electric vehicles (EV) bring enormous advantages to urban dwellers: they run at very low noise levels and are environmentally-friendly, emitting absolutely no greenhouse gases at source. Not surprisingly, EVs enjoy growing popularity: according to the International Energy Agency’s “Global EV Outlook 2017”, EV registration hit a record high in 2016 with over 750,000 units sold worldwide – much of which is owed to a favorable policy environment. It is not surprising, then, that the latest trend in shared-mobility systems is e-scooter sharing: according to the same report, the current stock of electric two-wheelers has reached an estimated 200-230 million units in 2016.
Apart from environmental considerations, e-scooter riders enjoy a plus in convenience: traffic jams are not a problem anymore, nor is finding a parking spot. While the same benefits also apply for bikes, scooters are faster thus allowing users to cover greater distances and also to travel effortlessly uphill where some people would not be able to cycle. The key to market acceptance, however, is high vehicle “density”: users must find vehicles quickly and nearby when they need a ride – a key challenge for shared mobility operators.
Ideal complement to mass transportation
Outstanding providers are rewarded with quick success. eCooltra, a subsidiary of the Spanish two-wheelers rental company Cooltra, is an impressive example: in less than two years, the company launched e-scooter sharing systems with a total fleet of 1,400 units in four cities: Barcelona, Madrid, Lisbon, and Rome. During these two years, eCooltra won more than 100,000 end customers – today, it is one of the largest e-scooter sharing operators worldwide. By year-end 2017, eCooltra will extend its overall fleet to 3,000 units; by year-end 2019 the company wants to be present in more than 20 cities across Europe.
Another example is Cityscoot. A French start-up, Cityscoot currently runs 1,000 e-scooters in Paris; plans are to add 500 more before the end of 2018. This fast pace of fleet growth is a strategy all market leaders seem to have in common: they are well aware that high vehicle “density” is key to providing an outstanding level of service, and also to increase the visibility of the brand across a city. According to Cityscoot, the average number of rentals per day was 6,000 in June 2017. Their mobility system was launched officially in June 2016, and just one year later they had registered over 500,000 rentals, with more than 2 million km traveled.
A glance at the company’s statistics provides further interesting insights: close to 90% of Cityscoot users are men who work or live in Paris; on average, a typical trip is around 4 km long and takes 15 minutes, most of end-customers use the e-scooter sharing system to cover the last mile from public transport to their destination. So, e-scooter sharing system do not replace mass transportation but complement them in granting users individual and convenient mobility.
eCooltra and Cityscoot are not the only ones. In less than 18 months, close to 20 cities in the world have introduced e-scooters sharing systems; some of them – like Barcelona and Paris – even have several of them. In May 2017, the worldwide fleet amounted to more than 5,000 e-scooters; according to shared-mobility experts it may well reach more than 7,500 vehicles by year-end (estimate: ElectricFeel).
New technologies unlock new service opportunities…
Use of the e-scooter sharing system is simple and convenient: users pay per minute or based on other time-related schemes; while maintenance, cleanliness, insurance, and charging of the vehicle are all guaranteed by the provider. Most providers keep two different-sized helmets are stored in the saddle, some also a disposable hygiene cap and/or a blanket for protection against bad weather.
A special element can be found in Taiwan: users are invited to contribute actively to the viability of the mobility system by exchanging empty batteries against full ones at more than 300 battery-swapping stations across the city. In Europe, mobile service teams take care of battery changes: as batteries contain lithium, European legislators are less likely to permit swapping stations, so there is no battery-swapping station network to date. The city of Paris is planning to implement a network of charging stations, but lack of space is still a challenge.
Lately, a new trend has emerged: on-demand shared-mobility systems without fixed stations. Within a defined perimeter, users can rent, drive, and drop off e-scooters in any of the designated parking areas. A simple smartphone app enables them to locate the nearest vehicle and make a tentative reservation for 15 min, leaving enough time for them to go and pick it up. A telematics device inside the vehicle (equipped with GPS and network connectivity) permits them to locate and unlock it without a key or a card. Smart phones communicate with the vehicle via 3G or Bluetooth; all users need to do is download the provider’s app and go through a registration process. ID or driver’s licenses can usually be uploaded directly to the app. All rental and end-user information is transferred from smart phones to the management platform of the operator via the cloud.
… And new approaches to system operation
Digitalization has been instrumental in bringing new means of transportation to shared-mobility users. But that is not all: it has also created new ways of operating these systems. After all, finding, booking, and riding an e-scooter are just one side of the coin – the other is the host of back-end activities required to manage customer registrations and feedback, vehicle availability, efficient battery exchange, vehicle safety and cleanliness, billing and invoicing. New technologies help address these challenges thus providing a basis for profitable business models and even a tangible competitive advantage.
The management platform is essential as it can support both managers and field staff in monitoring the status of every vehicle in real time, and thus in detecting potential problems promptly. A special mobile app can be used – in this case, by service staff – which provides helpful instructions. With innovative digitalized solutions, tasks are generated by supervisors and automatically by the system. Big data and algorithms jointly work to determine the priorities to be tackled by the operator in order to provide the best possible service quality to mobility customers – and all activities are managed simultaneously.
Last but not least, digitalization also provides for machine learning, which helps operators manage complexity. Any given shared-mobility system generates an infinite amount of data. Machine learning permits forecasting user demands and maintenance trends in real time, based on usage patterns and technical data. For shared-mobility providers, leveraging these innovative technologies is a key to sustainable and successful business models.
Operator profiles are changing
Along with technological progress, the profiles of e-scooter sharing providers has changed; the same is true for new entrants in the bike-sharing market, such as Mobike and Ofo in China. As mentioned before, new bike and e-scooter sharing system have something in common: both have migrated from station-based systems to free-floating systems.
There are two main reasons. (1) station-based systems, quite obviously, require an extensive infrastructure stretching across entire cities. Take, for instance, the London bike-sharing system Santander Cycles that provide 11,500 bikes that can be docked and retrieved at 750 stations located all over the city. Or take the Vélib system in Paris, with more than 1,000 stations in the city center only, plus a few hundred more in the suburbs.
And (2) traditional bike-sharing systems are more difficult to implement, as they are public. The city issues a call for tenders, then awards the contract to a private operator. Decisions on the numbers of bikes and stations remain with the city. Private operators wishing to open a new station-based mobility system need the city’s official approval. Free-floating systems, by contrast, do not require such approval.
Most e-scooters operators are newly established companies; others have their roots in the cars rental sector. Often, private operators take the initiative and open a mobility system in a given city, without explicitly asking the authorities’ permission, and rely on their customers for observing local parking and traffic regulations. In some cases, mayors are delighted when new mobility systems are launched, especially when they do not need to invest any public funds. For instance, Anne Hidalgo, the Mayor of Paris, announced that Cityscoot had the city’s full support. In a few other cases, free-floating systems have been perceived as an invasion of the public space – but this is mainly true for bike-sharing systems, which are much easier to implement (both financially and operationally). For instance, some municipalities in China have complained about thousands of bicycles being parked anarchically all across the city, quite literally resulting in “heaps” of bikes. According to Shanghai authorities, there are approximately 1.6 million shared bikes in the city, about one for every 16 residents. Chinese municipalities have therefore introduced new regulations for private sharing system operators; in case of violations authorities will scrap vehicle fleets or charge fines. E-scooter sharing systems are still far from reaching this problem dimension.
The future belongs to shared mobility
E-scooter sharing is just beginning and clearly bringing a shift to the world of mobility, which can help relieve our cities of pollution, congestion, and noise, thus contributing to everyone’s well-being. The future will show how municipalities will deal with this new mobility solution.
Experts expect new regulatory frameworks for private shared-mobility operators to be introduced but authorities usually show support to green mobility alternatives. Also, profiles of private operators are likely to change. Municipal and large electricity providers have been showing a great interest in the mobility market, in particular in shared electric vehicles. Their involvement may trigger the next industry turn, in which longer-term issues such as the charging infrastructure may be addressed.
E-scooter sharing operators need to focus on scaling their fleet and delivering the best user experience. The technology powering their operating platform is essential as it can help avoid the pitfalls of operating large vehicle fleets and build a truly profitable business model.
To learn more, visit: www.electricfeel.com