Scooter Companies Explain Their Plans for East Lansing

Friday, September 21, 2018, 7:12 am
By: 
Jessy Gregg

Two different rent-to-ride electric scooter companies are looking at East Lansing as a potentially lucrative market for their products.

Bird is already operating in East Lansing, after dropping a hundred scooters without warning two weeks ago. Lime, a competitor to Bird, also wants to come and set up business here and has sought meetings with East Lansing government officials.

These for-rent scooters are unlockable through a phone app and a rider is charged a fee until they relock the scooter. Bird charges $1 per ride plus 15 cents per minute of use.

Bird and Lime are both venture capital-funded alternative transportation companies, but there are some differences in their operating strategies.

For example, Lime’s vehicle offerings include bicycles and electric-assist bicycles as well as scooters. The bicycles are “dockless,” typically left near bike racks and unlockable through a dedicated phone app if a rider wants to rent a bike. The electric-assist bicycles work similarly and give a little extra boost, to help a rider arrive at her or his destination less sweaty and tired.

Both companies presented information about their company policies and operating procedures at the City Council meeting this week.

Ted Fetters, Senior Manager for Government Relations from Bird, was “invited” to address Council regarding his company’s approach to the electric scooters that Bird has been operating in East Lansing and on MSU’s campus since September 7.

Fetters explained that the company employs a “pop-up” model where scooters are introduced into an area without notifying the local government. The company can then use data collected from the company’s app, which riders use to unlock the scooters, to demonstrate that there is an interest in their products.

Fetters described the company as starting with “just a guy, a scooter and an idea. That idea was to bring a last-mile, electric vehicle sharing solution dedicated to bringing low-cost, environmentally-friendly transportation alternatives to communities across the world, East Lansing being one of them.”

He provided Council with some data regarding the scooters that are already in use in the East Lansing Area. With approximately one hundred Bird scooters in operation here, Fetters said that they are recording an average trip distance of about one mile, with 2,500 people in the area signed-up as riders. Bird’s East Lansing fleet is being used for a total of approximately 600 rides per day.

Fetters explained that Bird “scales” its operation based on the baseline of three rides per scooter per day. If there are more than three rides per scooter, Bird will begin to scale up the number of vehicles in a market. Fewer than three, Bird will scale down. East Lansing’s scooters are seeing an average of eight rides per day in what Fetters described as one of the companies “strongest market responses.”

There are also nineteen people locally who are employed by Bird as “chargers,” who gather the scooters every night, perform a safety check, charge the electric batteries, and redeploy the scooters into “nests.”

In response to Council Member Shanna Draheim’s comment that many of the complaints she’s heard are due to either improper parking or unsafe riding, Fetters explained that his company usually sees a “learning curve” with riders who are not aware of proper riding procedures at first, but that there’s usually a “sharp uptick in proper ridership over time.”

He said that “people are a little bit nervous the first time they ride, [and] until they kind of get their wings out, they’re on the sidewalk. As soon as they get a little more comfortable, they’re on the road or in the bike lane, where they should be.”

Council Member Aaron Stephens said he sees a need for cheap, reliable, equitable transportation but also expressed his consternation over Bird’s lack of notice to the City regarding its plans to deploy their “pop-up” in East Lansing. Stephens said that, to his surprise, he woke up one morning to a series of email and Facebook complaints regarding scooters.

In response, Fetters described Bird’s business model as “fast and growing.” He said, “As a business practice, often notice is not given. This particular exercise was a pop-up to gather some data for us to be able to show City Council members and others the benefit that is there and the demand that is out there.”

Stephens emphasized, “The no-notice [approach] was a little bit of a shock to me.”

Acting Mayor Erik Altmann asked Fetters what would happen if the City decided to impound the scooters – whether Bird would for pay the fees associated with the impounding, or if the company would abandon the scooter.

“We would retrieve them and pay whatever impound fee there is, although I would say that we’d like the opportunity to work with the City, and…the Department of Public Works to get a reasonable timeframe, where we could receive notice and one of our field staff could come and remove that very quickly so that it is out of the right of way.”

Altmann responded, “So you’d like some notice?” (Several people in the room laughed in response.)

Council also heard from a representative from Lime, another company specializing in shareable electric vehicles.

Scott Mullen (above), Lime’s Director of Expansion for the Northeast Region, brought one of Lime’s scooters into the Council Chambers. Founded in January of 2017, Lime is slightly older than Bird, but not by much.

“The demand is there. People want to ride these micro-mobility options,” Mullen told Council.

Mullen explained that his company seeks to offer a variety of transportation alternatives, including electric scooters, bicycles, and electric-assist bicycles.

“We want to capture any of those trips that might otherwise be in a car that don’t need to be, two-to-three-mile trips. Why are people driving for that? We want to help people shift to a way that is green, that is more fun, and that is sustainable.”

In contrast to Bird’s business practices, Lime does negotiate with cities before launching their vehicles in a new market. Mullen said that he’s been in Michigan since March, working with Detroit, Ann Arbor, and other Michigan cities. He had, several weeks before the Council meeting, contacted the City of East Lansing to ask for a meeting.

“If we work collaboratively with cities and all the local stakeholders, and regional transportation, we can actually blow mode-shift out of the water. And that’s really the goal. We’re not here to make a buck with a scooter or an electric bike or a bicycle,” he told Council. “We’re here to help East Lansing get into the future in terms of mode-shift. People are hungry for it, traffic is crazy, congestion, it just doesn’t work.”

According to Mullen, Lime is operating in close to one hundred U.S. cities, as well as in Israel, Paris, and Madrid. He says their “collaborative approach” has been “incredibly well received,” saying that Lime launched their first vehicle at UNC Greensboro last June, and has logged nine million trips on their vehicles since then.

Mullen described his vision for how a “partnership” with the City of East Lansing might play out, with a pilot scooter program in the fall to gather data, and then perhaps an expansion to electric bikes in the spring.

In spite of the differences between the two organizations in terms of the way they work with municipalities, there are many similarities between Bird and Lime.

Both companies emphasize the way their products can help to bring affordable transportation to underserved communities. Both offer low-income memberships based on need, and Fetters mentioned that Bird also has a veterans program.

Fetters used the example of how Bird operates its fleet of four hundred scooters in Detroit, saying that they have committed to placing 60% of their “nests” (drop-off locations) outside of the central downtown district to promote “equity” throughout the city. He said they encourage use of the outlying nests by employing chargers who live in the area, since they’re more likely to drop their Birds in the nests closest to where they live.

Below: Bird scooters parked on Abbot Road, photo by Ken Sperber.

Mullin explained that Lime works with community organizations who are already reaching-out to underserved populations. Lime also uses Pay Near Me service locations, so that low-income riders who need to pay with cash can add rides to their Lime account at the discounted cost of a nickel per ride. Lime also has a feature where users can unlock the bikes via SMS, if they don’t have access to a smartphone.

Both companies require users at the end of a rental session to take and submit a picture of the scooter showing how they parked it, in order to encourage users to park the vehicles responsibly, in a way that does not block the right-of-way or impede disability access.

Bird’s photos are reviewed by their staff. According to Fetters, the company issued a “call to action” over the Labor Day weekend and employees came in to review a backlog of user photos.

Lime’s system allows riders to “rate” other user’s parking jobs by reviewing their photos within the app. Mullin said that they are using that user feedback to “train” computers to rank the parking photos.

Altmann closed the presentation period by reminding both companies that East Lansing now has an income tax, which means that their earnings within the city will be subject to the municipal income tax.