Scooter riding in Auckland. Photo: Patrick Reynolds

How the e-scooter revolution is already shaping our cities

Smaller, cheaper, cleaner: e-bikes and e-scooters are already disrupting even transport giants like Uber, writes Greater Auckland’s Patrick Reynolds. 

The electric revolution on our city streets, already underway, looks much more like a scooter than a Tesla. Why? Physics and geometry: size really matters for both energy consumption and spatial efficiency. And both drive affordability and therefore the speed of uptake.

The conventional wisdom, especially as expressed in many official documents, is that electrifying the transport sector means waiting for the technology and cost of private cars to change enough, to organically, over time, change out the whole fleet to electric, like for like. This then, conveniently for the unimaginative, is change you can have without having to change.

This matches a similar misconception about urban form: the future is just greener buildings still spread out further and further into countryside at low densities, almost exactly like past, but with a 21st century tinge.

Don’t get me wrong, the gradual replacement of current fossil fuelled road fleets – passenger, service, and freight – will be transformative for the energy sector, urban air quality, climate emissions, and our balance of payments. And in more ways than people assume: check out the possibilities of the nation’s e-fleet as a giant battery, vehicle to grid or V2G, for example. But it really is a failure of the imagination to expect these things to change in isolation. We know that big changes in energy and transport technologies always lead to land-use and lifestyle changes too. Anyway, if we look, we can see change already underway.

We are not just changing fuel source, but also vehicle size and how we use our urban areas. And these changes are happening fast.

Smaller e-vehicles offer an answer to both the need for rapid transition from fossil fuel vehicles and the demand for more spatially efficient city movement systems. This is great news because urban car traffic quantity is inversely correlated to almost every measure of city success there is; for public health, safety, and growing the urban services economy.

In the 21st century city, loitering is more valuable than motoring.

So where are we at?

Auckland has been adding density to its urban area all century, building up to out at a ratio of around 75:25. This has largely been through suburban infill, and metropolitan centre apartments. Since the Unitary Plan has been operative, reducing some restrictions on building up, this ratio has grown recently to 90:10 in the data to May 2018. In the city centre this is most obvious but it is certainly not the only urban area to be growing more complex with more residents, employment, education, and entertainment options, all within closer reach.

Happily too, we have at last been adding alternative movement infrastructure, cycleways, and more effective public transit so more and more people are getting to places without a car. Again this is especially evident in the city centre, but really that’s just the early adopter area of a city-wide trend (both PT and cycling ridership growth are consistently over 2x population growth) .

It’s no wonder pedestrian counts are up and cycling is on the rise, but also that those little electric scooters that turned up in Auckland are proving so popular.

So what of the physics? Here’s a good Wired article comparing scooters to Teslas, all in crazy US measurements of course:

So e-scooters use a fraction of the energy of a conventional car, like 1%, and still only ~5% of an electric car (not including embodied energy).

The electric battery and motor can so much more easily and cheaply perform a movement task when the vehicle size is smaller; less mass requires less energy. And our increasingly crowded city streets can’t fit two tonne tin boxes to move one human around anymore either, so there’s a perfect storm of technology and need meeting these little devices.

Of course you say, we all know that, but no one’s going to scoot for 20kms on the motorway to work, duh! For sure, but they absolutely will scoot two kilometres to work, or 500m from the transit station to work and home again from the station in the ‘burbs. So our changing urban form and our gradually improving and spreading Rapid Transit Network, turn out to be a perfect fit for exactly these machines.

And it’s not only the machines themselves, but also the sharing system they operate under. Some people prefer to own their own, but the boom has been led by the shared ones.

Note they do seem cheaper in Brisbane than in Auckland.

And it’s not going to stop. As far as I can work out (and the data is proprietary so I don’t really know – more on that later) they are, shall we say, financially sustainable:

The economics of these scooters are nuts. They cost on average around $500-$600 and can complete 8-10 rides a day. This data is confirmed from offshore, and the word is that Auckland is at the higher end. If you assume an average trip cost of $3 the scooter will pay itself off in 2-3 weeks of use from gross revenue. The business is profitable, even paying chargers $5-7 a night and having scooters turn over (ie. depreciate) in a 6-8 week period still keeps the overall business looking very attractive.

Shared scooters and e-bikes are eating Uber’s trips. In cities where Lime and Bird are popular, Uber saw a 10% drop off in car trips. It’s why they bought Jump, their own e-bike play. Where they have Jump, they’ve seen a boost of 15% more trips overall, just pushed to scooters/e-bikes. As CNN reports:

Uber isn’t alone in embracing e-bikes. Its biggest rival, Lyft, purchased bikeshare startup Motivate this month, and plans to introduce more bikes and scooters. And then there are all the scooter-sharing outfits popping up lately. Bird and Lime have raised money faster than Uber and Lyft did in their early days.
And we already know a huge proportion of trips currently driven are short:
“People are realising vehicles can be much smaller and simpler and electric,” Klein told CNNMoney. “You don’t need a giant GMC Suburban for a trip under a mile.”

The market for micro-mobility is massive: even if you assume that we’re only talking about short trips (sub-6kms) on a passenger km travelled perspective, the total addressable market globally is estimated at ~5 trillion kilometres of easily convertible trips.

So it’s clear to see how converting even a fraction of these trips to not only electric power but also much lighter weight vehicles is a huge game changer for the energy transition: it means no need to substitute fossil energy with anywhere near the same amount of renewable energy, even if many more trips are generated.

This profitability opens up the possibility of taxing the sector to fund further ‘bike lanes’ for them to use as they do in Portland, where 25c per trip goes to the DOT. And that’s a potentially handy sum.

Shared services like Lime/Bird are growing faster than even Uber and Lyft. It’s likely that they’ll catch and then overtake Uber on cumulative lifetime rides by 2021, according to this observer:

This is massively disruptive for emissions reductions: these little devices have the emissions profile only 1-2% of a car for the same kms travelled. If we’re serious about reducing emissions in transport, we should be doing everything we can to support this. This is still the case, but less so, in comparison with e-cars, which produce ~10-20x more emissions per kilometre than an e-bike or e-scooter because it has to lug around the weight of the whole car as well. It’s all about the mass (as much as the MaaS).

Finally, the tech is evolving super fast: Because the scooters/e-bikes are replaced so often, they’re getting iterated on every few months and will soon include cameras, speakers and in the not too distant future, we’ll start to see intelligence emerge like auto braking before curbs, speed limiting on footpaths and more. And because the regulations on deployment and safety concerns are far lesser, perhaps we’ll see some form of autonomous lightweight electric vehicles that can drive themselves to the customer or charging point long before we see widespread autonomous cars.

So here are 10 conclusions:

  1. At the city policy level this is just more evidence that we need to get on and add ‘3rd space‘ bike lanes between the footpath and the traffic lanes as quickly as possible so there are safe places to use these new smaller machines (and it must be legal for these devices).
  2. This should be done by converting existing traffic lanes because this is where we want the new users to come from, and where they will come from. This is also the cheapest and quickest way.
  3. Slower speeds on urban streets are vital for shared use.
  4. A programme of dedicated and ideally separate walking and bike/scoot paths focused on transit stations are a priority.
  5. The same can be said for schools.
  6. We need to manage but not restrict these new entrants into the market and to do so at the cost to the companies of sharing their data with the city. Our public agencies need this data to serve their people well. And there are ways to do this without compromising commercial viability.
  7. If there is a case for public subsidies or stimulus in the e-vehicle market then it should be at the lightweight end. Scooters don’t need this, but e-bikes could be a good place to consider this.
  8. It is vitally important that or planning agencies – AT, NZTA, Ministries of Transport and Energy, the Productivity Commission – all understand that bikes and scooters are about transport, not just recreation. They need to include them in their analysis and guidance. They currently have a huge blind spot about this, and only have eyes for e-cars.
  9. Ditto the urban form changes that partner the uptake of these devices; they’re consistently downplayed in official studies I’ve seen.
  10. The same is also the case for our transport models. We must make sure mode-shift to these devices is actually a possibility in any model.

Here’s a really good podcast and blog with New Zealand contributor Oliver Bruce on this technology from a market perspective. And here’s an article on Santa Monica, the birthplace of micro-mobility. And an interesting local perspective on Stuff too.

Disruption may well be an overused word, but all three of transport, energy, and urban form are being disrupted by new technologies, new economies, and the reality of climate change pressures. And that means we’re seeing real change: whole communities are doing everyday things differently to how we did them last week, last year, last century. It’s coming like an electric train.

So on a last note, below is the Council comms on transport and climate change. Note it says ‘reduce the number and length of trips’. If that really means the number and length of motorised vehicle trips well that’s dead right. Because as we know that every new transport technology to date has stimulated new journeys that previously weren’t taken, so we can expect there to be new micro-mobility e-trips as well as substituted one. Rev your small and relatively low powered e-engines, citizens.

The answer is not just better cars one day, but fewer cars now.


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