While Americans are still entrenched in this idea of make the car great again with autonomous systems, there’s another urban transport mode people have overlooked, the scooter. The scooter or motor bike is ubiquitous in Asia because of historically narrow and uneven roads. Match that with limited parking and hilly terrain and you have a good argument for scooters as practical mobility.
Bikeshare of Scooters
My first exposure to scootershare as urbantech was with Scoot Networks in San Francisco. Launched in October 2012, they offer on-demand electric scooters at designated parking areas throughout the City. Your phone app unlocks the bike key and off you go. TechCrunch called it “Zipcar for Scooters” but it’s more like bikeshare for scooters since you can take it to your destination and park it for the next person.
There’s no need to have a special driver’s license but you will have to attend mandatory driver training. This makes sense since few Americans are familiar with these bikes. It was a breeze to use these in the hilly terrain of San Francisco, jetting up steep streets with ease. These were particularly useful for traversing north-south corridors which are brain-numbingly slow on Muni or rideshare. The Scoots stow a helmet and have surprisingly nimble maneuvering.
Scoot launched with Chinese manufactured bikes as the bulk of their fleet (I suspect they are made by Luyuan). They were smart to go with a Vespa inspired model and a red color scheme (instead of the originally proposed black). Munich-based Govecs provides the recent Scoot “cargo” fleet. These German Go T1.4s are very BMW in design. They recently announced a partnership with GenZe for the next generation of Scoots.
Tesla of Scooters
On the other side of the Pacific, Gogoro launched in 2014 in Taipei. As the “Tesla of electric bikes,” Gogoro designs, manufactures, and sells sleek electric bikes that run exclusively on their own battery swapping network. Instead of gas stations, you go to recharging kiosks where you swap batteries like exchanging water jugs. You can charge at home too.
Gogoro’s bikes may look like traditional Vespas but the details are futuristic, with smoothed molded panels and a Star Trek-like command center. Following Tesla’s model, they own the vehicle production and the recharging network, so it makes it easy to innovative and scale up fast. Gogoro bikes have become practical transport on a regional level.
Will the U.S. Scoot
It’s unclear whether residents of an equally dense U.S. city will prefer sharing or owning electric bikes. Gogoro’s plug and play battery eliminates a lot of the logistical issues Scoot users face. For charging, scoot relies on users bringing low-energy bikes to charging garages throughout San Francisco, and leaving it there to slowly recharge. For travel, users have to be aware of the current battery level of the Scoot which equates to available travel distance.
On the flip side, curiously Gogoro has does not include 3G in its bikes, so you can’t rent out your bike in an easy way. Tesla software has always been intimately reliant on internet connection. Elon imagines a world where people will leverage their idle Model 3s as on-demand self-driving Ubers in his latest master plan. But I imagine Gogoro’s founder is following Elon’s plan of building an expensive product to gain money to build a less expensive product and so forth. Sharing bikes would definitely eat into sales. The starting price in Taipei is US $4,000 which is twice an entry-level Vespa at any local moto shop.
Scoot’s pricing is very affordable. Without a $20/monthly plan, it’s usually $4 for one trip. It’s about what you would expect between the choice of a bikeshare (time) and transit (cost and maybe time too). But in San Francisco, everything is cheaper and faster than a car. Uber is always surging and often gets stuck in the same traffic. In other sprawl cities, an electric bike fits a narrower portion of residents, and weather of course plays a role. So it will be interesting to see where Scoot expands.
In Minneapolis, I once worked with a young father who Vespa’d from the city to an adjacent inner ring suburb. His direct path was mostly residential and tree-lined, the travel time equated a car, and he saved on gas. For typical U.S. cities with lower densities, these short-medium distances (< 10 miles) may prove in-demand for electric bikes.