Though e-bikes and scooters have been around for quite a long time in the U.S., its growing prevalence on the streets is a more recent story. But as people living in cities like LA and San Diego would have witnessed, what started out as an environmentally cleaner alternative to ride-hailing and carpooling solutions has now turned out to be borderline nuisance to local residents.
To an extent, the blame lies in the business model behind the e-scooter startups and their obsession with gaining market share, which has made e-bike renting remarkably flexible and dirt cheap. As a majority of the e-bike startups do not really necessitate riders to park the scooters in designated areas, a lot of the bikes lie strewn around public parking lots and alleyways, unfolding a nightmarish scenario for daily commuters.
At the moment, metropolitan cities are a fertile ground for testing the product-market fit of the e-bike segment, and thus startups in the vertical are showing no signs of backing down. Unicorn e-bike startups like Bird and Lime have a huge presence across the U.S., and are now tailed by cab-hailing companies Uber and Lyft, which have perceived the depth of the e-scooter market and are eager to tap in.
As such, taxi-sharing has seen a significant drop in metropolitan cities during peak hours, with many commuters looking to beat the traffic by opting for bike-sharing solutions. Uber, for instance, saw a 10% drop in cab trips across San Francisco, with the primary cause being bike-sharing companies that intersect with its market.
Uber had shown signs of expanding into the e-scooter market earlier this year as it bought bike-sharing startup Jump for an estimated $200 million. The company recently launched into a regulation-restricted Santa Monica, where the beachfront city has allowed four companies including Uber to operate a total of 250 e-bikes over the next 18 months.
The imposed restrictions could pave the way for a less chaotic e-bike scene in the city. Users are also instructed to park their scooters in designated parking lots, with people flouting the rule being fined $25. That said, the bike-sharing companies are fronting themselves with attractive options and cheap per-minute riding rates in their race towards market capitalization.
For instance, Uber charges $1 to unlock a bike and just 15 cents per minute to ride it. The per minute charges do not kick in for the first five minutes, a leeway provided for the user to locate their reserved vehicle. Uber also offers an option called “scooter swaps”, which can be used by a customer who spots an available e-bike on their way to pick their reserved bike. Users can swap their reserved bike with the nearby one and ride away.
However, the solution does come with a fair share of users who flout the ground rules concerning e-biking. Number one on that list is the teenage riders, who do not seem to adhere to the rule of being over 18 and in possession of a valid driving license to take the e-bike out of a parking lot. There have been various instances of teens recklessly zipping past red signals and being caught exceeding speed limits – a recipe for disaster. Teens also generally ignore the need for wearing a helmet and general safety measures, with many kids breaking bones and teeth in a fall.
Though it should be easy for e-bike companies to strictly enforce its age-limit and driving license rule, there have been no visible steps taken in that stead till date – apart from the customary user agreement and warning guidelines. Nonetheless, this aspect could be repaired as can be seen by the progress made by Lime in Santa Monica, where it has started scanning the user’s driver license to verify age. If the rider is found to be underage, the e-bike cannot be unlocked.
Then again, this is an isolated experiment by Lime, which has not translated into a full-fledged company regulation across all the cities it operates in. Callousness in bike riding has sent people to hospitals after accidents, with the Nethercutt Emergency Center at UCLA in Santa Monica attending to 18 serious injuries in just a fortnight in July.
As investors pour millions of dollars into e-bike startups helping them flush cities with their bikes, it is essential for the companies to have a measure of the impact their solution creates on the society at large, along with looking to increase revenue and market share. Stricter control over who takes control of the bike would go a long way in improving overall safety and in creating a pleasant experience for both the users and the commuters who surround them.