Novelty of Scooters Poses Serious Challenge to Cars’ Reign

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The city of Portland, Oregon, is now three weeks into its four-month-long dockless electric scooter pilot program. More than 1,000 of the zippy vehicles racked up more than 96,000 rides in 21 days. It’s a rapid ramp-up for any technology, and it could prove to be a genuine disruptive innovation that challenges the primacy of the automobile.

In their first two weeks, Portland’s scooters tallied twice as many rides as its docked bicycle program did — with roughly the same number of vehicles — in its first two weeks in 2016. Further data will reveal how much of this uptake is rapidly scalable, flexibly deployed, and capable of cutting into the car’s space and role on America’s city streets.

I asked Regina Clewlow, CEO and co-founder of mobility data and analytics firm Populus, for her thoughts on scooters’ appeal. Clewlow said that some of it is undoubtedly their novelty. They’re also more forgiving than bicycles for those in work attire. And thanks to dockless bikes, city dwellers were already accustomed to the idea of shared vehicles located (and often rented) with a mobile phone.

Calculating the opportunity for scooters elsewhere requires data on how and why we travel. Fortunately, there’s a raft of this data from the latest National Household Travel Survey.

Most scooters are ridden only a few miles at a time. These are short trips — but so are most car trips! More than 20 percent of all U.S. vehicle trips cover less than two miles, and more than half of all trips are less than four miles.

Novelty of Scooters Poses Serious Challenge to Cars’ Reign

Most car trips, too, are for purposes a scooter or bike could fulfill. There are really only a few categories (transporting someone, driving to school, heading for medical services) that couldn’t easily be done on a shared bike or scooter.

Novelty of Scooters Poses Serious Challenge to Cars’ Reign

Solo little vehicles aren’t for everyone — toddlers, for instance, or those less able. The survey doesn’t categorize travel by physical ability, but it does sort by age. More than a third of U.S. travelers are between the ages of 16 and 39 and, if they’re interested and able, probably capable of using a small vehicle.

Novelty of Scooters Poses Serious Challenge to Cars’ Reign

So how many people really need a car-sized vehicle for their trips? It turns out U.S. vehicles are mostly empty when in motion.

Novelty of Scooters Poses Serious Challenge to Cars’ Reign

Across the total U.S. non-commercial vehicle fleet, anything rolling or moving on treads is carrying an average of a mere 1.67 people.

Our cities are already swarming with powered personal vehicles: automobiles. They’re marvels of engineering, quality and value; they’re also overengineered for the jobs they’re doing. Small networked vehicles, inferior in every way to contemporary automobiles, are also a classic disruptive innovation. We’ll see just how disruptive as more cities get more bikes and scooters.

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This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Nathaniel Bullard is an energy analyst, covering technology and business model innovation and system-wide resource transitions.

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