Kick scooter sharing has made it easy and fun for people to experience the benefits of shared mobility. While there are financial, environmental, and social constraints, kick scooter sharing is the mode that people are opting for. Looking deeper into this phenomenon, we see that transition theory explains why kick scooter sharing exploded in popularity.
Micromobility is the new term on the block, and encompasses shared modes that are made on a vehicle less than 500 kg. This automatically excludes any car, which is fine because there are other one-, two-, and three- wheeled forms of mobility that can better serve the purpose of short trips. While bike sharing and moped sharing also fall under the scope of micromobility, it is kick scooter sharing that has sparked the most interest, and probably joy, among people in cities worldwide.
In the past few years, cities and shared mobility players have started to realize the potential of micromobility. However, the reason why micromobility is gaining in awareness isn’t because Lime and Spin entered the market at the right time and the right place. Instead, the breakthrough and the rapid adoption is due to factors that technological transition theory explains quite well.
The theory of technological transitions is a concept coined by Frank W. Geels, a Professor of System Innovation and Sustainability at the University of Manchester in 2001, and was later adopted to the automobile industry in 2011. Even with the challenges that kick scooter sharing faces, transition theory highlights how this form of micromobility serves as the gateway for shared mobility to cross the chasm and reach the early majority.
Overcoming the Challenges
Diving in to the categorization of micromobility modes, kick scooters are part of the lightest quintile at a maximum weight of 25 kg, with the potential to cover trips made under 2 miles, which represents over 21% of one-way trips made in the US. Based on usage and consumer behavior so far, 30% of trips made on a scooter replaced a trip in a personal car. On the surface it seems like the ease of using kick scooters is poised to help cities reduce urban congestion, but there are still challenges that need to be overcome.
The standard revenue model for kick scooter sharing services is a flat fee of $1 to start a trip, plus a nominal per minute rate. According to data from trips made in Louisville, Kentucky, the average lifespan of a scooter is 28 days, with an average of 3.49 rides made per scooter per day. Deducting operating costs, a scooter would generate only $65-$75 in revenue in its lifetime, which results in a net loss since the average cost of a scooter is around $360-$500.
One solution would be to offer purpose-built kick scooters in the fleet, which would hopefully lengthen the life of a scooter. In addition, operators like Scoot are placing more efforts on reducing the likelihood of theft and damage to the scooters. With these initiatives, scooters will hopefully experience a longer life cycle to reduce the trend of having scooters being treated like a disposable commodity.
Currently there are no regulations that mandate how to manage the life cycle of scooters. With the scooters’ short life span and the infamous bikeshare graveyards, operators need to begin taking action to reduce this end of life waste. Otherwise, this would, in a way, contradict the environmental benefits of scooters reducing emissions per mile to one-tenth or even one-twentieth of a car.
Fortunately, operators like Bird and Lime are shifting their focus on designing their own purpose-built scooter that is more durable than the standard models currently found on city streets, enabling them to take the whole life cycle into consideration. In addition, the kick scooter sharing operating model is becoming a hybrid of docked and dockless. Solar powered charging and parking stations are filling the gap of cities’ need to declutter sidewalks and operators’ need to keep scooters charged and available.
When kick scooters first launched, many cities were taken by surprise. These unregulated vehicles were accused of littering curbsides, reducing sidewalk accessibility, and causing chaos among drivers and pedestrians. While the reputation of kick scooters have slightly improved in recent months, irresponsible rider behavior and reported emergency room visits are slowing down progress of these new modes of mobility.
Cities and operators need to work together to create the required infrastructure that support the inevitable growth of kick scooter sharing. Transitioning bike lanes into micromobility lanes will give riders a safe space. A team in each city with day-to-day fleet management responsibilities will improve the availability and user experience of kick scooter services. Regulations that ensure scooters have a place somewhere on the streets and keep operators accountable for sharing data will help build up people’s mobility options.
Looking through the lense of transition theory
Transition theory can describe how transportation changes over time and how the features and changes of established modes can influence each other. In addition, transition theory sheds light on how breakthrough innovations like kick scooter sharing occur and its impact on the status quo of transportation. Kick scooter sharing, as it turns out, was poised for success as ongoing changes happening all around us made it the mode to fill an unmet gap in people’s mobility needs. These ongoing changes are highlighted from the macro-, micro, and meso-level perspective, and explain how the growing awareness of shared mobility supported the adoption of kick scooter sharing. As a result, the ease of kick scooter sharing has allowed more people to actually experience shared mobility.
Macro-Level View: Social and Cultural Norms
Transportation doesn’t have to be synonymous with a private vehicle, and the cultural shifts we have seen over the past few decades highlight this. Even though millennials are still buying cars, people are becoming more aware of the impact congestion has on cities and the irreversible damage that has done to the planet. The search for transportation alternatives has begun, albeit slowly.
This is where government policies and action come in to play and economic, environmental, and social demands pick up. City infrastructure plays a key role in influencing how people get around. Complete streets highlight how a thorough fare isn’t just for cars but can be a space used for kick scooters, pedestrians, and public transit. Initiatives like banning cars or removing street parking from city centres show how street space can be better used. Congestion pricing unveils the true cost of driving and vehicle ownership costs are higher than people expect.
Micro-Level View: Ongoing Innovations
Kick scooter sharing is the newest mode in the shared mobility ecosystem, and it is relatively easy to use. The barriers to access are lower, and the use cases involve riding just for fun. If the key to making shared mobility work is that it needs to be simple and easy, kick scooter sharing definitely meets that need. Combine this with the fact that cities are building more community spaces, kick scooters become a viable way of getting around the city.
Mobility-as-a-service and mobility aggregator apps are helping people build a portfolio of mobility options to get around, meaning it’s not just about using one mode to get from point A to point B. Uber knows this, Lyft knows this, and people need to start knowing this too. Instead of having a private vehicle be the default option, the growth of options give people the opportunity to consider what mix of option really makes the most sense.
Meso-Level View: The Mobility Regime
At the meso-level is the mobility regime, which encompasses the changes that are happening in the mobility space. The mobility regime is considered dynamically stable, meaning it experiences ongoing change due to micro- and macro-level factors, but is also stable because these changes often face resistance and therefore do not happen overnight.
The shift away from personal vehicles is multi-dimensional – users need to be open to changing their transportation habits; technology needs to be complex enough to enable ease of sharing vehicles; societies need to encourage sharing to be the norm; start-ups and existing operators need to be willing to build out new mobility services; and cities need to make all this possible with the proper regulations.
Figure 1: Transition Theory Applied to Kick Scooter Sharing (Source: Geels et al., 2011, ‘Automobility Transition’)
When Bird launched the inaugural kick scooter sharing service, followed by Lime and Spin almost simultaneously a few months later, it almost seemed like the rapid adoption was due to novelty. However, these launches were a result of the alignment of changing social and cultural norms and ongoing innovation that made kick scooter sharing a popular choice for consumers. Now with millions of trips to analyze, research has started to unveil the first-last mile potential of kick scooters and there is steady acceptance of this mode from both the consumer and city point of view.
Even traditional automotive companies are starting to take notice, with Ford’s acquisition of Spin and Daimler launching Hive. Kick scooter sharing easily fills the mobility gap for many trips, whether it be to an appointment, to the bus stop, or just for leisure. Because of its steady popularity, kick scooters are a growing part of the current mobility regime, and as a result will help displace private car reliance and ownership.
The shared mobility ecosystem is growing, and kick scooter sharing has expedited the adoption of alternative modes of transportation. Factors from the macro-, micro-, and meso-level played a role in creating a window of opportunity for kick scooter sharing to be the mode that people are curious to try out. While there have been many successes with other new mobility services like carsharing and moped sharing, it is kick scooter sharing that has broken down the most barriers in getting people to even give shared mobility a chance.
As a result, more people are now aware of shared mobility and we can expect new and existing services to become part of people’s day-to-day transportation choices. Kick scooter sharing was the gateway needed to bring shared mobility in front of more people.