U.S. Scooter Ridership Surged in 2019. Now What?

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Last year, when the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) releasedits annual report on shared micromobility services, the message was clear: The dorky-looking electric scooters that had appeared on the streets of American cities over the course 2018 were more than glorified children’s toys. The battery-boosted rentable vehicles were a serious urban transportation technology that racked up more than 38 million trips — a healthy chunk of the 84 million total trips that traditional docked bikeshare programs and less-traditional dockless services tallied.

Now NACTO is releasing its2019 Shared Micromobility Report, which shows scooter ridership continuing its growth trajectory, and large bikeshare systems expanding usage at a healthy clip. American cities played hostto 136 million shared micromobility trips in 2019, including station-based bikeshare, dockless bikeshare and shared e-scooters. To put those numbers in perspective: Two thirds of all shared micromobility trips since 2010 have been made in the last two years. 2019’s shared micromobility ridership alone would be the equivalent of the fifth-busiest subway or light rail system in the country. 

“What we’re seeing is there’s tremendous demand to make short trips easy, which is what micromobility does,” said Alex Engel, the program manager for communications at NACTO. “We see that with the explosive ridership growth and the durability of ridership in many, many places.” 

Of course, these findings come with a big, virus-shaped asterisk. Micromobility ridership, like all forms of transportation, took a major hit in 2020 when the pandemic-related stay-at-home orders brought America’s cities to a virtual standstill. And the enduring impact of Covid-19 is continuing to depress ridership, as students, tourists and office workers — all e-scooter power users — have yet to resume their pre-pandemic patterns. But there are signs that this industry is still coming into its own, eating up a growing share of the U.S. transportation pie and playing an essential role in keeping cities moving during the coronavirus crisis. 

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Most of the micromobility growth has come from e-scooters. Scooter ridership increased from 38.5 million in 2018 to 88.5 million in 2019, a growth rate of more than 100%, while station-based bikeshare ridership increased 10%, from 36.5 million to 40 million.

The 2019 scooter explosion came as the industry expanded its geographic footprint considerably to 109 cities, up 45% from 2018. The six largest scooter markets, Atlanta, Austin, Dallas, Los Angeles, San Diego and Washington, D.C., accounted for a bit more than a third of all scooter ridership. (The report does not provide city- or company-specific numbers as part of its data-sharing agreements with micromobility providers. NACTO cross-checks data from the providers with city governments to ensure accuracy.)

Docked bikeshare, on the other hand, saw virtually all of its growth and 87% of total ridership in its six largest markets: New York City, Chicago, Washington, D.C., Boston, Honolulu and the Bay Area. The rest of the country’s adoption has lagged: Three-quarters of all docked bikeshare systems recorded ridership decreases in 2019.

The poor performance of smaller-market bikeshare systems points to another one of the report’s findings: Scooters get the highest utilization (trips per vehicle per day) in fleets with fewer total scooters, while docked bikeshare bikes get the highest utilization in the largest systems. “Dynamic” caps that increase as utilization grows are helping cities identify the proper size of their scooter fleets, Engel says. “There’s a trade-off here. You want your system to be utilized, but you also want it to be accessible.”

This trade-off already prompted something of amicromobility reckoning at the end of 2019, as Lime and Lyft (which also owns most of the country’s largest bikeshare systems) pulled their scooters out of several cities in order to focus on their most popular markets. Around the same time, Uber handed off its JUMP business, purveyors of popular dockless electric bikes, to Lime.

The NACTO report sheds more light on how different kinds of sites favor various forms of shared micromobility. 

Scooters tends to thrive in sprawling, warm-weather cities, while docked bikeshare does best in more dense, older cities. (The sweet spot for both: Washington, D.C.) The regulatory environment plays a role, too. Strict geo-fences and vehicle caps on scooters in cities like Chicago and San Francisco, and outright bans in New York, Boston, Seattle and Philadelphia, have hampered their growth there. Some of those regulations, includingNew York’s ban, are starting to loosen.

Shared bikes and scooters also tend to be used for different trip types. Scooter rides in 2019 averaged only one mile, were often concentrated in entertainment districts, and tended to be more common in the afternoons, evenings and weekends. Station-based bikeshare members’ trips averaged 1.5 miles and were highly concentrated during commuting hours. As Washington, D.C., demonstrates, these two modes can happily coexist.  

Of course, those figures are just a snapshot of the Before Times: Patterns of work and leisure have since been upended by the pandemic, and 2020 is shaping up to offer a very different picture. According to the report’s brief speculation about this year, trip length and type are some of the biggest changes shared micromobility has seen since the coronavirus arrived.

While scooters hogged the micromobility spotlight over the past couple of years, it’s docked bikeshare that’s been the workhorse of the Covid-19 recovery. Even in the depths of the pandemic in April and May, bikeshare ridership in the six major markets decreased an average of 44%, lower than plunges in driving and transit usage. Since then, ridership has bounced back to close to normal, as more people hop on bikes for neighborhood errands, exercise, or to avoid public transit. 

Citi Bike’s 2.1 million rides in July 2020 were just a shade off July 2019’s ridership of 2.2 million. New York City subway ridership, meanwhile, remains at about 20% of normal. Other bikeshare comebacks haven’t been quite as dramatic as Citi Bike’s, “but we’re seeing really strong ridership in pretty much all of the major established systems,” Engel said. Scooter use is gradually recovering, too. 

For both bikes and scooters, rides have grown longer during the pandemic, and have shifted from downtowns to more residential neighborhoods. The introduction of boosted e-bikes in more Lyft-owned bikeshare systems is also yielding higher utilization and longer trips, according to a company spokesperson. Although America’s relatively meager pandemic bike lanes and shared streets programs pale in comparison to those in cities like Paris and Bogotá, several U.S. cities have limited car traffic to encourage other road users during the coronavirus emergency, which could be inducing more people to try micromobility, as a recent blog post from the scooter company Spin explored. 

More broadly, the pandemic may end up being a micromobility industry boon: Bike shops are reporting shortages of entry-level bicycles, and sales of e-bikes in the U.S. increased 190% this June compared to June 2019, as Axios recently reported. Consumers weary of paying by the minute can buy their own Bird scooters at Walmart or BestBuy.

These developments stand in contrast to the early days of bikeshare programs, when bike shops in New York City worried they would go out of business, or whene-scooters were the bane of local cycling clubs. The longer-term reality could look more like a virtuous cycle of car-free transportation, whether shared or owned, seated or standing, electric or pedal-powered. 

“The more people you have out in the streets riding, the more that there is true safety in numbers,” Engel said. “And the more it encourages other people to ride, too.” 

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