It sounds unorthodox, but networks of dockless electric scooters and electric bikes could prove to be the technology that finally allows urban city dwellers to reduce dependency on cars, and in turn allow for cities to finally evolve into sustainable hubs with improved quality of life for its residents.
Last week I cycled across San Francisco to a brunch in the Marina on a JUMP Bike, a pedal-assist e-bike that can be rented for just $2 for 30 minutes. With the electric assist I cruised up SF’s notoriously steep hills and arrived at my destination without breaking a sweat. It was a truly delightful experience I couldn’t stop raving about.
Two days later I read about Fred Wilson’s similar experience using Bird Scooters, the shared electric scooter company launched in Santa Monica in 2017 which lets customers cruise at up to 15 mph for just $1 per ride and 15 cents per minute.
Both Jump Bikes and Bird have recently raised impressive funding rounds (particularly Bird’s $100mm round) with a goal of expanding within their existing markets and into new markets, following the land-grab playbook first executed by Uber and subsequently emulated by dockless bike-sharing companies Ofo and Mobike.
I’ve been interested in Ofo and Mobike for a while, but electrification increases both the convenience and accessibility of these transport alternatives.
Traveling within a city by electric bike or scooter allows for comparable performance to traveling by car (time to destination, minimal effort etc…) while costing less, producing zero carbon emissions and a delightful experience for the rider. The opportunity to scale this form of transport into a fully fledged alternative to cars is both massive and ripe for the taking.
Transportation is the biggest source of US CO2 emissions
This potent combination of accessibility and delight may finally help to make a dent in emissions from transport, which today is the biggest single contributor to emissions in the US.
In the US, carbon dioxide emissions from transportation exceeded those from electricity production in 2016 for the first time since 1978, according to data compiled by the U.S. Energy Information Administration, as increasing demand for SUVs and trucks has offset efficiency gains in transportation, while power plants have made headway in reducing emissions.
The grid is on pace to continue reducing emissions as the economics of renewables and natural gas have improved to the point where it will soon be cheaper to build new renewable capacity than run existing coal capacity. This is a stunning development and a testament to the growth of the clean energy economy, but unless we reduce transport emissions simultaneously, we won’t achieve self-imposed emissions targets.
Electric cars help with emissions, but don’t make life better
Many people, myself included, have turned to electric cars (specifically Tesla in the US and BYD in China) as the primary hope for reducing transportation emissions, but my experience with JUMP has made me question that. The transition to electric cars may reduce transportation emissions, but it doesn’t change the way we live our lives. The daily inconveniences associated with driving won’t disappear; and while we have been promised a utopian world of self-driving, ride-sharing, electric vehicles, that vision is unlikely to be fully realized for decades.
We should instead be reevaluating how we commute, optimizing and incentivizing for a commute that is both clean and can improve our lives; electric scooters and bikes offer a chance to materially improve both the way we commute and how we feel about it.
The above survey was taken by more than 3,000 students who commuted to McGill University in Montreal, which is not to say that it is representative or free from bias; however, one of the conclusions to this research made it clear that people prefer “active” or “productive” commutes vs. unproductive commutes in which time must be budgeted in case of delay.
An opportunity to build a world that doesn’t prioritize cars
I intend to never own a car again in my life, and I believe that many people could improve their quality of life (and finances) by following suit.
By increasing the convenience and accessibility of short-mid range transport options, JUMP and Bird can help to make a limited-car world possible, and in the process accelerate the ongoing change in urban infrastructure to prioritize people, not cars.
To be clear, the explosion of dockless bike sharing networks elsewhere in the world has already caused its own problems, but these pale in comparison to the negative externalities we suffer in a world designed for cars, and can be solved with an expansion of pedestrian and bicycle-friendly infrastructure (check out the world’s biggest bike garage in the Netherlands).
A taste of the future
It may not be the future of flying cars we may have imagined, but next time you get the opportunity I recommend you ride a JUMP bike or Bird Scooter: as you cruise past traffic and effortlessly arrive at your destination with a smile on your face, it’s hard not to believe that the future is already here.