Ownership is the new sharing
Ten years ago, my team and I launched the first electric scooter sharing company, Scoot, in San Francisco. We designed a piece of electronics that gave each scooter an internet connection, and we created an app to find them, pay for them, and turn them on. Today, scores of companies offer over a million shared e-bikes, e-scooters, and e-motorbikes in cities all over the world. They have been ridden by hundreds of millions of people, most of them experiencing electric mobility for the first time, and loving it.
But shared mobility has run up against limits that even vast demand and venture capital couldn’t overcome. While hundreds of millions of people have tried a shared e-scooter or similar vehicle, most have ridden just a few times. Each vehicle is used, on average, about twice a day.
Shared electric vehicles are only available in the busiest parts of cities, and the work of keeping them charged and maintained means one short ride usually costs more than $5. With those limitations, shared electric vehicles function more like taxis than like mass transit. They are used regularly by affluent residents, occasionally by other locals who are in a hurry or having fun, and by tourists. While those activities are important, and every city should have shared vehicles available to residents and visitors, shared mobility’s contribution to urban mobility is, and will remain, small.
But that’s okay. 99% of e-bikes and e-scooters are owned by their rider, not shared.
Roughly 300 million of these vehicles are currently in use, mostly by commuters in China. China’s early bans on combustion motorbikes, tremendous investments in road infrastructure, and ballooning urban populations created the perfect opportunity for e-bikes to take off.
But even outside China, e-bike and scooter sales are doubling year after year, and far outselling electric cars. In the US and Europe, buyers are coming from across the economic spectrum, from affluent urban parents looking for a school drop-off vehicle, to recent immigrant delivery workers just trying to get by. They are coming from all neighborhoods of a city, including areas not frequented by tourists or served by shared vehicles or mass transit. These owners aren’t just riding a few times. They are riding hourly, daily or weekly. As bike infrastructure improves, they and their neighbors will feel safer and ride even more.
But to see the big opportunity, you have to take another step back, and look at the whole world: Most people do not yet own a motorized vehicle of any kind. This is not by choice. It’s because they can’t afford one. We are talking about 3 billion un-motorized people vs. the roughly 2 billion who own a car, motorcycle, or e-bike. To be clear: Those 3 billion people are not waiting for a $5/ride shared e-scooter to appear in their city. They want their own vehicle, and they want it ASAP.
Electric bikes are the most affordable motor vehicles in the world today, starting as low as a few hundred dollars for a Lead acid-powered e-moped or Lithium ion-powered stand-on scooter. They will only get more affordable as production — and especially batteries — continue to improve. Prior to e-bikes, most people’s first vehicle was a combustion motorbike because those were the most affordable motorized vehicles. For the billions of people who aren’t yet able to afford even a combustion motorbike, and whose alternative may be taking a crowded bus that’s stuck in traffic, a moto taxi, or walking, e-bikes and similar vehicles are compelling.
But to unlock that demand from the majority of adults, you need financing, and that is where the nearly unlimited market for owned electric mobility will be unlocked by this past decade of shared electric mobility:
Roughly 1 billion times, a shared electric mobility company like Tier, Hello, Bird, or Yulu has allowed someone to borrow a valuable e-scooter, bike, or moped without checking their credit, demanding a huge security deposit, or otherwise underwriting the loan of the vehicle in any conventional way. The reason is that these vehicles are connected, tracked, and remotely managed such that if one is stolen, or simply not paid for, it can be deactivated, located, recovered, and returned to revenue use that same day.
Sharing rentals were really very short term, uncollateralized loans of very useful assets. There are billions of people who would love to be the borrower of one of those vehicles, especially if the lender, by virtue of their remote vehicle management technology, is as unconcerned about their credit as they were about the credit of the last billion riders.
When someone owns an e-bike or similar vehicle, or finances it or leases it to use every day, they are not paying someone else to charge it, like they would a shared vehicle. They are charging it themselves at home. And they are not paying someone else to look after it when they park it, like they would a shared vehicle. They are either bringing it inside, or they are locking it up to protect it. The cost to the owner is not $5/ride. It’s just the wear and tear on the vehicle, a wireless data connection for security, and a trickle of electricity for charging. It adds up to less than $1/day.
At $1/day, nearly anyone could have their own e-bike, and there is no reason why they shouldn’t. While another billion cars (the expected increase over the coming decade or so) will doom our climate and clog our cities, another billion or so e-bikes will do the opposite.
Ten years ago we began a somewhat chaotic, generally unprofitable, and incredibly popular experiment in shared electric mobility. These next ten years will see a relatively predictable, highly profitable, and globally inclusive expansion of these wonderful vehicles and their enabling technologies. The mass adoption of e-bikes and similar vehicles will head-off catastrophic demand for combustion vehicles, make at least 1 billion people’s lives more independent and free, and make the chaos of shared mobility totally worth it.