Seattle’s next bike share battle could be between Lime, Uber and Lyft + Let’s start a scooter pilot

Uber-owned Jump has applied to operate in Seattle alongside Lime and Lyft-owned Motivate.

Though it’s been scaling back its efforts for a while now, Spin has officially announced an end to its bike share service in Seattle. Citing an increase in fees and the decision not to include scooters in the city’s updated permit, Spin will not be applying for the next year of operations.

With ofo already leading the way out of town, that leaves Lime as the only bike share company actively in business for the time being. So at the height of summer, Seattle is seeing a huge decrease in available bikes.

But it might not be this way for long. The Seattle Times reports that in addition to Lime, Uber-owned Jump and Lyft-owned Motivate (once the operator of Pronto Cycle Share) have both submitted permit applications to operate under Seattle’s new pricier and more regulated bike share scheme. Though the plan was to have four companies, it seems only three have applied so far.

But the city’s target is still 20,000 bikes total divided among the companies raising $1 million in permit fees per year. This seemingly arbitrary bike total means that each bike will cost $50 to permit, among the more expensive rates in the country. But at 20,000 bikes, Seattle would also have one of the largest bike share fleets in operation, many of them with electric assist.

The fact that two of Seattle’s three bike share companies are all but suspending U.S. bike share operations is one possibly worrying sign about the state of private bike share. But that is counteracted by recent investments from Uber and Lyft to become major players in U.S. bike share. In the meantime, the market for shared electric kick scooters is seemingly blowing up, an innovation Seattle has so far spurned.

There are a lot of companies competing for the huge market of urban trips that are too long for a short walk but too short to be well-served by transit or car. About half of all trips are three miles or less, so there could be a lot of money to be made if you can capture even a piece of that total. So far, companies have tried pedal bikes, e-assist bikes and electric kick scooters, each of which may have their own places in the ecosystem. But what we know for sure is that this period of innovation is not over. Who knows what the shared mobility device market will look like this time next year.

Yours truly on a Lime-S test ride.

Seattle chose not to include scooters in its recent permit. But now that the bike permit has been created and received the necessary approvals from City Council, we need to talk about scooters and whatever other devices companies might bring. Seattle was a national leader in ushering in this private bike share boom, and we should be proud of the success of that effort. But why stop here? Have we solved the car-free short distance travel problem? Have we really decided that 20,000 bikes is good enough so we should stop trying any new ideas?

Outside as I write this, the wildfire smoke haze is visible even across my small neighborhood street. Every social media feed is filled with photos of vistas obscured or people wearing their new breathing masks. The city’s solution is to tell people not to spend time outside, but there’s no plan for getting people around without cars and our existing transit. Even though cars burning gas makes the problem worse, the city has made no effort to limit driving or even offer incentives to take transit instead.

Meanwhile, there are multiple companies that want to bring electric kick scooters to town that people can rent on demand to get around without burning oil, but we won’t let them.

Like bikes, scooters can block sidewalks and create accessibility issues. But the city has a plan to alleviate that problem through a huge expansion in designated bike parking, especially on-street corrals where bikes that get knocked over won’t fall across the sidewalk. Allowing (and permitting) scooters will help the city expand that parking even further.

There is also a valid concern that people will ride the scooters on sidewalks. But the solution isn’t to ban them, the solution is to expedite building the connected network of comfortable bike lanes we already have planned. Scooters will be right at home using those bike lanes.

I had the chance a few months ago to try out a Lime-S scooter. It was zippy and easy to use. Though I still prefer the bikes, this is a personal taste kind of thing. I’m just more comfortable biking because I have been biking everywhere for years. Companies that operate scooters report huge interest from the majority of the public that does not bike everywhere they go as I and many readers of this blog do. Spin has essentially pivoted to focus on scooters, claiming they “generate more than 20 times the consumer demand than that of bikes,” according to a company statement.

SDOT should move quickly to create a permit for scooters and other non-pedaling devices in addition to the bikes. They could even make it another pilot permit the way they did when private bike share started just over a year ago. Move quickly to get them up and operational, then learn from the pilot data when creating permanent permit regulations. We already have a framework for the permit thanks to bike share, so modify that as needed to make it fit non-pedal options.

But we can’t just lean back, watch the city disappear into the smoke and consider our work providing non-car options finished.

Here’s Spin’s full statement about leaving Seattle:

Spin has been proud to serve Seattle, our first city, since July 2017. We have been particularly grateful to the City for welcoming us to the community and for pioneering the dockless mobility trend with us in the United States. Since our launch in Seattle, we have added electric scooters to our fleet, and we’ve found that these vehicles generate more than 20 times the consumer demand than that of bikes. We have since made the decision to focus on bringing scooters, and other forms of pedal-less electric mobility, to our markets around the country.

As SDOT formulated the new permit rules, we had hoped the requirements would allow scooters. We also expressed our concerns about the proposed requirement that all operators pay a flat fee of $250,000. We believe fees should be variable based on an operator’s fleet size, and not an arbitrarily high flat fee, with fleet expansions determined by performance. In fact, we note that every U.S. city that has adopted rules for dockless mobility operations bases fees on the operator’s actual fleet size, including Seattle until now.

Unfortunately, the City will not be allowing scooters in the new permit at this time. We were also disappointed that the City left the flat fee unchanged in the final version of the new permit requirements. In light of these realities, Spin has made the difficult decision to not apply for the bikeshare permit. Nevertheless, we intend to continue working with the City to offer our shared scooters to Seattleites soon.

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19 Responses to Seattle’s next bike share battle could be between Lime, Uber and Lyft + Let’s start a scooter pilot

  1. asdf2 says:

    I’m a bit concerned about the safety of scooters on Seattle’s hills – scooter brakes don’t work nearly as well as bike brakes. But, at the same time, we have lots of flat corridors where they’d do just fine. Perhaps in initial pilot could restrict them to very specific corridors, such as the Burke Gilman and similar trails. Although, in practice, such restrictions might prove unenforceable.

    • AP says:

      Your argument assumes you know the mechanical limitations of all e-scooters. I could absolutely design scooter brakes that are as effective as bicycle brakes and I’m sure scooter manufacturers are more talented at mechanical design than I am. I suspect this comment is just concern trolling.

      • asdf2 says:

        My argument is based on having actually ridden a Bird scooter in the San Jose area, and having owned and ridden a human powered scooter for several years. On smooth, flat terrain, they’re great. On Seattle hills, they’re not good at all. The high center of gravity makes them inherently less safe than bikes at high speeds. As I said, at 10 mph down the Burke Gilman, I think they’d work great. On hills or roads with cars, not so much.

        Flat sidewalks shared with pedestrians , I’m actually not concerned about. It’s the rider’s responsibility to just go slow.

  2. Peri Hartman says:

    Are there any studies showing how well scooters mix with sidewalk pedestrians, faster bikes in bike lanes, or cars on streets? Would this lead us to needing yet another network of scooter infrastructure?

    • AP says:

      We have cities using scooters on sidewalks along with pedestrians and on streets along with cars. Do we really need a study? Or do we just need to build complete street networks that work for multiple modes of transportation?

      • Peri Hartman says:

        I think these are valid questions. We don’t have to do the study ourselves, but looking at other studies and existing conditions elsewhere to see what is working and what isn’t would be useful.

        Our current bike lanes are pretty narrow – 4′ in some places. I’m pretty sure there will be some “emotional reactions” if we continue with our current designs.

        It’s obvious that you are enthusiastic about an e-scooter opportunity, and that is great. Help us by providing evidence that they will work well in our environment.

    • AP says:

      Would creating more infrastructure for multimodal transportation (e.g., bikes, scooters, skateboards) help the situation? Would banning e-scooters on sidewalks (as we currently ban e-bikes) help the situation?

      Would it be possible to take some automobile roads away and convert them to alternative modes of transportation? Would that be a bad thing? I’m sure it would elicit emotional responses.

      I’m not going to do, or fund, or research a study just because people clutch their pearls and scream about how e-scooters are dangerous. I believe a scooter is preferable to another car on the street. I’ve got as much supporting evidence as you have.

      • NoSpin says:

        “Would banning e-scooters on sidewalks (as we currently ban e-bikes) help the situation?”

        No – becasue those laws aren’t enforced.

      • asdf2 says:

        There are many places where riding on the sidewalk has no reasonable alternative. For example, my commute involves taking the Burke Gilman Trail to the 520 trail. There exists no reasonable way to get from one to the other without riding on the sidewalk at least a short distance. Does this mean that I’m supposed to do the entire 19 mile round trip commute on a pedal bike because of one block of sidewalk? Or take a multi mile detour to avoid that one block? No. I ride my e-bikes on the sidewalk, but I go slow, yield to pedestrians, and turn the motor down to it’s lowest setting. Sometimes, I get passed by pedal bikes ridden by people who are more aggressive than me. At the end of the day, a literal reading of the law is trumped by common sense.

      • Kirk says:

        New Flash: Ebikes are no longer banned from riding on sidewalks statewide. New laws went in to effect this summer. Only class 3 ebikes are banned from sidewalks.

  3. AP says:

    While I haven’t ridden an e-scooter, I believe I would prefer them to bikes.

    I sweat pretty quickly when I ride a bike. I try to take the e-bikes when I can find them. I’m taking a casual trip for a couple of miles in street clothes–I don’t want to be a mess when I reach my destination. An e-scooter also would allow me to get to my destination faster than walking without breaking a sweat.

    Given the choice between a smallish scooter and a largish bicycle, I’d prefer to take the smallish scooter. It’s a simpler device to just unlock, step on, and go.

    Any arguments about scooters being less safe for pedestrians than bicycles is at its core about the riders’ behavior. I could be an ass on either one of these devices. Or I could just take an Uber, adding another car on the road.

  4. RapidRider says:

    I don’t understand how anyone can visit a city where these eScooters proliferate and say “Gosh! My City could sure use a bunch of morons zipping around dangerously on these things!”. They are a dangerous solution in search of a problem that it can worsen.

    If you find yourself thinking scooters are a good idea, just go visit Portland. That will cure you.

    • AP says:

      The problem is the morons, not the scooters.

      If automobiles were being introduced today, I can’t believe any city would say “Gosh! My city could benefit from everyone hopping in a massive steel box and spewing carbon emissions every time they want to go somewhere!”

      • RapidRider says:

        Well, until we can cure the moron problem, eScooters have no place in our City.

        Then, and only then, we can begin the discussion of the mobility problem that these eScooters intend to solve. Currently, the only problem I can see eScooters solving is people that are too lazy to walk. People that are too lazy to walk likely correlate strongly to the moron problem (further scientific studies needed).

        So eScooters appear to be a self-contained, recursive loop, existing to only solve the problem of it’s existence.

        Of course, similar to the eBike situation with the State Legislature, someone (Lime?) will dangle some money in front of the Council, who will doom us further to an Apocalyptic eWasteland.

  5. biliruben says:

    I was just in Portland. I must have missed all the morons and their created road-apocalypse. They have scooters? I may have seen one, now that you mention it.

    I think scooters will create a larger contingency to advocate for better infrastructure options for users of non-cars. I haven’t tried ’em, but I support them.

    • RapidRider says:

      I just looked it up and apparently they were released the same weekend I was in Portland (July 28). So when I witnessed two, unrelated scooter-pedestrian crashes within 10 minutes, that was apparently the first day they were released. There are only 200 in the city, but the situation was already not good. So if you haven’t been to Portland since then, I would recommend checking it out if you think eScooter rentals are a good idea.

      Another recent observation was in Madrid’s Retiro Park, where they were everywhere, to the point that pedestrians were constantly jumping out of the way of eScooters in a pedestrian only park. No exaggeration. Don’t recall the company that owned them, but it wasn’t Lime.

      The eScooter stories from Silicon Valley don’t seem any better.

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  7. AP says:

    @asdf2, fair enough. Anecdata, but I’ll take it. And yeah, the high center of gravity might be an issue.

  8. Jack says:

    If scooters are such a problem in Portland, why the huge acceptance in their use in that City? (See link to early WWeek anti-scooter article deluged with comments from alternate mode proponents.) After a reader backlash, WWeek now is on the pro-scooter bandwagon.
    My daughter who has mild cerebral palsy and doesn’t drive, feels much safer on an e-scooter than a bike. She tried them out in Portland a couple weeks ago and can’t wait for them to come to Seattle so she can have another way to get around besides the bus and Lift. Embrace the future–with less dependence on cars!

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