People in Seattle took 3.7 million trips on shared bikes and scooters in the past year, a massive rebound from the 1.4 million trips per year when pandemic restrictions and many business closures were in place. During the busiest summer months, the daily rides averaged over 15,000 trips per day.
Six years into the city’s sometimes turbulent experiment with free-floating shared bikes (and eventually scooters), the devices continue to move a remarkable number of people despite significant price increases. And while scooter trips still outpace bike trips, the rides per device are now similar, according to SDOT data.
Most trips are destined for downtown and in nearby neighborhoods like Capitol Hill, First Hill, South Lake Union, Uptown/Lower Queen Anne and the International District. There are also significant hot spots in the U District, Ballard and Fremont—neighborhoods connected by the Burke-Gilman Trail—as well as popular spots along the Alki Trail.
The industry has fallen back to earth after a few years of wild and fast expansion and competition thanks for venture capital funding and speculation. Bird is still operating, but its stock is down 99% since launching in November 2021 and is on the verge of being delisted. Lime has been able to maintain its spot as the top company in town while also being the only company to offer both scooters and bikes.
But perhaps the most interesting data point in all of this, other than the ride totals, is that rides per unit per day are more similar between bikes and scooters than they used to be. Bikes got about 1.1 rides per day per bike while scooters got 1.8 rides per day per scooter. Not so long ago, this number was skewed much further in favor of scooters. In September 2021, for example, scooters got 2 trips per scooter per day while the bikes got closer to 0.6.
I suspect that companies were a bit fooled by the popularity of scooters back when they were novel, which is why so many of them pivoted away from bikes. There was a scooter fad bubble that was not meant to last. Now we are seeing more realistic usage numbers that are likely more sustainable, and they show scooters getting only a little more use than bikes. As someone who has always preferred the bikes (I bike every day already, so I personally feel more comfortable and confident on a bike), seeing the two vehicles move closer together makes me hopeful that scooter companies may revive or start bike fleets. I also gotta give Lime credit for never giving up on bikes even though the industry was moving hard in that direction for a few years.
Lurking behind all these use numbers is the issue of safety, both real and perceived. Allison Williams recently penned an interesting piece for Seattle Met about being a scooter user, writing, “In a city that struggles with providing sufficient bike infrastructure, the even flimsier scooter feels like a downright death wish next to a 4,300-pound Chevy Silverado.” Of the 5,000 scooter share users who responded to a 2021 survey, 11% reported an injury and 22% of those injured said they needed medical attention. That’s not great. Perhaps there’s some self-selection bias going on with that survey, but that’s a lot of people no matter how you look at it. Police data showed 5 serious injuries and one death involving a scooter rider in the first year of scooter operations.
Bike share, on the other hand, has historically been shown to be as safe if not safer to use than even riding a personal bike. In the same survey, bike share users reported injuries at a much lower rate than scooter riders. And of those injured, bike share users were less likely to require medical attention. But as with traffic injuries in general, the number is still too high.
The top safety concern cited by both scooter and bike users was car traffic, and they both cited a lack of bike lanes as a problem, though scooter users were much more likely to cite concerns about bumps and potholes.
Meanwhile, pricing for Lime bike rides has risen to $1 to unlock plus 46¢ per minute (45¢ per minute for scooters), and most other services end up on par with this price though they all have their own schemes. Veo undercuts Lime by 7¢ per minute while Superpedestrian’s LINK undercuts Lime by 2¢ per minute. Bird has the most needlessly confusing pricing, charging the most expensive rate of all at $3.50 for the first five minutes but then lowering to 39¢ per minute after that. Most companies also offer membership plans of some kind that can reduce costs for heavy users. But no matter how you do the math, these trips have gotten a whole lot more expensive than than the $1 for 30 minutes they once were back when non-electric bike share launched in 2017. I’m actually a bit surprised to see ridership numbers staying as high as they are even with the increased prices. I know I have dramatically reduced my use of them due to the prices, but I am probably not the target user as a person who owns their own bikes and often travels with a child.
By the way, did you know each company is required by city rules to offer a low-income plan? If you are in just about any government-run low-income service including the ORCA Lift discounted transit card, you can get a steep discount on bike and scooter rides. You can qualify for ORCA Lift if your pre-tax household income is 200% of the Federal poverty level or lower. That’s $2,430 per month for a single person or $5,000 for a family of four, for example. See the full chart and get more info on the ORCA Lift website.
So while the failures and mergers are likely still not fully complete in this industry, could things finally be stabilizing? And if so, is this more stable position profitable enough to be sustainable without piles of new venture capital funding? As I always seem to say at the end of these bike share updates, I guess we’ll need to wait and see.