Pandemic puts the brakes on micromobility

As of this writing, nearly a million people globally have been infected with the novel coronavirus and 50,322 have died. Healthcare systems are overwhelmed, consumers and profiteers are hoarding supplies and some service workers have launched strikes while many others have been let go. In the world of micromobility, we’ve seen Bird lay off hundreds of employees and Lime is reportedly gearing up for layoffs of its own.

Ride Report creates software that enables cities to better work with micromobility operators and has a bird’s-eye view on the industry. In a conversation with TechCrunch, CEO William Henderson outlined some of the trends that have emerged and what we can expect for micromobility operators amid the pandemic — and once it’s over.

“All of this came at a really hard time for micromobility,” he tells TechCrunch. “It couldn’t really have occurred at a worse time in some ways.”

That’s because there was already a lot of pressure on startups in the space to reach profitability on an accelerated timeline, Henderson says. While winter is notoriously known as a rough time, the environment in this pandemic is “micromobility winter on steroids.”

Over the last month, companies have paused operations in cities and started laying off people. Operators Bird and Lime, for example, paused operations across the board last month.

“Operators were already in a place where they needed to get to operational efficiency and profitability and now they’re really having to double down,” Henderson says. “And I think it’s pretty likely that some operators are not going to make it or they’ll be consolidating.”

Industry consolidation has been going on for some time now, but it’s likely it will accelerate, Henderson says. Some cities may lose micromobility services altogether unless they can focus more on their regulatory efficiencies.

“So, how can they get what they need in terms of control but not at the cost of losing these services altogether,” Henderson says. “Our own mission is more important than ever. We’re sort of all-hands-on-deck because the only way that cities are going to be able to do what they need to do in terms of regulation, and do it efficiently enough to keep micromobility alive, is to do it via an efficient API-driven platform.”

That’s why Ride Report has been working to get those APIs online. It’ll make the difference between cities having micromobility or not over the next few months, Henderson says.

On a brighter note, Henderson says biking is surging. In March, Citi Bike reported demand had increased 67% between March 1 and March 11 compared to the same period in 2019. Henderson says there are similar surges in Wuhan, China and Beijing.

“And then people are moving to longer trips because they’re basically avoiding or substituting what would have been a trip on mass transit with bike share,” Henderson says. “And then, of course, that’s happening even as in other cities, micromobility is completely shutting down. So it’s a really interesting set of countervailing trends. I think what it points to is biking is a really efficient and resilient form of transportation. So, to me, it emphasizes the long-term need for micromobility.”

If this pandemic had hit two years from now, Henderson envisions a much different response from cities and operators. He says he thinks cities would have created regulatory playbooks around how micromobility can play a critical role during disasters.

That’s the stance San Francisco-based Spin has taken. The company has chosen to keep operating during the pandemic because it sees its vehicles as providing support to the public transportation system as people take essential trips to places like a grocery store or pharmacy. Meanwhile, some companies have opted to pause operations citing concerns about the spread of the virus.

“You have different operators doing different things for different reasons,” Henderson says. “And then you have different cities, as well, encouraging or demanding different things.”

A few things may be going on. With docked systems, there is less labor required because workers don’t need to go out to reposition and recharge the vehicles in the way they do with scooters, Henderson says. Another is that these companies are operating on venture capital and may not have had a lot of runway when the pandemic hit. Now, they’re going into cash-conservation mode, he says.

“So, whether it’s good or bad for the city and good or bad for citizens, they just can’t afford to operate at a huge loss,” Henderson says. “And because people are overall taking fewer trips right now, it might be even harder for them to hit profitability in a lot of these markets than it was before.”

Meanwhile, some operators are quickly adapting and trying to provide riders with peace of mind. Wheels, for example, has begun deploying bikes with self-cleaning brake levers and handlebars. In Stockholm, Voi has begun including gloves on its vehicles to help protect riders.

It’s worth noting that there’s not a huge risk of contracting COVID-19 from shared micromobility vehicles, according to Dr. Richard Malley, a senior physician in the division of infectious diseases at Boston Children’s Hospital. There is a potential risk in that riders are using vehicles that have been potentially used by a number of other people, he tells TechCrunch, “but in my mind, that risk is very low, but it’s not quantifiable per se.”

He added, “the likelihood that you’re going to have a sufficient amount of virus that survives for a prolonged period of time and you will then touch that and expose yourself seems to me to not be the highest risk. You also have to ask yourself how long is not just the viral RNA present on the handlebar, but is there enough variants to actually then if you touch your nose or hand or eyes is the density high enough to actually cause an infection.”

Still, riders should practice good hygiene and wash their hands thoroughly after rides, either with soap and water or with sanitizer that has at least 60% alcohol content. That’s what is most important, he says.

This is all to say that for the companies that can afford to operate with lower revenues, it’s worth doing. That’s because the likelihood of spreading the virus through ongoing operations is low. For the companies that are still operating, some are exploring different business models, such as moving from a per-trip rental per minute to weekly or monthly rentals.

“I know Pony is doing that in France and we saw Bird doing that last year, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see some of the operators buy more into that type of model,” says Henderson, “particularly if this becomes a prolonged affair.”