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Here’s what’s missing in the conversation about dockless e-scooters and bikes

If executed properly, these new solutions can help people in communities underserved by public transit.

Bird scooters Bird

If you live in San Francisco or Santa Monica, you’ve probably seen, ridden or complained about the sudden onslaught of electric scooters littering city streets.

In a matter of weeks, companies like Bird and LimeBike together have launched upward of 2,000 dockless e-scooters in San Francisco. For the uninitiated, these e-scooters and e-bikes can be rented for $1 to start and are not tethered to one location, so they can be moved around to meet or create demand and theoretically be picked up and dropped off anywhere.

The companies’ expansion into the city has been met with backlash from regulators and residents alike. On the regulatory end, these companies launched with little input from the city, causing city agencies to issue cease and desist orders while they come up with a permitting system.

Backlash from San Francisco residents, on the other hand, runs the gamut from “the scooters are in the pedestrian walkway” to “they’re not safe.”

Though it may be easy to write these e-scooters off as a tech fad — and it’s partly a consequence of these companies launching first in places where tech workers are in the majority — little attention has been paid to the potential that mobility solutions like dockless, shared e-scooters and e-bikes have to increase access to transportation and public transit in communities previously underserved by traditional solutions.

If you live in San Francisco or New York City, it’s probably hard to conceive of a lack of access to public transit as a major problem that needs to be solved. But even in the outskirts of those cities, and certainly in cities around the country, reliable and conveniently located public transit is not a given.

And in lower-income communities, that lack of access can in turn cause a significant obstacle for access to economic opportunity. Not everyone can afford Uber or Lyft — which have often pitched their services as the answer to a lack of reliable transit — or their own cars.

In those places, a cheap, convenient way to get to the closest train or bus or into city centers is often sorely needed. Shared dockless e-scooters and e-bikes can be part of a suite of more affordable solutions for cities, making it easier for users to access city centers or other places where there are more jobs.

If done correctly, that could also funnel more riders to public transit systems, which could add to city revenue and help with the growth and maintenance of those systems.

It’s a problem cities are actively trying to solve.

In New York City, Mayor Bill De Blasio proposed an above-ground streetcar that would connect the Brooklyn and Queens waterfronts. The big pitch made by advocates of the BQX streetcar is that it would connect mixed-income neighborhoods with economic hubs.

But approval of the project largely depended on determining whether it could pay for itself and, if not, whether it was an appropriate use of government funds.

These new mobility solutions can be a more affordable means for cities to fill those transit gaps. And execution is key.

In order for any of this to work, companies like Bird, Spin and LimeBike would have to work closely with cities and be deliberate about including this functional consideration as part of their overall plan. It can’t simply be an afterthought or a happy by-product of creating a service for busy urban centers.

Companies have to actively work with cities to determine where there is the biggest need, and share their own learnings and data about where they see the most demand, and which routes their users are taking to and from transit.

Starting in busy city centers may be a good way to subsidize the cost of expanding into less-populated or underserved communities, however.

In just a month, Bird said it saw more than 95,000 scooter rides in San Francisco. As we previously wrote, e-scooters and e-bikes pose a real threat to shorter trips that might typically take place on Uber and Lyft. The average trip on Bird was 1.5 miles. On Jump, an e-bike startup recently acquired by Uber, the average trip was around three miles. Those add up.

More than the potential threat to Uber and Lyft’s business, these numbers show that people are starting to recognize that this new form factor can be a viable means to get around. Of course, e-scooters and e-bikes won’t be the best option in every terrain or situation — e-scooters aren’t a viable way to get up hills in the rain, for instance — but they can be one of several options for getting around affordably if executed properly.

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