Cities are desperate to tame the sidewalk chaos of the e-scooter industry. One startup offers a solar-powered parking solution.
To understand the promise and peril of dockless scooters, look at Austin, Texas. This week, at least 9,000 of the zippy rentables are scattered on the capital city’s streets during this year’s South by Southwest festival. Nine different operators are vending cheap car-free transportation for the roughly 200,000 festivalgoers that have descended upon the city.
That might be great in theory, but mixed with big crowds, car traffic, a general lack of bike lanes, and a ton of free booze, the reality is cluttered sidewalks, tripping pedestrians, and some brutal scooter crashes.
Austin, in other words, is experiencing a Class 5 scoot-nado—a particularly intense variation on the shared-mobility disruption that cities nationwide have seen over the last two years. Which is why there’s a growing demand to bring scooter-sharing back to its roots, at least partly: Cities want docks for the dockless.
“We’ve all seen the problems associated with these things,” Colin Roche, the co-founder and CEO of Swiftmile, told me as he packed up his company’s booth at the National Shared Mobility Summit in Chicago last week. “But we also know the promise. In high-impact areas, they need to bring some order to the chaos.”
Swiftmile makes parking stations for e-scooters and bikes in support of what it calls a “semi-dockless” operating model. Their docks can pack in up to 24 Birds, Limes, Spins, and Skips in a space the size of a standard parking spot, using individual holsters equipped with anti-theft locks. More than glorified bike racks, the stations also use solar power to charge scooters while they’re tethered. They accommodate virtually all scooter models, and can gather data about vehicle use and condition.
The idea isn’t necessarily to bring all dockless scooters in from the wild. In high-scooting cities, Roche thinks the sweet spot is making parking available for about 25 percent of the total fleet, especially in areas with heavy foot traffic where sidewalk space is limited and vehicles tend to get carelessly dumped. With the rest roaming untethered, providers can still reap what are seen as the economic advantages of a dockless system, Roche explained: When rentables are freed from their expensive docking infrastructure, companies can invest in the volume and scale that may be needed to grow ridership. For the sake of comparison, docked bikesharing programs generally cost about $4,000 to $5,000 per bike; electric scooters retail for between $100 and $500.
Roche also maintains that Swiftmile’s charging docks mean vehicles can spend more time in use and require less human labor and resources to get recharged. An analysis by Quartz recently estimated that scooters in Louisville have a lifespan of just 28 days, and that Bird, the largest scooter company in the field, loses $293 per vehicle in the Kentucky metro. “The companies spend 50 percent of their operating costs on getting these things charged,” Roche said. Though he didn’t offer numbers, Swiftmile’s website explains that the pricing model is based per charge, and is designed for savings.
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