BCycle leader shares thoughts on scooters

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The other day I wrote a post about the future of Austin BCycle in the wake of dockless bikes and scooters. I was very skeptical, to say the least, of BCycle executive director (and former Democratic Congressional candidate) Elliot McFadden’s suggestion to Paul Cobler of the Statesman that the scooters might just be a “fad.”

Since I wasn’t able to connect with McFadden before the post, I asked him if he had any further comments on the issue. Here’s what he sent me:

My comment about scooters being a fad was taken a little out of context, though I know Paul had a lot to cover in that article.
What I was getting at is anytime you see explosive growth in market, you need to be cautious about bubbles. Are people using the product out of novelty or is it truly becoming a product that they will use on a regular basis? Their number are impressive right now and suggestive, but the scooter industry is less than 1 year old and has only been in our market for 6 months. If scooter ridership looks the same a year from now, then you can make a real argument that it’s legit.
Let’s just look at the implosion of the dockless bike market in the US as a cautionary tale of irrational exuberance. It appears like we are seeing the same kind of over saturation of the Austin market we were seeing with dockless bike in Dallas. I’ll be interested to see the November numbers. I work downtown and anecdotally I seems like there has been a steep drop-off in scooter ridership lately, but I could be wrong and the numbers will tell.
We have not done any of the desperately needed infrastructure improvements to make riding a scooter or bike safe for everyone, most of our city is still very suburban in land use and driving a car is still cheap and easy, so I’m a little skeptical how transformational any of our products can be until our community makes these bigger commitments. These are the kind of changes that had to happen in places like Copenhagen to get families with children and older adults out of cars and onto bikes, and that’s where the real transformation of our community will happen.
As for Austin B-cycle, we believe in the value of a publicly owned, community focused shared use system, and we know kick scooters are not going to be the answer for everyone. The bicycle will continue to have a place here, but we are not standing still either. We are adapting by trialing new pricing with our $1 to start single trip option, with the testing of e-bikes in our system right now as well as some exciting new services that will be coming from us in January (stay tuned!)
Just remember, private for-profit companies are not obligated to serve our community if the economics and profitability does not make sense. We can look to the abandonment of markets by dockless bikeshare as well as established companies like car2go for examples of communities losing services if the bottom line does not make sense to company investors. As a city-owned system and a local non-profit, we are committed to serving Austin regardless of the ebbs and flows of the for-profit market.

I’m sure some of the rides are driven by the novelty, but even with a substantial drop they’ll still remain extremely popular and a staple transportation option downtown. What seems more likely is that if ridership drops, the companies will pare back some of their expansion outside of the downtown/campus area (although the city offers them incentives to provide scooters in certain areas).

Also, what kind of decline in ridership, either overall or per-scooter, would render the operation unprofitable? I’ve got no idea.


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