Micromobility companies offering inexpensive rentals of electric scooters and bikes saw explosive growth before the start of the pandemic. The two largest, Bird and Lime, had reached valuations of over $2 billion each, a startling amount for such young companies.
But the companies’ growth trajectory has been threatened from crackdowns by city officials concerned with the rapid growth in serious rider accidents and users carelessly leaving scooters on sidewalks and blocking the pathways for elderly and disabled people.
“All the executives at the companies we interviewed said attracting riders wasn’t the primary threat to micromobility’s growth. It was the over-reactions from city officials to what they saw as a growing number of accidents,” said Mike Casey, the co-author of a recent analysis of the companies’ programs to engage public officials.
Casey’s firm, Tigercomm, conducted a series of interviews with scooter company executives, analyzed how the competing companies were distinguished in both news accounts and on social media, and then categorized nearly a year’s worth of digital content from five micromobility companies.
All Lumped Together
The results showed the companies were often lumped together not as distinct brands, but more as a group of “scooter companies,” despite differences within the industry.
“Part of that was because the companies were competing simultaneously in the same markets and engaging the same city officials. But part of it was also that the companies weren’t distinguishing themselves from competitors,” said co-author Nat Schub.
The challenge in being so under-distinguished, the authors say, is that the missteps of one company affect all others competing in that urban market.
“All the companies competing in a particular market are set up for a domino effect. If one company gets cross-wise with local officials, it hurts them all,” said Schub.
Many Riders, Little Voice
The analysis also inventoried almost a year’s worth of digital content from the companies, which communicate through riders principally through smartphones. It then categorized the content to track how much of it was geared to helping riders connect with policymakers overseeing the availability of electric scooters and bikes.
The findings showed a serious mismatch between the companies’ main constraint — urban policies — and the content’s overwhelming focus on marketing the rider experience.
Little rider engagement was directed toward advocating pro-micromobility policies, and what was directed toward that was vague in what it sought, lacked a specific policymaker target, and almost always mentioned policy decisions that had already been made.
That’s not for lack of people to engage. Casey and Schub point out that micromobility companies have more customers than practically any other clean economy sector. In fact, there were 136 million shared micromobility trips in 2019 alone, according to the National Association of City Transportation Officials.
But the authors say that the act of riding a scooter for several blocks is a relatively low-commitment action when compared, for example, to putting solar panels on a rooftop, taking out a PACE loan, buying an electric car, or renting land to a developer to erect wind turbines on it for 25 years or more.
That means the companies must to craft a new form of advocacy based on small, short actions that accumulate into real pressure on city officials to consider riders’ interests.
“The big opportunity for micromobility companies is to use their vast data streams to identify the most enthusiastic riders, then harness their interest into a ‘micro-activism’ program. Companies have enormous amounts of rider data to utilize, and more issue advocacy is being done on smart phones across politics and advocacy,” said Casey. “The companies have a big opportunity in front of them as city officials rethink how the urban environment should work.”
Why conduct this analysis?
Casey and Schub say they are out to help the companies raise their effectiveness in engaging urban officials.
“We’re avid micromobility fans and customers, and I ride my own last-mile vehicle to work on a weekly basis. For a host of reasons, the world needs this industry to succeed as quickly as possible,” Casey said. “As a firm that’s seen firsthand the mistakes other clean economy sectors have made, we want this analysis to help micromobility’s success in any way possible.”
As city officials consider how to keep their residents enjoying city life during the pandemic and beyond, the companies have a lot of room to affect how they will fare.
“The door’s open for a new era of engagement with public officials. The company that seizes it will create a significant competitive advantage,” said Schub.