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To the off-ramp

14 Jan 2021 By Karen Kwok

Electric scooters are not kids’ toys anymore. The pandemic has helped turn two-wheeled transportation into an essential part of urban traffic. More cities are also allowing them on the street. That has given startups which offer shared scooters in Europe a new lease of life.

Companies which let anyone with a smartphone rent a motorised scooter for short trips were already grappling with high operating costs, concerns about safety and intense competition. Then the pandemic hit. In March 2020, U.S. operator Bird laid off a third of its staff. Rival Lime in May accepted a cash infusion from Uber Technologies at a 79% lower valuation, according to The Information.

But social distancing has convinced more city dwellers seeking an alternative to public transport to try the battery-powered two-wheelers. Major cities including London, New York and Paris legalised e-scooters, while limiting the number of shared operators through licensing.

Voi Technology, a Swedish startup that has won nearly two-thirds of city licences in Europe to date, said the number of rides increased by 85% year-on-year in the three months to November. Even after the pandemic ends, McKinsey expects global usage of shared e-scooters to grow by 12% compared to pre-crisis levels.

While demand picks up, costs have come down. One of the biggest expenses for operators is fixing, recharging and relocating their e-scooter fleets. Voi, Lime and Berlin-based Tier have developed swappable batteries, which can halve maintenance and relocation costs.

The result is that the businesses are becoming profitable. Users typically pay a one-off charge of $1 to unlock the device, and then between 10 cents and 20 cents per minute. If each e-scooter is used for three rides of 30 minutes a day, the operator can earn up to $20 a day. In this optimistic scenario, companies can recover the cost of a $500 e-scooter in less than two months, assuming costs swallow half that revenue. Voi and Tier, which raised $250 million from investors led by SoftBank Group in November, valuing it at almost $1 billion, were both profitable in June. Lime achieved positive EBITDA in the three months to September.

Scooters remain a seasonal business, though, with usage diving in winter. Daily revenue in some cities is much lower. More riders also mean increased concerns over safety, which could lead regulators to revoke licences. Even so, shared scooter operators are on the right track.


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