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Where did all the scooters go?

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Since the summer, the number of scooter riders has been cut in half

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More than 1.2 million scooter and bike rentals were recorded in August in the city of Los Angeles; by December, that number had fallen to 575,748.
Frederic J. Brown/AFP via Getty Images

On a quiet stretch of Rose Avenue, people seated outside a cafe sip coffee and squint in the morning sunlight as a surfer pedals by with a board affixed to his bicycle.

Across the street, a few electric scooters are positioned in a neat row. Another small cluster is neatly arranged down the block. None have toppled over and all appear to be in good condition. The storm drains are clear of transportation devices; the sidewalks are clear of riders.

Can this really be Venice?

Just two years ago, companies like Bird and Lime were saturating Los Angeles’s Westside communities with the zippy, easy-to-rent scooters that can now be found in neighborhoods across the city. Now, nearly a year into a pilot program regulating the devices citywide, the scooters are noticeably less ubiquitous. In some neighborhoods, they’re downright scarce.

Scooter companies maintain that a rollback of the number of vehicles available is due to low demand in the winter months. But industry analysts say a competitive market and local regulations have also stemmed the proliferation of the devices—for better or worse.

“There is some level of novelty, but I don’t think what we’re seeing is some rebirth of the Segway and all the hype around that,” says James Gross, co-founder of Micromobility Industries.

The eight companies permitted to deploy electric scooters and bikes in LA scattered an average of 12,776 vehicles around the city on any given day in December, according to a new report from the Los Angeles Department of Transportation.

Compare that to September 2018, when the Los Angeles City Council voted to regulate the vehicles. At that time, just one of those companies—Bird—was reportedly deploying as many as 15,000 scooters. In July 2019, an average of 26,782 vehicles could be found throughout the city.

The reduction in the final months of the year corresponds with a drop in ridership. More than 1.2 million vehicle rentals were recorded in August; by December, that number had fallen to 575,748.

Industry experts agree that a dip in rider interest can be expected during the winter. Bike and scooter companies even plan for it.

“During winter months, we experience slower ridership throughout the city,” says a Lime spokesperson in a statement. “As a result, we reduce our operations to meet demand, something we typically do in markets around the world that experience seasonal changes. We look forward to ramping back up in the spring.”

But the devices also appear to be attracting a relatively small concentration of riders.

In a recent survey of more than 1,800 Los Angeles County residents, researchers from the University of Southern California found that less than 6 percent of respondents had even tried an electric scooter or bicycle. Just 2 percent rode at least once a week.

Study author and sociologist Kyla Thomas says “lack of availability” appears to be one of the main reasons most residents aren’t riding the devices. More than half of survey respondents said it was “difficult” or “somewhat difficult” to find the vehicles in their neighborhoods.

Gross says Los Angeles’s permitting fees, which range from $39 to $130 per vehicle, may be hampering the proliferation of bikes and scooters throughout the city.

Investor reports from Bird and Lime show that operating costs for the vehicles often come close to exceeding the prices paid by riders. Any additional expenses make it harder to justify the expense of charging and maintaining a fleet of scooters in a given area.

Gross says investors in these relatively new companies are already becoming eager to see the startups become profitable—something that could threaten the entire industry in the long-run.

“No matter how much a fire is raging, if you cut out the oxygen, you will kill the fire,” he says.

He argues that cities should be subsidizing, rather than strictly regulating, new mobility devices that provide a more climate-friendly alternative to driving.

That could be a tough sell in Los Angeles, where the appearance of scooters two years ago provoked furious protests from residents concerned about sidewalk accessibility and safety. One member of the City Council went so far as to propose a blanket ban on the devices.

Another City Councilmember, Joe Buscaino, welcomed scooters to the Harbor area. Now, those neighborhoods have become something of a dead zone.

According to city data, between April and December, operators distributed an average of just 36 vehicles per day in the 15th council district, which includes San Pedro, Harbor City, Wilmington, and Watts.

Buscaino spokesperson Branimir Kvartuc says the councilmember is “annoyed that the scooters have diminished in the harbor area,” but speculates that the region might not have a high enough population density to support a large number of devices.

Citywide, just seven neighborhoods—Downtown, Exposition Park, Koreatown, Hollywood, Beverly Grove, Westwood, and Venice—accounted for more than half of all rides between August and December, an analysis of transportation department data reveals.

Regina Clewlow, CEO of mobility data firm Populus, says that Los Angeles’s daily ridership numbers are low, compared to other cities where electric bikes and scooters are available.

Bikes and scooters were typically rented 1.5 times per day in December. A 2019 report from the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency found that scooters in the Bay Area city averaged between two and three rides per day even in rainy winter months.

Clewlow says this suggests there may be “too many vehicles or too many operators (or both)” in Los Angeles, making the city a competitive environment for these businesses.

Gross says after disappointing Wall Street debuts from Uber and Lyft (both now in the bike and scooter business), the clock is ticking for other mobility startups to show a path to profitability.

“You’ll most likely see companies go out of business because of what’s happening in the market,” he says.