Motorbikes are helping shift urban mobility in America. As I noted in last week’s column, they are being offered, along with other micro-mobility modes like bikes and scooters, as a “sharing economy” model to be deployed in cities. Several companies have dropped hundreds or thousands of motorbikes in select U.S. cities, where the vehicles can be unlocked by phone, ridden by the minute, and flexibly parked.
I decided to interview one such company, Scoot Networks. They operate in San Francisco, Barcelona, and Santiago, Chile. Valued at an estimated $71.5 million, Scoot was acquired this summer by Bird, a competitor. I spoke on the phone with Founder and President Michael Keating about what Scoot does, and its long-term plans. The conversation has been edited for concision and clarity.
What’s the difference between a motorbike and moped, and what’s the state of the industry worldwide?
If we’re going to speak internationally, it’s better to use the expression “motorbikes.” The term moped refers to something that’s kind of like a bike, and has pedals, but has a motor attached to it. If we’re just talking about all kinds of motorized tubulars—motorcycles, Vespas, mopeds, things like that—that kind of vehicle is more popular for daily practical use outside the United States. In Europe and Asia, there’s a big culture of people commuting on motorbikes. Whereas in the U.S. a lot of motorcycle use is recreational. So the U.S. is a country where motorbikes have always been around, but they haven’t been embraced as a major part of transportation.
What must happen for motorbikes to reach that critical mass here?
One of the big differences between the U.S. and other countries is that the U.S. is a really big country where people travel long distances. That’s one of the reasons people like to own cars, so that they can not just move around within cities, but go between cities and from the suburbs to cities.
A lot of the countries where motorbikes are really popular are countries where the cities are really dense and crowded. A motorbike is the perfect city vehicle.
To have motorbikes be a bigger part of life in the U.S., cities need to become places where vehicles that are built for the city, like bicycles, motorbikes and scooters, are the norm, and cars need to be for trips that are longer distance. I think if we use our streets more wisely, we would have much more bicycles, scooters, motorbikes, etc.
So what is Scoot, and what service are you providing in San Francisco?
We are an electric mobility provider with a large fleet of electric bicycles, scooters and mopeds, that people can rent by the minute using their phone. They’re parked all over the city. You just find one with your phone, turn it on with your phone, ride it to some other place and leave it for the next person. In San Francisco, we have a little over 1,000 vehicles, serving the northeastern part of the city.
What regulations did you deal with upon entering San Francisco?
We worked for years with San Francisco to figure out how a shared vehicle fits into the rules of the road, which are designed primarily for private vehicles that need to park. So we came up with a parking permit that they issued to us. We paid for that privilege to use the public space.
The scooters park on the sidewalk, and they have their own permit. The mopeds park at the curb, like a motorcycle, and have their own permit. We prepay for the cost of our vehicles’ use of parking. So if you take one of our Scoot mopeds out and you park it at a motorcycle meter, we’ve already covered for that with our permit fee to the city, so you don’t have to look for quarters to feed the meter.
That’s an interesting deal for parking. Is it something you try negotiating with other cities?
For sure, we wouldn’t just put these vehicles out and expect our customers to feed the meters. That’s impractical. So that’s the kind of relationship we look for when we approach other cities: buying a permit where we effectively pre-pay for the parking.
In San Francisco, we worked to figure out what would be the cost to administer the program, and the amount of space we’d be using. For the motorbikes we’re paying about a dollar a day.
Where do you see Scoot in a decade? How many U.S. cities will you be in?
I think we can serve every major American city, and probably some small cities and towns. The way we look at it is: we’re like a new kind of mass transit. In the 20th century, buses and trains expanded throughout cities. They run on schedules, and specific routes, between specific stops.
The great thing about the technologies available now is we’re able to bring a whole new way of getting around the city, at a price that doesn’t require the government to pay for it, but that a private business can create, launch and grow at a meaningful scale – if cities will give us permission to do that.
So 10 years from now, I think every major American city will have electric mopeds, bicycles and scooters in really significant numbers. Whenever you’re in one of those cities and want to go somewhere, one of the first things you’ll think of is “should I take a moped, scooter or bike?”, whereas now in most American cities, the first thing you think of is “how do I drive there and where am I going to park?”
We want to bring a baked-in new form of transit to every major city and give people that option to get someplace quickly, affordably and sustainably.
(Images via Scoot Networks)