Last year, services like Bird and Lime launched new shared scooter programs around the country, often by deploying the scooters on city streets without permission from local government. There have been a variety of articles discussing the basics of these operations, but relatively little discussion of how much revenue per scooter the services might be generating or whether the companies in question are earning enough revenue to establish sustainable models for transportation.
Quartz reporter Ali Griswold performed an analysis on revenue-per-scooter using open data sets provided by Louisville, KY. The question of how much revenue companies earn per scooter is an interesting one, given that much of the “disruption” that Silicon Valley has brought to transportation has, to date, been based on floods of venture capital money. Uber, for example, is mostly an engine for losing billions of dollars per year, not a sustainable ride-sharing business. The company lost $4.5B in 2017 and, excluding the impact of mergers on its financials, a further $3.2B in the first three quarters of 2018. Being freed from any requirement to actually turn a profit may be remarkably helpful when competing with already-established companies, but it hasn’t built a sustainable business. Bird and Lime both faced serious questions about how they would maintain a business model given widespread reports of vehicle losses and ongoing damage.
Griswold’s analysis was made possible by the fact that the initial Louisville KY data sets included a unique identifier for each scooter, allowing her to track how long the vehicles persisted in the city. Later data dumps have removed this modifier, likely to prevent the kind of analysis she performed.
What she found is that the average scooter lived 28 days, with a median lifespan of 23 days. Focusing only on the oldest vehicles in the data set improved this slightly, to 32 and 28 days, respectively. Using the oldest vehicles for a baseline and excluding December data (her data set ran from August – December), the median vehicle took 70 trips over 85 miles.
As Griswold points out, that’s not nearly enough to make the vehicles profitable. She runs through an analysis of data reported by The Information on how much Bird spends per-vehicle as well as supplementary analysis provided by a different source working with the same Louisville data.
When you run through the various costs and revenue, there’s just no way these companies are doing anything but losing huge amounts. The average revenue generated per scooter in Louisville, at least, comes out to between $65 – $75. Data available elsewhere online suggests each scooter costs Bird $551. The company wants to get that down to $360, but even so, it’s losing $285 – $295 per scooter deployed in the Louisville area. And having lived in Louisville for a number of years, I suspect it’s a kinder market than many — the weather isn’t as nice as a place like San Francisco, but there are far fewer hills to push the brakes or motor.
Griswold notes that these issues may not be surprising. The scooters Bird brought to market are only rated for 200lb drivers and were built for the Chinese market. The average American male is only barely below the maximum weight specification for the hardware. Bird has already unveiled a newer scooter design. When reached for comment, Bird attempted to claim that it moves vehicles around, implying that the reason vehicles disappeared from the Louisville data set were because they had been deployed to other markets, but failed to provide any information on where the scooters might have been taken or what cities they would have been deployed in. As Griswold writes, “I will assume they simply fly away.”
If Bird wants to actually build a sustainable business, it’s going to require a fundamentally different approach to either its vehicle longevity or its costs. Preferably both. And if the average scooter lasts just 23 days, one has to wonder exactly how eco-friendly the entire business really is. Building, buying, and trucking an endless array of scooters into American cities with a lifespan of fewer than 30 days isn’t exactly a great way to reduce overall CO2 emissions, either.
Top image credit: Wikipedia
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