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Shared scooters don’t last long

Alison Griswold

In August 2018, shared electric-scooter company Bird began operating in Louisville, Kentucky. As part of its open-data policy, the city started sharing data on scooter trips online (the latest is available here). Using that data, Quartz determined the average lifespan of a Bird scooter in Louisville to be 28.8 days, or just shy of a month. To state the obvious, that’s not very long.

The data set Quartz looked at included Bird scooter rides from August to December 2018. Our analysis is limited to the 129 scooters that first appeared in August—the initial cohort, you could say. (Bird competitor Lime began operations in Louisville in November.) The data we used included an ID number, defined by Louisville on its open-data site as a “unique ID for scooters.”

This ID number was key to Quartz’s analysis; we assumed that each scooter was assigned a single ID over its lifetime. The latest data posted online by Louisville no longer includes this scooter ID information. Bird, asked for comment, did not clarify the precise use of a scooter ID. Louisville data officer Michael Schnuerle said he wasn’t sure how scooter IDs were assigned.

With that preamble, here are some things we found:

  • The average lifespan of a scooter was 28.8 days
  • The median lifespan was 26 days
  • The average vehicle went 163.2 miles over 92 trips during its lifetime
  • Five of the 129 initial-cohort scooters disappeared the same day they went into service (a lifespan of “0” days)
  • The scooter with the longest lifespan made it 112 days, last appearing in the data on Nov. 29
  • Only seven of 129 scooters lasted more than 60 days

Scooter lifespan is a key factor in scooter economics—scooternomics, if you will. The more trips and miles a single scooter can cover, the better it is for shared scooter companies, which have to recoup the cost of each vehicle before they can start making money. In October, tech news outlet The Information reported (paywall) that Bird was spending $551 to purchase each scooter, with a goal of reducing that cost to $360. At the time, I said that meant Bird needed five rides a day for 5.25 months to recoup the initial cost of a scooter.

The picture painted by the Louisville data is far worse. Transit enthusiast Nathan Stevens also analyzed Louisville scooter data for Aug. 9 through Nov. 30. Here’s some of what he found:

Utilization

  • The average trip lasted 18 minutes
  • The average scooter did 3.49 rides per day

Revenue

  • Bird charges $1 to unlock a scooter and $0.15 per minute
  • At 18 minutes, the average trip generated $3.70 in revenue (note that this, based on three months of data in Louisville, is nearly identical to the $3.65 in revenue per ride Bird reportedly told investors it was averaging as of June)
  • At 3.49 rides per day, the average scooter generated $12.91 in revenue per day

General costs, based on reporting by The Information

  • Bird spent $1.72 per ride on charging costs
  • It spent another $0.51 per ride, on average, on repairs
  • Credit-card fees cost $0.41 per ride
  • Customer support adds $0.06 per ride
  • Insurance is $0.05 per ride
  • This adds up to $2.75 in what you could consider operating costs per ride

Louisville-specific costs, from the city’s dockless vehicle policy (pdf)

  • A company pays $2,000 for a probationary license (required for the first six months of operation)
  • It pays an additional $1,000 to receive a full operating license
  • The city charges an annual $50 fee per allotted dockless vehicle
  • Plus a daily $1 fee per dockless vehicle
  • And $100 per designated group parking area

Louisville scooternomics, in sum:

  • A scooter generates $3.70 in revenue per ride
  • Deducting per-ride costs of charging, repairs, credit-card fees, customer support, and insurance, leaves $0.95 per ride
  • Multiplied by 3.49 rides per day is $3.32 in net revenue per scooter per day
  • Minus the city’s $1 daily fee leaves $2.32

So, our scooter company walks away with $2.32 in revenue per day from the average scooter in Louisville. If our Louisville-data analysis indicates that the average scooter in the August cohort lasted 28.8 days, that would mean it generated about $67 in revenue for the company over its lifetime, after most operating costs.

Let’s be generous and say Bird paid $360 for each scooter, as it aims to. At the rates calculated above, Bird only recoups $67 on the cost of the average scooter—in other words, it loses $293 per scooter. That doesn’t even include the $50 annual fee per dockless vehicle, the $3,000 in combined licensing fees, or the $100 fee for each designated parking area. Swap in a $551 sticker price per scooter, and the loss is even greater.

Asked about the Louisville data, Bird spokeswoman Rebecca Hahn disputed the notion that the typical scooter last roughly 28 days. “We have a dynamic fleet, move vehicles around, etc.,” she said in an email. “Just because it looks like it was in Louisville for 28 days does not mean that was its entire lifespan.” She declined to specify on the record where scooters taken out of circulation in Louisville would be moved to, or what other cities Bird operates in near Louisville.

It’s possible the scooters Bird launched with in Louisville were already worn down from use elsewhere. It’s possible that after about a month Bird removed scooters from circulation in Louisville and put them in another city. It’s possible that if a scooter receives significant repairs, it’s put back into the market with a new ID number. It’s possible that our hero 112-day scooter is still out there somewhere! We don’t know, and the people who do aren’t sharing the information.

It’s also possible that the average scooter really is rendered useless after about a month. The electric scooters Bird deployed, at least initially, were rebranded Xiaomi devices intended for use by a single owner with a weight limit of 200 pounds, in mild weather and on flat surfaces. The average American man weighs 197.9 pounds and the average woman 170.6 lbs. These devices were not designed for heavy use in all kinds of weather and on all kinds of terrain by Americans who, on average, are barely under the scooter weight limit. And that’s before you even take into account their clothes and any baggage (physical, not emotional) they might be carrying.

It also assumes best-case conditions. Scooters, like shared bicycles before them, are plagued by vandals and thieves. Where there are shared electric scooters, there are also people who will light them on fire, toss them into lakes and oceans, or hang them in trees, all surefire ways to shorten their lives. Instagram account “birdgraveyard,” which posts pictures and videos of scooter “deaths,” has amassed nearly 80,000 followers. Scooter advocates argue these “bad actors” will eventually get bored, but as anyone who has walked around a city recently could attest, people never seem to tire of removing the front wheel from a bike.

No doubt facing such inconvenient truths, Bird in October unveiled an electric scooter designed with Okai specifically for sharing. The company said at the time the new model came with solid tires and a longer base frame to improve stability and durability, plus better battery life. It will require great leaps in durability, and a much cheaper price point, for shared electric scooters to pay for themselves.

An earlier version of this post appeared in Oversharing, a newsletter about the sharing economy. Sign up for it here.

 

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