LOS ANGELES — Heading into a third year of the pandemic, e-scooter riders in Los Angeles are taking longer rides. Superpedestrian says the average LA trip on its LINK e-scooter is 1.4 miles, with an average trip lasting 14 minutes. Santa Monica-based Bird says its average ride length also increased in 2021 and is 58% longer compared with pre-pandemic levels.
Chalk it up to continued fears of sharing space with strangers on mass transit or driver shortages making ride-hails unreliable. As COVID continues to wreak havoc on all aspects of society, scooter companies that have upgraded their technology with more durable models are reaping the benefits, according to UCLA Institute of Transportation Studies Deputy Director Juan Matute.
"Maybe what would have been a three-mile Uber ride pre pandemic is now a three-mile scooter ride," Matute said.
While Bird attributes its longer trip lengths to the introduction of its Bird Three scooter last year and an increase in battery capacity, Superpedestrian says it’s the result of an over-arching strategy to make scooters as accessible as they are long lasting.
“In LA, there’s been an evolution in capability,” said Superpedestrian Policy and Business Development Manager Sharon Zhang.
Since last August, when Superpedestrian joined Bird, Lime, Lyft, Spin and Wheels as the only shared mobility companies permitted by the LA Department of Transportation, the company has deployed 3,500 of its LINK scooters. Colored yellow and silver and notable for the glowing green lights on their handlebars, LINKs have so far been taken on more than 270,000 trips covering more than 420,000 miles in LA — many of them in disadvantaged neighborhoods that haven’t traditionally been serviced with scooters.
Like many other micromobility operators, LINKs are available in popular areas for scooter riding such as downtown LA and Venice, but more than 35% of its scooters are in so-called LADOT equity zones, including Highland Park, Echo Park and the San Fernando Valley.
Superpedestrian has been capitalizing on changes LADOT made to its scooter program last year that waived trip fees for operators that deployed scooters in areas lacking good options for getting around cheaply.
Currently available in 50 cities, Superpedestrian was developed in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Sustainable Cities Lab to address micromobility’s shortcomings. For all their popularity and potential economic, environmental and traffic congestion benefits, scooters in particular have struggled with poor durability, as well as safety and equity complaints.
Many of the scooter models companies initially deployed had not been designed for commercial or shared use; some of them lasted less than a month before needing a replacement. Scooter riders frequently took them into areas where they weren’t allowed to operate, after which they were left blocking sidewalks and other rights of way.
Since 2019, when LADOT granted permits to Bird, Lime, Spin and five other companies to operate 37,000 scooters as part of the country’s largest micromobility program, the city has wrestled with balancing scooters’ benefits and hazards. The pandemic provided an inadvertent reset button.
On track to log 10 million trips in its first year, the city’s scooter program came to a screeching halt with the onset of COVID. In April 2020, just 700 scooters were operating within city limits, as scooter companies suspended operations or thinned their deployments. While the scooter business has bounced back from its pandemic lows, it has also changed with new companies and technology improvements that are evolving an industry that has only existed since late 2017.
"Customer expectations are changing," Matute said. "Getting on one of these more advanced scooters is a very different experience, a safer experience, than some of these early generation scooters that are still out in the wild. The new generation vehicles are much more sturdy, have a longer range and feel more comfortable over a longer ride."
Spin, backed by Ford Motor Co., recently upgraded its scooters with an S-100T model that includes a reinforced frame, dual-leg kickstand, 360-degree status light and independent brakes that the company says is its "safest, most reliable and most sustainable scooter to date."
The company that started it all — Bird — is now on its third generation scooter, which includes its largest-ever battery, real-time diagnostic monitoring and tires that are designed to avoid flats and keep them on the road longer without repairs. Last year, a Bird rider broke the company’s record for the longest trip taken: it lasted 2 hours and 48 minutes and covered 28.5 miles.
Superpedestrian’s LINK scooter has a similar-sized battery that can travel up to 61 miles per charge, the company says. It also includes five onboard computers that provide a sort of automated mechanic service, running checks on the battery, brakes and other systems before each rental to ensure everything is working properly before it can be ridden.
If the computers detect something is wrong with the electronics, Superpedestrian says the scooter will self repair. If the problem is more mechanical, the scooter will be flagged and taken out of service to a LINK operations center, one of which is located downtown and services scooters deployed in Hollywood, Silver Lake, Eagle Rock and other eastside neighborhoods.
The company says the most common fixes are replacing hand grips and broken plastic trim. What the service staff doesn’t see are scooters that have snapped in half. The LINK frame is made from a sold piece of reinforced metal that has already doubled the industry average for a scooter’s lifespan to 2,500 rides.
There are also systems to ensure the scooter is being ridden safely. Each LINK is equipped with geofencing software to prevent the scooter from going where it isn’t allowed, including pedestrian plazas, parks and other restricted zones. Riders who attempt to enter a prohibited area will experience slowing within one second of doing so before the scooter comes to a stop.
“We’re an engineering company at our heart. We're responsible for the tech from start to finish,” Zhang said. “We’re also safety first and community first, so our whole entire vehicle program including the vehicle itself was built for long-term durability. So is the way we’re trying to build our relationships with cities, so it’s more sustainable in the long term.”