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Bringing micromobility to Africa

When you look at maps of micromobility across the world, it appears there’s not a ton of activity throughout Africa. Well, that’s because there’s not, Gura Ride founder and CEO Tony Adesina said at TC Sessions: Mobility.

In Africa, there are “very few” micromobility operators, Adesina said. “Almost non-existent.”

That’s why launching bike and scooter share in Africa, and specifically Rwanda was strategic, he said. In Kigali, there are many bike lanes and cycling is quite popular in Rwanda, Adesina said. But bikeshare and scooters are “completely new to them.”

Gura Ride has been in operation for the last couple of years and says people are generally receptive to the idea. Still, it hasn’t attracted the same type of market activity as other places.

“Africa is quite unique,” Adesina said. “I don’t think it’s somewhere where you can bring an existing model, maybe that worked in the States or the UK and just dump in a country like South Africa or Rwanda. You have to understand the culture and the people you’re dealing with. It takes quite some time. You have to study the terrain and make sure the model you run in the U.S. or the U.K. can actually fit. Another thing is price. The buying power is not as heavy as you have in the States. So the numbers have to make sense and you have to make sure that the market you’re going into can meet your projected goals.”

That’s partly why Voi, which has gained a stronghold across Europe, has yet to launch in Africa. Voi CEO Fredrik Hjelm noted how the cost of supply and operations is pretty much the same wherever it operates, so in markets where there is less willingness among riders to pay higher costs, it makes it “very, very difficult to operate profitably,” he said.

Once Voi can bring down the costs of operations, it will be easier to launch in more markets and operate profitably there, Hjelm said.

“So there is definitely a time where we will be able to make markets with lower willingness to pay, such as Africa, profitable, when we go there,” he said.

What’s key to micromobility becoming more mainstream in Africa is infrastructure, Adesina said.

“I think the biggest issue [in Kigali] is that the roads are quite narrow, so how do you share the road so you don’t have a lot of hit and runs,” he said.

On the other hand, micromobility is thriving so much in Europe because of the infrastructure, Hjelm said. So, infrastructure can really make or break the industry.

“The infrastructure is better than anywhere else,” Hjlem said. “Culturally also, we’re much more used to bikes to mopeds to vespas to scooters — to all kinds of alternatives to cars. So I think that fundamentally, Europe is the world’s most attractive market.”

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Lime and Scoot veterans have built Ridepanda, a one-stop micromobility marketplace

Chinmay Malaviya and Charlie Depman found themselves at the center of the shared micromobility industry just as it took off, working for companies like Bird, Lime and Scoot. They experienced a rollercoaster ride of venture funding and skyrocketing demand, product pitfalls and regulatory hurdles. It was in the midst of this activity that the pair noted a shift in the industry and an opportunity. 

“From our vantage point there was a massive shift happening in mobility and transportation, in terms of personal ownership,” Malaviya told TechCrunch in an interview last month. “People were looking for their own electric scooter, electric bike and electric moped.”

Malaviya and Depman, who met on LinkedIn, determined there wasn’t a suitable way to research, vet and buy e-bikes, e-mopeds or e-scooters beyond Google and Amazon searches. And Ridepanda, an online marketplace for light electric vehicles, was born.

It’s safe to call the pair “light electric vehicle” evangelists. They see Ridepanda, which raised an undisclosed amount of seed funding from General Catalyst and Will Smith’s Dreamers Fund, as the best way to deliver on the mission of getting more electric bikes, scooters and mopeds in the public’s hands.

“We are all for cities that can be happier and efficient, if they run on these vehicles that are small, quiet eco-friendly and also a lot more fun,” said Malaviya, who added that light electric  vehicles are particularly well-suited for the majority of trips people take, which data shows is up five miles.

The startup, which the pair launched in early 2020 and recently came out of stealth, aims to be one-stop “e-ride” shop where customers can find a curated set of expert-vetted e-rides and a customization feature that helps shoppers home in on the right product. Ridepanda launched in late September, a new site with an improved user interface, a “ridefinder quiz” that helps people find the right product as well as other support services. These support services, which are bundled and branded “pandacare,” connects users with information on insurance, home assembly, repair and maintenance plans as well as help finding the right helmet.

The Ridepanda homepage.

Visitors to Ridepanda will spot the “ridefinder quiz,” which lets users select the electric bike, moped or scooter icon, their height and weight, top uses and finally, preferences like foldable or cargo and budget. The user is then given a few results that best match their selections. Users can skip this process and just conduct searches based on the three product types or use cases such as “commute,” “adventure,” “delivery,” or “accessibility.”

Not just any electric bike, scooter or moped qualifies for Ridepanda’s site, said Depman, who is the company’s CTO.

“We’ve seen like a Cambrian explosion of different vehicle types; there are literally hundreds of options out there,” said Depman. “If you go on Amazon website, you’re going to see 150-plus in each category, and it’s really hard to sift through them. So what we’ve been building on the back end is a vetting system.”

For a product to be included on the platform, it must meet certain criteria and rating. The company rates vehicles across performance, safety, sustainability, durability and repairability, Depman said. That rating is achieved by evaluating all the different components of the vehicle, including the battery, motor and brakes.

Ridepanda is focused on the U.S. market for now, particularly cities like Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, Portland, San Francisco and Seattle. The company offers customers financing and it’s even looking into a subscription service, although it’s unclear when or if that will roll out.

“Basically I think we are fighting the noise and the decision fatigue,” Malaviya said.

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HumanForest suspends London e-bike sharing service, cuts jobs after customer accident

UK-based startup HumanForest has suspended its nascent ‘free’ e-bike service in London this week, after experiencing “mechanical” issues and after a user had an accident on one of its bikes, TechCrunch has learned. The suspension has also seen the company make a number of layoffs with plans to re-launch next spring using a different e-bike.

The service suspension comes only a few months after HumanForest started the trial in North London — and just a couple of weeks after announcing a $2.3M seed round of funding backed by the founders of Cabify and others.

We were tipped to the closure by an anonymous source who said they were employed by the startup. They told us the company’s e-bike had been found to have a defect and there had been an accident involving a user, after which the service was suspended. They also told us HumanForest fired a bunch of staff this week with little warning and minimal severance.

Asked about the source’s allegations, HumanForest confirmed it had suspended its service in London following a “minor accident” on Sunday, saying also that it had identified “problems of a similar nature” prior to the accident but had put down those down to “tampering or minor mechanical issues”.

Here’s its statement in full: “We were not aware that the bike was defective. There had been problems of a similar nature which were suspected to be tampering or minor mechanical issues. We undertook extra mechanical checks which we believed had resolved the issue and informed the supplier. We immediately suspended operations following the minor accident on Sunday. The supplier is now investigating whether there is a more serious problem with the e-bike.”

In an earlier statement the startup also told us: “There was an accident last week. Fortunately, the customer was not hurt. We immediately withdrew all e-bikes from the street and we have informed the supplier who is investigating. Our customers’ safety is our priority. We have, therefore, decided to re-launch with a new e-bike in Spring 2021.”

HumanForest declined to offer any details about the nature of the defect that caused it to suspend service but a spokeswoman confirmed all its e-bikes were withdrawn from London streets the same day as the accident, raising questions as to why it did not do so sooner — having, by its own admission, already identified “similar problems”.

The spokeswoman also confirmed HumanForest made a number of job cuts in the wake of the service suspension.

“We are very sorry that we had to let people go at this difficult time but, with operations suspended, we could only continue as a business with a significantly reduced team,” she said. “We tried very hard to find a way to keep people on board and we looked at the possibility of alternative contractual arrangements or employment but unfortunately, there are no guarantees of when we can re-launch.”

“Employees who had been with the company for less than three months were on their probation period which, as outlined in their contract, had one week’s notice. We will be paying their salaries until the end of the month,” she said, reiterating that it’s a difficult time for the startup.

The e-bikes HumanForest was using for the service appear to be manufactured by the Chinese firm Hongji — but are supplied by a German startup, called Wunder Mobility, which offers both b2c and b2b mobility services.

We contacted both companies to ask about the e-bike defect reported by HumanForest.

At the time of writing only Wunder Mobility had responded — confirming it acts as “an intermediary” for HumanForest but not offering any details about the nature of the technical problem.

Instead, it sent us this statement, attributed to its CCO Lukas Loers: “HumanForest stands for reliable quality and works continuously to improve its services. In order to offer its customers the best possible range of services in the sharing business, HumanForest will use the winter break to evaluate its findings from the pilot project in order to provide the best and most sustainable solution for its customers together with Wunder Mobility in the spring.”

“Unfortunately, we cannot provide any information about specific defects on the vehicles, as we have only acted as an intermediary. Only the manufacturer or the operator HumanForest can comment on this,” it added.

In a further development this week, which points to the competitive and highly dynamic nature of the nascent micromobility market, another e-bike sharing startup, Bolt — which industry sources suggest uses the same model of e-bike as HumanForest (its e-bike is visually identical, just painted a more lurid shade of green) — closed its e-bike sharing service in Paris, a few months after launching in the French capital.

When we contacted Bolt to ask whether it had withdrawn any e-bikes because of technical issues it flat denied doing so — saying the Paris closure was a business decision, and was not related to problems with its e-bike hardware.

“We understand some other companies have had issues with their providers. Bolt hasn’t withdrawn any electric bikes from suppliers due to defects,” a spokesperson told us, going on to note it has “recently” launched in Barcelona and trailing “more announcements about future expansion soon”.

In follow up emails the spokesperson further confirmed it hasn’t identified any defects with any e-bikes it’s tested, nor withdrawn any bikes from its supplier.

Bolt’s UK country manager, Matt Barrie, had a little more to say in a response to chatter about the various micromobility market moves on Twitter — tweeting the claim that: “Hardware at Bolt is fine, all good, the issues that HumanForest have had are with their bespoke components.”

“The Paris-Prague move is a commercial decision to support our wider business in Prague. Paris a good market and we hope to be back soon,” he added.

We asked HumanForest about Barrie’s claim that the technical issues with its hardware are related to “bespoke components” — but its spokeswoman declined to comment.

HumanForest’s twist on the e-bike sharing model is the idea of offering free trips with in-app ads subsidizing the rides. Its marketing has also been geared towards pushing a ‘greener commute’ message — touting that the e-bike batteries and service vehicles are charged with certified renewable energy sources.

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Explore micromobility’s next opportunities at TC Sessions: Mobility

Micromobility, like many other industries, has faced a lot of uncertainty this year. Many shared electric scooter operators paused their services in the earlier days of the COVID-19 pandemic, but resumed operations after putting some safety measures into place. Meanwhile, some industry analysts have pointed to micromobility as a savior for cities where public transit is suffering as a result of low ridership.

Although there have been many layoffs and consolidation across the market, micromobility as a technological tool may be poised to come out of this year stronger than before. And despite the over-saturation companies in the micromobility market, there are still opportunities for new players.

That’s what we’ll be exploring at TC Sessions: Mobility with Tortoise Co-founder Dmitry Shevelenko, Elemental Excelerator Director of Innovation, Mobility Danielle Harris and Superpedestrian VP of Strategy and Policy Avra van der Zee.

Tortoise Co-founder and President Dmitry Shevelenko 

Given the volume of micromobility operators in the space today, Tortoise aims to make it easier for these companies to more strategically deploy their respective vehicles and reposition them when needed. Using autonomous technology in tandem with remote human intervention, Tortoise’s software enables operators to remotely relocate their scooters and bikes to places where riders need them, or, where operators need them to be recharged.

On an empty sidewalk, Tortoise may employ autonomous technologies, while it may rely on humans to remotely control the vehicle on a highly trafficked city block. Shevelenko will walk us through his company’s approach to building an operating system for micromobility providers.

Elemental Excelerator Director of Innovation, Mobility Danielle Harris

Given the challenges the COVID-19 pandemic has created in cities, there is room for electric bikes and scooters to provide alternative transportation options to cities. Additionally, there is growing interest in charging stations as well as the direct-to-consumer market, as society still grapples with ways to live among a deadly virus.

Harris, who used to work as an innovation strategist for San Francisco’s Municipal Transportation Agency’s Office of Innovation, has a a plethora of knowledge about how startups can best work with cities and provide them with relevant and effective mobility solutions.

Superpedestrian VP of Strategy and Policy Avra van der Zee

Superpedestrian first came on the scene with its vehicle diagnostics platform for shared electric scooters. This year, the company launched its own electric scooter provider, LINK, in partnership with Zagster. Avra van der Zee, who came on board to Superpedestrian after working at JUMP, is tasked with ensuring Superpedestrian continues to work well with cities in providing them micromobility services that fit their needs.

At TC Sessions: Mobility, you’ll hear from these experts about what’s next in micromobility.

Get your tickets for TC Sessions: Mobility to hear from these thought-leaders along with several other fantastic speakers from Waymo, Lyft, Nuro and more. Tickets are just $145 until September 4 at 11:59 p.m. PDT, with discounts for groups, students and exhibiting startups. We hope to see you there!

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Unagi, the iPhone of scooters, now has a subscription service

Unagi, the portable and design-forward electric scooter company that made a splash with celebs and pop stars, has launched a subscription service.

The service, called Unagi All-Access, will be offered in New York City and Los Angeles. The company said it plans to expand to additional markets as it gathers customer feedback and refines the service.

Customers will be able to choose from two plans. There will be a pay-as-you-go monthly plan that costs $39 per month and a discounted annual plan for $34 a month. Unagi does charge a $50 initial setup fee, which means that first month will cost customers $89. The flat monthly fee includes maintenance and insurance for scooter theft or damage.

Image Credits: Unagi

Once a customer subscribes, an assembled Model One scooter is shipped to their home within 24 hours, Unagi promises. The Model One costs $990 for customers who want to buy the scooter outright.

Once a customer cancels their subscription, Unagi reclaims the scooter, which is then put through an 80-point inspection. Unagi tells TechCrunch that it’s the same inspection that the scooters go through at the factory. There’s no written guarantee that subscribers will get a new scooter. However, Unagi said customers will likely get new scooters because the company has been ramping up production since the beginning of the pandemic to meet demand.

It is a risk for Unagi, but one the company is betting will pay off amid — and after — the COVID-19 pandemic.

“This model is well-suited to today’s world: as cities re-open, people are rethinking how they get to the supermarket, the post office and the park,” according to the company’s recent blog post announcing the service. “Data shows COVID-wary consumers are afraid of shared transportation, whether it’s the subway, an Uber or a shared scooter. They’re looking for safer alternatives.”

The company was already researching a subscription service before COVID-19 spread throughout the world, according to CEO David Hyman.

Unagi tested the idea last fall. A deeper study was launched in spring in partnership with UC Berkeley’s Haas Business School that determined demand was higher than expected.

“COVID just reinforced our desire to get it live and was the impetus for going live in both LA and NYC at the same time,” Hyman told TechCrunch in an email.

Unagi isn’t alone in this scooter subscription pivot, or what we like to call hardware-as-a-service. Others are also pursuing this business model, including Dance and Voi.

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Swiftmile raises $5 million round led by Thayer Ventures for micromobility charging stations

Swiftmile, the startup that makes and deploys charging stations for electric bikes and scooters in cities, has raised a $5 million round led by Thayer Ventures with participation from Verizon Ventures, Alumni Ventures Groups and WSGR. This round brings Swiftmile’s total funding to $11 million.

“What’s happening today is streets are being totally reimagined,” Swiftmile co-founder and CEO Colin Roche told TechCrunch. “If you talk to any city planner, the old rules are being thrown out and new ones are being written. Public transportation use has plummeted because people are scared of [COVID-19] transmission in closed environments. We went from being a nice to have to a need to have.”

Swiftmile works with cities to deploy charging hubs and charges the operators by the minute, but not to exceed a certain amount, depending on the market. Initially, the docking system will be open to all operators in order to show them how it works and how beneficial it can be. After a certain period of time, Swiftmile will only charge its customers’ scooters.

With the new funding, Swiftmile plans to deploy its systems in three additional cities in the U.S., as well as work on expanding into Europe. Currently, Swiftmile has 150 smart-charging stations deployed throughout the U.S.

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New York City could have an e-scooter pilot program by March

New York City is on the verge of approving a shared electric scooter pilot program, opening up a potentially lucrative market and new micromobility battleground in the United States.

The New York City Council is expected Thursday to vote on a bill that will require the New York Department of Transportation to create a pilot program for the operation of shared electric scooters in the city. The proposed legislation will first be taken up by the Committee on Transportation at 10 a.m. ET before moving to the full council, which has a meeting scheduled for 1:30 p.m. ET. The committee is expected to approve the measure.

The proposed legislation would require the DOT to issue by October 15, 2020 a request for proposals to participate in a shared e-scooter pilot program. The pilot program would need to launch by March 1, 2021.

“New Yorkers need more sustainable and safe ways to commute and get around during this pandemic–and that is especially true for our essential delivery workers who deserve our gratitude and our support for keeping this city running even through the darkest days of this crisis,” New York Council speaker Corey Johnson said in an emailed statement ahead of tomorrow’s vote. “E-bikes and scooters are going to be a major part of our city’s transit future, and I’m proud of the council’s work to ensure that future arrives safely and equitably.”

Lime is among several shared electric scooter companies eager to participate in the pilot. The micromobility company has spent the past two years working with elected officials, social justice organizations and advocates to finally make scooters available to New Yorkers, Phil Jones, the senior director of government relations for Lime, told TechCrunch in an email.

“The newfound urgency to offer car-alternative transportation options seems to have gotten us to this point,” Jones said.

A recent survey conducted by the New York League of Conservation Voters, the Tri-State Transportation Campaign and shared micromobility company Lime suggests there is support for electric scooters in New York City. The survey, which was administered between June 15 to June 19, found 92% of respondents would choose to use scooters as an alternative to cars during the COVID-19 crisis. (It should be noted that the survey was sent to more than 30,000 New Yorkers who are part of the NYLCV, TSTC and Lime networks; 394 people responded).

Spin confirmed that if approved, it plans to apply for a permit. Link, a new scooter startup that is the shared micromobility arm of Superpedestrian and that just officially launched about a month ago, also plans to apply.  Lyft, which already is one of the operators of New York City’s bikeshare program, also confirmed plans to apply.

Link founder and CEO Assaf Biderman is aiming to sell the city on its technology.

“With some of the busiest streets in the country, New York needs micromobility operators who can keep riders moving in bike lanes and out of no-ride zones,” Biderman said.

TechCrunch also reached out to a number of other e-scooter rental companies, including Bird and Skip. The article will be updated if these companies respond.

While the proposed legislation was first introduced two years ago, a pilot program wasn’t technically feasible until this April when New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed a bill to legalize the use of throttle-based electric scooters and bikes in the state. Under the state law, shared scooters will not be allowed in Manhattan and a pilot program must be approved by the NY City Council before shared scooter services can operate in the remaining boroughs of Brooklyn, the Bronx, Queens and Staten Island.

The proposed local law places some requirements on how the pilot program is structured. Neighborhoods that lack access to existing bike-share programs will be given priority in determining the geographic boundaries of the pilot program. Companies that receive permits will be required to meet operating rules, such as providing accessible scooter options.

It’s not clear how many companies will be issued permits or if there will be restrictions on the number of scooters in each fleet. Jones over at Lime said that “successful scooter programs strike a careful balance that allows for competition between a handful of operators, but not so many as it becomes oversaturated and unruly.”

In Lime’s view, a successful scooter program will allow for demand to dictate fleet size, include service zones in denser communities with nearby transit options, ensure the zones are expansive enough to connect residential and commercial districts, guarantee access for lower-income neighborhoods as well as provide and capitalize on its unprecedented growth of the bike lane network, Jones added.

The committee on transportation and full council is also expected to discuss and possibly approve rules about private use of electric bikes and scooters. One proposed law would allow for privately owned scooter use in Manhattan. Shared scooters are prohibited in Manhattan in accordance with state law.

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As Uber (reportedly) squeezes Lime, scooter startups run low on juice

Hello and welcome back to our regular morning look at private companies, public markets and the gray space in between.

In December of 2019, this column wrote an entry detailing Uber’s micro-mobility efforts. Just six months ago — a mere two quarters — Uber’s Jump team was on the record saying that its parent company wanted to “double down on micro-mobility.” At the time, before COVID-19 and the decline in human travel, it made some sense.

Things have changed for both Uber and micro-mobility sector. Uber’s financial performance was looking up before the pandemic, with the company promising a more aggressive adjusted profitability timeline. Lime, a dockless scooter company, was also making noise about profits—or something close to them.

Both goals now seem out of reach. Bird and Lime, the best-known American scooter companies, have both cut staff this year. And The Information recently reported that Uber may invest in Lime at a dramatically lowered valuation with an option to buy the company at a later date.

As Uber already has its own micro-mobility bet (recall that it bought JUMP and thus has its own scooters in-market), why would it go through the bother of repricing Lime to maybe buy it later? The Information notes that Uber’s own micro-mobility bet is expensive. But given Lime’s own persistent losses and cash burn I couldn’t make the idea square in my head. So, this morning let’s peek at Uber’s numbers ahead of earnings and see what we can learn about its 2019 in the micro-mobility world, and if that helps us understand why it might drop up to nine figures on Lime during the smaller company’s struggles.

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The Station: Via hits $2.25B valuation, letters from readers, layoffs in a time of COVID-19

Hi, and welcome back to The Station, a weekly newsletter dedicated to all the ways people and packages travel from Point A to Point B. I’m your host Kirsten Korosec, senior transportation reporter at TechCrunch. If this is your first time, hello; I’m glad you’re with us.
I have started to publish a version of the newsletter on TechCrunch. That’s what you’re reading now. For the whole newsletter, which comes out every weekend, you can subscribe by heading over here, and clicking “The Station.” It’s free!
Last week, I asked readers to share how …

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Pandemic puts the brakes on micromobility

As of this writing, nearly a million people globally have been infected with the novel coronavirus and 50,322 have died. Healthcare systems are overwhelmed, consumers and profiteers are hoarding supplies and some service workers have launched strikes while many others have been let go. In the world of micromobility, we’ve …

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