I’m going to take a break from talking about speaker sessions today to touch on one of the most noticeable aspects of SXSW this year.
I’ve spoken with seasoned conference attendees, and the street invasion is very much a new feature — also, a significant one. According to the cities dockless-mobility website, ten companies are operating in Austin with 17,650 vehicles licensed. Granted, SXSW changes the dynamics of Austin profoundly, but still, you can’t walk down any street without seeing scores of people zooming from one place to another, and if you want to rent one they are never more than a stone’s throw away.
The short term effect on the street is chaotic. Haphazard parking/dumping on pavements is at best an eyesore and at worst an inconvenience and a trip hazard. However, It’s the helmetless riders weaving at high speed through crowds of mobile phone distracted conference goers that are causing the most concern. Understandably there seems to be some animosity towards the scooters from other road users. Partially justified and partially just a product of ‘the law of transportation righteousness’, (Credit Dieter Bohn at The Verge). which states that “the mode of transport you’re currently using is the correct one and everyone doing something different is irresponsible and wrong.”
The scooter companies are trying to nudge behaviour in a more sustainable direction, which over time should help. ‘Bird’ scooters politely tell you off for riding on the sidewalk, (I… er… heard from a friend). Most of the brands ask you to take a photo when you complete your ride to show that you’ve parked responsibly.
The chaos is likely a short term hindrance. With the introduction of any new technology, norms of behaviour will establish themselves over time, and laws will fill in the gaps if required. I’m sure the roads were an interesting place indeed when cars were first introduced.
The micro-mobility competitive environment is feirce. The hardware itself is pretty homogenous, and there appears to be no functional difference that I can tell between the brands. This leaves several dimensions on which they can compete.
- Price — If all other aspects of the experience are roughly equal, then competition becomes a race to the bottom on price. Aggressive introductory offers are commonplace; usage for Austin residents is heavily subsidised in the short term. We may well see a war of attrition, where the company with the biggest war chest wins.
- Availability/charging — The ability to deploy, re-redistribute and recharge a significant fleet is critical. Ubiquity is likely to be a factor in deciding which app customers download first. If your neighbourhood is filled with ‘Lime’, you’ll likely opt for Lime. Saturation is also a defensive measure against people downloading a competitive app because none of your vehicles are close by.
- App experience — This is table stakes. Most of the brands have pretty stable apps that follow a standard formula. There could be an opportunity here for someone to stand out by innovating on experience in a way that adds value to users.
- Customer service — More table stakes. If something goes wrong, do they fix it and fix it quickly? This represents more of an opportunity to lose customers by frustrating them.
It’s also worth noting that the competition for scooter brands isn’t just other scooters, it’s any way of getting from A to B. So in the way that scooters are now taking ride share from bikes and cars, the same will likely be true with the next emergent mode of transport.
The growth potential for these brands could also be limited by the suitability of cities into which they can expand. Austin is well suited to scooters. Bike lanes, not too much traffic, wide pavements. I’m not sure how well they would translate to Sydney, Mumbi or London, but I guess we’ll see.
All that said, they are a lot of fun to ride!