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The pluses of scooter sharing

San Francisco

EARLIER this year, Santa Monica-based startup Bird rolled out an app-based fleet of dockless electric scooters in San Francisco. The city is not its first location - it has scooters in Los Angeles, Atlanta and Washington - nor is Bird the only scooter-share company there. San Francisco, though, is home to some of the scooters' most vocal opponents, who see them as sidewalk-clogging nuisances and a potential danger to pedestrians. Proponents (of which I am one) believe scooter-sharing is yet another way to move people through cities, and they are worth analysing.

In San Francisco, Bird riders are averaging 2.4 km per trip. I pulled my own Bird ride data for the month of April (10 rides, all in Washington) and found that I had travelled a slightly shorter distance on average. I also spent an average of US$2.70 per ride. Jump, the operator of on-demand, pedal-assisted electric bicycles (which was recently acquired by Uber Technologies Inc), says its riders average 4.1 km per trip.

Now, Bird scooters in San Francisco are being ridden far less frequently than Jump bikes are in general. Two rides per scooter per day is below the company's own target of three per day, and less than a third the number of daily rides on each Jump bike. If San Francisco has its way, the city's total scooter fleet would be capped at 1,250 for six months - a figure lower than Bird's own fleet, much less the total fleet including Lime and Spin scooters. For the moment, the market seems over-served.

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These scooters certainly aren't toys; they can be a nuisance if riders don't follow some basic rules. But my average speed during those April rides of 12 kph was almost a third faster than the 9 kph average speed of a city bus in Manhattan. Average rides are shorter than on Jump's bikes, and the scooters aren't great at steep inclines.

What they are great at, though, is being a last- or only-mile option for quick, inexpensive movement. Like electric bicycles, the scooters accelerate briskly. Unlike bicycles, they're friendly to pretty much any attire. (Also unlike pedal-assisted electric bicycles, scooters require riders to have a driver's licence, as scooters have a throttle.) Scooters are also easy to dispatch: A delivery van can hold a lot more charged scooters than bicycles, and that makes them easier to move to where and when they're most in demand.

Neither Uber nor Lyft Inc, nor any of their rivals, seem keen on the electric-scooter market - yet. But Uber chief executive Dara Khosrowshahi hinted last month where this interest might be piqued: He said the average trip distance was similar to the average distance of an Uber car ride. If scooter rides begin to encroach on that figure or induce significant new demand for electric travel at existing average distances, then a scooter firm might be an acquisition target.

Perhaps that's the best way to think of scooters and other new forms of electric transport - as flexible transport options a rider doesn't need to own, can always access, and will use based on that day's needs and wants. BLOOMBERG