As e-scooter industry matures, riders move from renting to buying | News Leave a comment

There’s little reason to visit 11th Street between Folsom and Harrison during the day. On the block that hosts some of San Francisco’s biggest nightclubs — Audio, Yolo, DNA Lounge — even the buildings look like they could use some sunglasses and a cup of coffee.

But if you’re one of the growing number of San Franciscans looking to buy their own personal electric scooter, this is the place to be.

Nestled amid the nightclubs is Fluidfreeride, San Francisco’s first dedicated e-scooter showroom and repair shop. Here, you can test ride and take home 22 different e-scooter varieties, ranging from $500 lightweight commuter models to $5,000 all-terrain two-wheelers. While other stores in The City, like PEV Works in the Bayview and Last Mile SF in Hayes Valley, sell e-scooters in addition to other products, no other store focuses solely on e-scooters.

“I find that the only people who really remain critics of scooters haven’t actually tried it,” said Sam Mollica, head of operations at Fluidfreeride’s San Francisco store. “It is a really powerful technology for getting around The City, especially a city like San Francisco where, by design, you’re not going to go more than seven miles in any direction.”

The store, which opened in April, is selling about two scooters per day, Mollica said, and also does brisk business repairing and re-selling scooters that people bought online.

Many of Fluidfreeride’s customers are delivery workers, Mollica said. Another common customer category is construction workers who need to travel quickly between sites. Office workers accustomed to biking to work are making the switch to e-scooters to avoid having to shower and change at the office.

And at a time of high gas prices, lots of customers say they’re investing in a scooter to save money on transportation. Most e-scooters can be fully charged for less than $1, Mollica said. “As long as gas prices stay high, more and more people are looking into alternatives. We hear that pretty much on a daily basis.”

Fluidfreeride, which also has showrooms in Miami and Brooklyn, could be a sign of a maturing industry. While most people got introduced to e-scooters via scooter sharing services like Bird and Lime, a growing number of consumers are opting for personally owned scooters — a trend clearly visible in San Francisco’s bike lanes.

“The greatest thing about the shared thing is it got a lot of people’s hands on scooters,” said Mollica, who previously worked for the now-defunct scooter share startup Skip. “They have that moment where it’s like, ‘Wow, I can’t believe how fun it was, how easy it was and how quick it got me to where I was going.’”

Olive Bruce, a tech investor and the co-host of the Micromobility Podcast, also sees the transition to personally owned e-scooters as a logical development. High per-ride prices, strict caps on the number of vehicles they can deploy and other regulations imposed by cities have hampered the growth of shared scooter companies.

“What you find is a lot of people will walk outside and just say, ‘I want to have a scooter, and I want it to be reasonably priced, and I can’t find that,’” Bruce said. “So what you’ve seen is an explosion in the personally owned scooter market as a result.”

In a recent blog post, Bruce likened the emergence of shared scooters to internet cafes. When the personal computer was still fairly new, “what people would do is go and rent them by the minute or by the hour.” Bruce said. “Over time, computers got better, and so we ended up with our own stuff.”

Bruce points to a trove of data indicating that the future of e-scooters is personally owned rather than shared. Segway (yes, that Segway), one of the largest scooter manufacturers in the world, reported in May that it had produced a total of 1.5 million scooters for shared companies, and an additional 8.5 million for personal use. In a 2021 McKinsey survey of people who said they would be interested in using an e-scooter to commute, 87% said they would prefer a personally owned or subscription model over scooter share.

Eric Min was picking up his brand new Apollo Phantom scooter at Fluidfreeride this week. “When I was living in The City, I took the scooters around a bit. And then I was looking for an easy transportation solution for getting around without having to actually drive places. And that’s kind of what inspired it.”

Gas prices, Min said, were not a consideration. “This is pretty powerful, so it’s just for the fun factor.”

Even for someone committed to buying a scooter, selecting the right kind can be daunting. I tested out a classic commuter model, the $1,000 Mosquito. This 30-pound scooter has a maximum speed of 26 mph, and a range of 15 to 20 miles, depending on hills. It feels much like a shared scooter, absorbing bumps in the road, though its acceleration is much more powerful.

I also tried the $2,600 Inokim OXO, which has a maximum speed of 40 mph, and a 40-50 mile charging range. This is a 74-pound beast, with 10-inch wheels and a deck wide enough for two feet side-by-side. Breaking 30 miles per hour on the OXO in the Folsom Street bike lane felt reckless. But on Harrison Street, a wide road without a bike lane, the scooter felt safer as it kept pace with car traffic.

Safety is the elephant in the room with e-scooters. Initial studies of shared scooter programs found injury rates considerably higher than bike share, but those studies didn’t account for the effect of inexperienced riders and low-quality vehicles. There’s little safety data on personally owned e-scooters, and there’s such a wide variety of makes that it could be difficult to draw firm conclusions for some time.

Mollica believes the risks of e-scooter riding are comparable to those of cycling. In some cases, e-scooters might be safer by allowing the rider to easily jump off their vehicle and by being taller and more visible to cars.

Still, it’s obvious that super-charged scooters traveling over 30 mph introduce additional risks to riders and other people on the road. Owning a souped up scooter entails a responsibility similar to what society vests in drivers, Mollica said. “You can go to any car lot, get in a car and it’ll go over 100 mph. You can’t legally drive 100 mph on the street. The responsibility lies on the driver.”

Mollica is optimistic that scooters will rapidly become safer, smoother and more accessible to different kinds of people. “The designs, in my opinion, still have a long way to go. And it’s really early days.”

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