Episode 059: Surviving “Micromobility Winter on Steroids”with William Henderson

TransLoc Marketing April 01, 2020 Ridesharing, micromobility, podcast, COVID-19, crisis 0 Comments

An already challenging time for micromobility has become even harder with COVID-19 limiting people’s movements in many cities and countries. But William Henderson, CEO of Ride Report, believes there are still blue skies ahead for cities, micromobility operators, and riders.

A pivot from Fixed Route to demand response can help transit agencies continue to serve their communities during trying times. Watch this webinar to learn more! 

ePISODE TRANSCRIPT

Cohen: Josh Cohen
Henderson: William Henderson

Cohen: The Movement podcast is continuing our special episodes focused on COVID-19. This week we’ll hear from William Henderson, CEO of Ride Report, on the impact of COVID-19 on micromobility customers, providers, and cities. It’s not what you think. Let’s go.

F: Mobility is an essential component to the cities of our future. To build this future, we need to do more than invest in technology; we need to invest in the people who will make the hard decisions necessary to create vibrant, equitable, and sustainable cities. Welcome to The Movement where we talk to the brave leaders who are effecting change in an effort to build a coalition of leaders who will make tomorrow real. Here is your host, TransLoc’s National Director of Policy, Josh Cohen.

Cohen: Last week I had APTA president Paul Skoutelas on to hear about how the public transit industry was responding to the COVID-19 virus. This week I have William Henderson, the CEO of Ride Report, providers of software that helps cities manage their shared micromobility fleets, for an update for how COVID-19 is impacting micromobility. Welcome to The Movement, William.

Henderson: Thank you. It’s good to be here.

Cohen: So let’s start by giving our audience an introduction to Ride Report. What do you do? Who are some of your customers? What problem are you really trying to solve?

Henderson: One of the key things that we’ve seen in micromobility is that there’s not a lot of shared understanding sometimes between operators and cities. So even though they kind of want the same things—not always, but, you know, overall everybody wants micromobility to succeed and become this new, reliable, efficient mode of transportation—they couldn’t be more different in terms of how they’re going about that, the language that they speak, the kinds of tools that they use. So there’s this really important role for our company, which is basically a trusted source of truth in the middle that both cities and operators can rely on. And it’s become really, I think in the past year especially, just evident that when you have a single platform that both operators and cities are using, that it can sort of grease the wheels and make the whole thing a lot more efficient.

So we see ourselves as—there are a lot of companies out there that are doing this kind of thing now, especially last year when micromobility was the hot thing. We’ll see what it looks like this year. So our difference though, I think, is we’ve always been really focused on micromobility; so we didn’t come at this as a pivot from autonomous vehicles or something like that. And that has two really big consequences. The first is probably not quite as relevant to today’s conversation, which is just we’ve always been really focused on privacy. And we think that’s a really important long-term thing.

And the way I see it is, you know, as a micromobility advocate, a former what I would call bike advocate, now a micromobility advocate, you know, the focus has always been on helping cities make streets more people centric—right—not just vehicle planning. And I think in the digital world we see our job as taking a more people-centric approach for how cities are gathering this data and affecting this control. Right? So we really want to see it done in a way that respects the rights of citizens to privacy, residents as well, to privacy. And we think it’s possible to give the control that cities need without them needing to sort of track everybody everywhere they go. So that’s—you know, it’s a really important long-term trend, and it really comes directly out of our focus on micromobility and people-centric modes of transportation.

And then the second big consequence for us of that focus, which I think is really relevant to today’s conversation, is that we’re really focused on efficiency. So we see it as our job and our role to help make micromobility work. Without this trusted source of truth in the middle that both cities and operators can rely on, you really don’t have the kinds of opportunities for efficiency and collaboration that you have when you’re using a shared platform. So, you know, one of the things I’ll talk a lot about, I think, today is this idea of micromobility winter. And this is something that we saw coming before COVID.

We definitely didn’t predict what was going to happen with that; but we saw, you know, a general trend in the industry where because of a lot of factors, financial factors, you know, things happening in the ride-hailing space, the operators were not going to get a sort of five-to-ten year timeframe for getting to profitability. They need to get there fast. And in order to get there, they’re going to have to really focus on the markets where it can work. And that, of course, means focusing on the cities that are ripe for micromobility, but it also means focusing on cities that have a friendly regulatory environment. And that doesn’t mean laissez-faire. Right? That doesn’t mean going back to Uber and Lyft days. What it means is having an API-driven, streamlined approach to regulation that still gives cities the control they need but does it in a way that actually works for a technology company.

And so that’s really what Ride Report is all about. So I see our role as mattering now more than ever because, you know, everybody is battening down the hatches; everybody is trying to figure out how we’re going to just survive this thing. And it’s like micromobility winter on steroids. Right? So I see that as a good way to tee up the conversation, but we’re all hands on deck right now for that.

Cohen: Yeah. So and functionally for your customers who are cities and so forth, like you said, you’re kind of this—middleman is maybe not the right word, but—trusted person in the middle that’s kind of ensuring that both sides of that are kind of getting what they need, and you’re kind of in that position of trust. And what you’re actually providing, say, to your city customers is a way to—is audit the right word? Kind of, like, see or survey kind of how the different micromobility companies are serving that community and meeting the goals of that community?

Henderson: Mm-hmm. Yeah, exactly. I think auditing is a key thing. So when cities are getting data from the micromobility operators, how can they make sense of that data quickly—right—because they need to be able to respond quickly? And how can they make sure that they can trust the data—right—when there might be inaccuracies in that data or inconsistencies between different operators? So cities really need a tool that they can trust, and that’s what they hire us for. But there’s also a lot of work that we do in the other direction, which is that cities have rules, regulations, fines and fees that they have, and they want to have a lot of control there; but the way that they’re used to regulating might not be the most efficient way for operators.

So we can take those regulations and push them out via an API to the operators. And, of course, every technology company out there is used to working with an API. So as cities are evolving and especially, like, playing with things to try to get it working, you know, and they want to be able to make those changes so that they can get it working, they need a system that actually allows them to do that without sort of driving away the operators. And that’s where this API that we offer back to our partners, the operators, is so important.

Cohen: That’s really neat. So, obviously, one of the challenges in the public sector is that they don’t have the same level of investment in technology and so forth that maybe some of the private sector has. Certainly big cities probably do, but most of the smaller places don’t.

Henderson: Big cities definitely do, yeah.

Cohen: Yeah. So, but if I’m hearing you correctly, part of the value that you provide is being able to kind of, like, translate maybe that midsized city that doesn’t have the same technological resource, to be able to translate their policy into a way that then can then get fed into these private sector operators who are all very high-tech and are kind of used to that. And you’re kind of being that translation, if you will, from that government bureaucratic kind of way of presenting information into this API-driven way that these tech and micromobility provides are used to working in. Am I understanding that correctly?

Henderson: Mm-hmm. Yeah. I would say even in large cities though, you know, you have a level of really high sophistication when comes to data and technologies.

Cohen: Sure.

Henderson: And cities understand that this is important to their future—right—to their sovereignty, is, you know, being able to control the digital systems that manage the right-of-way. The issue is that because every city—you know, they might be using a standard like the MDS standard, but the tools that they’re building on top of that are not standard. So it’s really important that even though they have a lot of in-house expertise, that that control and the systems that they’re using gets translated through a system that is consistent city to city. So that’s really where we see our roles, is we’re kind of plugging into the work that the city may have.

If they don’t have a lot of that work, of course, we have front-end tools that the city can use themselves. But even in a really big and sophisticated city, you know, providing that common interface back to our partners on the operator side so that the operator can know what whether they’re talking to London or, like, a tiny city of 30,000 people, it’s going to be the same interface. And that’s really important in order to make micromobility work and achieve the kinds of efficiencies that we really need.

Cohen: Yeah, that makes sense. That makes sense. Well, let’s return to this micromobility winter on steroids. Obviously, in my conversation with Paul Skoutelas last we talked a little bit about public transit and how they’re adapting.

Henderson: Sure.

Cohen: And we’re seeing more news happen since then with many more agencies going fare free, doing rear-door boarding, again, because they recognize that especially in bigger cities but really in most cities there’s really critical employees that need public transit to get around. I’m curious what you’re seeing and hearing as it relates to COVID-19 and its impact on riders, people that maybe were used to using micromobility to get around in their communities and might even need it.

Henderson: Yeah, so it’s been interesting. I mean, it would have been amazing—not that we can time these things, but I think if we had a really healthy, thriving micromobility system, you know, we might have seen a different trend right now than what we’re seeing. But certainly, I mean, if you sort of think about it in a vacuum, micromobility is an incredibly efficient and resilient form of transportation. That’s one of the reasons I’ve always been a micromobility advocate, is that cities have this resource that especially in times of disaster can become incredibly helpful.

So in some ways this underscores the long-term need for micromobility. Right? So even at a time where we see companies really struggling, the need is more evident than ever. You know, and I’m actually really excited by some cities. It’s certainly not universal, but there are some cities that are doing really exciting things right now, experimenting around temporary infrastructure in cities like New York and Philadelphia.

Cohen: Yeah.

Henderson: That’s so cool—right—because there’s always been a problem on the infrastructure side, and the emergence of shared micromobility hasn’t yet put a dent in that problem. And so the idea that we could have infrastructure spinning up just as quickly as these shared fleets spun up last year, that’s so cool. So it’s not all dark, and I think the long-term trend is even more clear than ever. Right? You have this really incredible form of transportation that can adapt, and you have this infrastructure that’s being massively underused that could be quickly repurposed. But then, of course, you have the day-to-day strains on the operators who already kind of were in a difficult place when all of this hit.

Cohen: Yeah, for sure. Yeah. We’ll get to that in a second, because I’d love to get your perspective on that. As it relates more to the riders themselves, I think what I think is so interesting about that is that some of the data I’m seeing is that, you know, biking for instance in New York is growing significantly during this time—

Henderson: That’s right.

Cohen: —I think, because of some of the concerns about being in an enclosed space, say, on public transit. And so people are saying, “Hey, I can bike and be in fresh air.” So certainly from a micromobility standpoint it seems like there is some appetite there to keep leaning into that. And Bogotá, I think, just increased their bike infrastructure and micromobility infrastructure, which is great as well.

Henderson: Yeah.

Cohen: I guess my question I’m really trying to get at here is from the standpoint of owned micromobility versus shared micromobility and maybe the distinction there.

Henderson: Mm-hmm.

Cohen: Because obviously there’s value in both.

Henderson: Yeah.

Cohen: But maybe in this time maybe one feels a little bit quote-unquote “safer” than the other. I mean, I don’t know if that’s actually true, but I’m curios what you’re seeing and hearing.

Henderson: I mean, it’s hard to know—right—because we’re getting into psychological territory about, you know, “Do people feel safe riding a shared scooter?” I think, you know, in terms of the actual safety, like, micromobility, you know, the handlebars on a scooter or the seat on a bike, they’re probably cleaner than most doorknobs and handles that we touch when we go into a grocery store or whatever. And, you know, if you’re sanitizing your hands afterwards and before, it’s probably very safe. But I can’t really speak to whether it feels safe, and I think it’s hard to say because in a lot of cities the fleet sizes are decimated. Right? So it’s not that people are using it less. They are because they’re taking fewer trips.

Cohen: Right.

Henderson: Operators have tried to cut their losses, and so they’re pulling these fleets back. So one interesting thing would be to look at just the docked cities, you know, where they haven’t necessarily reduced the fleets. And we’re looking for good data on that. I think it’s a little early to tell. But certainly, you know, you are seeing an increase in the overall amount of biking in a lot of cities, and that’s really cool. And I do think, you know, again, thinking long term, the need for shared mobility is very evident. And one of the ways we see that right now is just that most people don’t have access to an electric micromobility vehicle because they’re expensive. The scooters have changed that a lot. I think they’ve come down in price quite a bit, but it’s still pretty expensive to get an electric bike, and it’s really expensive to get something like a Bird Cruiser, you know, sort of a moped form factor, which is a form factor I’m really bullish on.

So we’ll see what that looks like. You know, I think one of the things that is clear to me is it’s probably not private versus public; it’s a both-and thing. And there’s going to be one vehicle or a couple vehicles that maybe a lot of people own, but a bike is not like a car. You know, a car you can do everything with. You can haul a sofa; you can hop in and haul your whole family, or you can drive across the country. It does every job that you could possibly want it to do or just about every job, and that’s both its beauty and its downfall. But bikes are much more special purpose. Right? They’re really good at most of the trips that you do on a day-to-day basis, but they can’t do it all. And so what I see long term is that, you know, people are going to always have a handful of trips, you know, probably a lot of the trips they do on a day-to-day basis that are similar enough that they might want to own a vehicle, but they’re going to be looking more and more to shared fleets and shared services for the other kinds of trips because they can’t buy and own a vehicle that does it all.

So they’re going to be doing more public transit; they’re going to be doing more ride hailing; they’re going to be doing more micromobility, but maybe not in the form factor that we’re currently seeing. Right? Maybe right now it’s about getting people onto their first electric micromobility vehicle to give them a taste, and maybe down the line it’s going to shift into being a little bit more of, you know, the Bird Cruiser or something that is a little bit more special purpose or just a little bit more high-end because it’s not a big barrier to entry to buy a $400 scooter just to get a mile or two between your house and public transit.

Cohen: I’m really curious to see what the long-term impact of this is going to be, because, like you said, I think you have a lot of people who are trying some different modes now, and then you also have some folks who are staying away from some other modes and so forth.

Henderson: Sure.

Cohen: And obviously most everybody who can is now working from home, whether it’s by choice or by directive.

Henderson: Mm-hmm.

Cohen: So, you know, it’s going to be really, really interesting long term to look at is this time kind of a turning point for people to try these different modes.

Henderson: Yeah.

Cohen: And more importantly—and I’d like to maybe segue to this topic, which is how does this shake out with some of the shared micromobility providers? You know, you mentioned this, that some of the providers have already reduced some of their inventory.

Henderson: Mm-hmm.

Cohen: Obviously they’re kind of having to do that because in a lot of places people are either by directive having to stay home or are choosing to do so because it’s the right public health thing to do. Do you get a sense on what you expect this long-term impact to be on these providers, which, you know, you kind of alluded to this micromobility winter on steroids, but where do you think this is going to end up long term?

Henderson: Yeah. So, I mean, the timing is really hard, and I do think these trends were already there; it’s really just sort of doubling and tripling down on them. But, you know, we’re seeing operators needing to really focus on fleet efficiency. And that’s going to be tough. And that’s one of the reasons you’re seeing—I think it’s probably the main reason you’re seeing micromobility shut down right now. It’s not because people wouldn’t use it; I think it largely is about efficiency, which is interesting—right—because if you imagine a world where this disease was striking a year or two from now and we’d figured out a lot of this stuff, you know, maybe cities would have more leverage to ask operators to stay open. Or maybe it just would cost less for the operators to stay open because they had more efficient charging infrastructure or something like that.

So some of it is timing, but timing is everything in business, and I think, you know, you might see some of these operators not make it or have sort of a mortal wound as a result of this. And that’s going to be tough. And I think you’re also going to see that on the city side. Right? So operators are focusing all on their fleet efficiency. They’re going to cut their losses, and I think this is going to force cities to really focus on efficient regulations. And there, again, you’re going to see some cities that might lose micromobility as a result of what’s going on, permanently lose or semi-permanently lose micromobility, just because if they can’t come up with an efficient regulatory structure, the operators might not have a choice; they might pull out and say, you know, “We’ve got to cut our losses.” So on both sides, I think, you’re going to see shrinking—right—at least in terms of the sort of footprint across the globe.

At the same time, you know, you have operators who have these fleets. And, you know, they might take those fleets and concentrate them in some of the cities where they are seeing efficiency and profitability. And then for us we’re sort of, as I mentioned, we’re all hands on deck. Right? So we want to make sure that we can bring these more efficient regulation APIs that I mentioned online in as many cities as possible, just to make it so that we don’t see so many cities losing micromobility, and hopefully also we see operators having an easier shot at making it through this really though period.

Cohen: Hmm. Yeah. So you mentioned the regulatory framework, and I think that’s really interesting because there’s this push and pull between operators who, you know—not that they want total kind of quote-unquote “free market,” but they want reasonable regulation, and then you have the cities that want to have some element of control and so forth.

Henderson: Mm-hmm.

Cohen: From your standpoint as you’re kind of in this kind of middle ground, are there some public or private sector leaders that you feel like have done a really good job of finding that middle ground of, like, the right amount of framework with the right amount of, like, latitude for the private sector as well? Like, who is really leading the way from your standpoint when you look out on the market or creating a template that you think other people should be pulling from?

Henderson: Yeah. I mean, I don’t think there’s a city I can point to that has got it all figured out. I think there’s a lot of interesting things that are working across different cities. And, in general, you know, the cities that I think are getting the most traction and are headed in the most sort of the right direction are the ones that are experimenting, you know, the ones that are willing to try things on a quicker cadence, look at the data, and then figure out what works. And then ideally, you know, they’re experimenting in a way that is collaborative—right—or they’re taking feedback from operators and listening and then putting stuff out there.

And those do tend to be cities that are working with us. You know, I think it’s not an accident that operators just tend to have a lot more dialogue and a lot more collaboration in cities that we work with because, again, we provide that. You know, it’s almost like we’re a diplomat, in some cases. Right? We’re just going over to the operators on behalf of the cities and saying, “Look. This is a really important form of control cities need. How can we come up with a way to implement that control that works for you?” Or that we’re turning around and going to the cities sometimes and saying, “Hey, you know, there are some really big concerns, for example, around data privacy. How can we work through those concerns and still give you what you need when it comes to public outcomes?”

So, you know, I would point to several of our cities as being leaders in that regard. You know, Austin has always been a micromobility leader; they’re one of our first customers, has some of the most forward thinking regulations when it comes to fleet size. And, you know, I would say that they’re in a state that’s a little bit more laissez-faire, but the city itself is anything but, so there’s an interesting sort of blend of those two approaches in Austin. Internationally some of our cities like Auckland, New Zealand and also Wellington are really strong for micromobility because of the approach they’ve taken there.

And then our hometown of course, Portland. I would be remiss to not point to some of the work that they’ve been doing. You know, so I think that Portland is interesting because it actually pioneered the dockless game. So, you know, there were some small cities doing dockless, but Portland was one of the first big cities to do dockless with their Biketown bikeshare system. It’s sort of a quasi-dock system, but all the docks are software based. And so I think that they’ve been a pioneer since the beginning. And one of the things that we’ve also seen Portland doing is doing a lot of innovation around how can they use different regulatory frameworks and also price incentives as a way to manage for public outcomes. And, I think, that’s another interesting area of experimentation. You know, rather than sort of saying arbitrarily, “We want to have this many vehicles in a certain part of town,” saying, “Well, how can we play with the pricing such that we get the outcome we want, which is the number of trips in an underserved neighborhood?” and really encouraging the operators to go and sort of experiment on their side and figure out ways to do that.

So there’s a lot of interesting innovation. And, again, I think it’s a little bit early to say, but some of the experimentation we’re seeing as a result of COVID is also really interesting. And I hope that there’s an approach where cities say, “Hey, we’re all in this together. You know, this is a good time for sort of solidarity between the private and public sector, and how can we make this work? And what can we try? What can we sort of move out of the way quickly because of the nature of what’s going on right now?”

Cohen: I think that’s definitely a potential upside to the challenges that we’re going through right now, which are obviously impacting a lot of folks from a health and financial standpoint. Where can folks learn more about Ride Report? And specifically I know that you’re doing some micromobility fireside chats, and I’d love to hear a little bit more about that.

Henderson: [LAUGHS] Yeah. So you can learn more at RideReport.com. You can follow us on Twitter at @RideReport. And we’ve been sort of keeping up to date on all of the latest experiments in micromobility, so especially on Twitter is a good place to track that if you’re not keeping a super close eye on what every city out there is doing. And then, you know, we saw—I guess it seems like months ago, but it was just about two weeks ago that we saw all the conferences that cities go to, to learn from one another and share what’s working all get canceled or postponed.

And we said, “Gosh. There are so many important conversations that need to be happening right now around micromobility; so how can we help provide that space that physically is now nonexistent?” So we created, you know, really quickly—like, in a week we spun up this fireside chat thing where we’re just basically bringing in different leaders on the private side and the public side to talk about different themes in micromobility winter, both ones related to COVID and ones that are sort of longer, bigger trends, and just trying to sort of create a little bit of space where the conferences once would have filled that. And it’s been an amazing—like, I said, we only had a week to prep for the first one from inception to launch, and we had almost 70 cities and city officials on the first call. So I think that’s going to be a great series; really excited about the way that that unfolds.

Cohen: Excellent. And folks can find out more about that on your website, or I’m sure there’s some stuff on Twitter as well.

Henderson: Yeah, exactly. You can register on our website for free.

Cohen: Well, William, thank you so much. I appreciate you taking us through what is potentially going to be a challenging time for micromobility, but I also think there’s some blue sky ahead potentially for the way that how everyone is dealing with these challenges might maybe lead to some more permanent, positive outcomes for our cities as well. So thank you so much for sharing your perspective on that.

Henderson: Happy to. Thank you for having me.

F: Thanks for listening. If you like what you hear, head to Apple Podcasts and subscribe, rate, and review this podcast. You can find out more at TransLoc.com or follow Josh Cohen on Twitter at @CohenJP. Be sure to join us next week for another episode of The Movement.

[END RECORDING]

A pivot from Fixed Route to demand response can help transit agencies continue to serve their communities during trying times. Watch this webinar to learn more! 

Tags: Ridesharing, micromobility, podcast, COVID-19, crisis

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