October 22, 2020

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E-scooters face harsh realities in cold-climate cities

Editorial

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 8/7/2019 (471 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

In proverbial terms, the early bird has always been noteworthy for what it's able to catch.

In local transportation terms these days, there's a California-based Bird hoping what it will catch with its early rise into Western Canada is the lion's share of the e-scooter market in this country.

Bird, a company that competes in several U.S. cities for ridership in the relatively new but fast-growing business of for-hire motorized scooters, has opened a Canadian subsidiary with the intention of introducing its e-scooters in Calgary and Edmonton and, the company's CEO said last week, perhaps eventually Winnipeg.

People ride LimeBike and Bird Rides shared electric scooters in San Francisco. (Bloomberg photo by David Paul Morris)

People ride LimeBike and Bird Rides shared electric scooters in San Francisco. (Bloomberg photo by David Paul Morris)

Bird Canada CEO Stewart Lyons said the company opted to target its first Canadian launch to Alberta's largest cities because it expects to be granted the necessary exceptions to provincial regulations governing the types of motorized vehicles allowed on public roads. He cited Kelowna, B.C., as the next likely locale for Bird-scooter introduction, and suggested Saskatoon and Charlottetown have also expressed interest in having the two-wheeled conveyances on their streets.

Robert Lowe, 71, rides a rented Bird scooter down a sidewalk in Atlanta.  (Brinley Hineman / The Associated Press files)

Robert Lowe, 71, rides a rented Bird scooter down a sidewalk in Atlanta. (Brinley Hineman / The Associated Press files)

The company "would love to come to Winnipeg," Mr. Lyons added, but one can't help wondering how thoroughly he and other Bird executives have thought through the company's northern-climes aspirations.

Simply put, Canada — and in particular, Prairie cities known for their long, harsh winters — might be difficult places in which to apply the business strategy that has allowed Bird to become instantly popular in more temperate U.S. locales.

The e-scooter craze took hold last year, seemingly out of thin air, when a number of California companies — including Bird, Lime, Skip and Spin — quickly and with virtually no advance notice distributed tens of thousands of electric scooters in major centres across the U.S. and around the world.

The driving concept is simple: riders download a smartphone app, input credit-card information and then use the app to unlock an e-scooter for pay-as-you-ride use.

Riders use an app to locate Bird electric rental scooters. (Nhat V. Meyer  / TNS file)

TRIBUNE MEDIA TNS

Riders use an app to locate Bird electric rental scooters. (Nhat V. Meyer / TNS file)

Mr. Lyons said Bird's vehicles in Canada would be available at a cost of $1.15 to unlock and 35 cents per subsequent minute of use. The scooters are capable of speeds approaching 25 km/h, which could make them an attractive alternative to public transport.

The problem in Canada is that under existing highway-traffic laws, there's really nowhere that these motorized two-wheeled vehicles can operate. They lack the necessary safety equipment to be allowed on the streets, and because they're motorized, they can't be driven on sidewalks — hence the need for the aforementioned Alberta exception.

In Winnipeg, of course, the notion of two-wheeled transportation comes with its own uniquely local set of issues. Even if regulatory exceptions for road access and safety equipment were provided, Bird's summertime scooter-riders would find themselves swerving and rattling along city streets whose uneven surfaces have long been the bane of bicycle owners.

Canada — and in particular, Prairie cities known for their long, harsh winters — might be difficult places in which to apply the business strategy that has allowed Bird to become instantly popular in more temperate U.S. locales. (Boris Minkevich / Free Press files)

Canada — and in particular, Prairie cities known for their long, harsh winters — might be difficult places in which to apply the business strategy that has allowed Bird to become instantly popular in more temperate U.S. locales. (Boris Minkevich / Free Press files)

It’s probable the public's interest in for-hire scooter fun will fall off precipitously when the temperatures drop into the deep minuses and the snowbank-narrowed streets are covered with ice. So even if the municipal logistics could be ironed out, the meteorological inevitabilities cannot be denied.

Earlier this year, Coun. Matt Allard suggested Winnipeg should ready itself for the inevitable arrival of the e-scooter craze. "They're coming," he said, "so let's get it right."

One can't help thinking, given the infrastructural, legislative and climatological realities that exist here, that the councillor and the CEO may have spoken too soon. The only thing this early Bird is guaranteed to catch is a cold.

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