The electric revolution on our city streets, already underway, looks much more like a scooter than a Tesla.


Physics. And geometry: Size really matters for both energy consumption and spatial efficiency. And both drive affordability and therefore the speed of uptake.

The conventional wisdom, especially as expressed in many official documents, is that electrifying the transport sector means waiting for the technology and cost of private cars to change enough, to organically, over time, change out the whole fleet to electric, like for like. This then, conveniently for the unimaginative, is the change you have without having to change.

And matches a similar one about urban form; the future is just greener buildings still spread out further and further into countryside at low densities; curiously almost exactly like past, but with a 21stC tinge.

Don’t get me wrong, the gradual replacement of current fossil fuelled road fleets; passenger, service, and freight, will be transformative for the energy sector, urban air quality, climate emissions, and our balance of payments. And in more ways than people know (check out the possibilities of nation’s e-fleet as a giant battery, vehicle to grid or V2G, for example). But it really is a failure of the imagination to expect these things to change in isolation. We know that big changes in energy and transport technologies always lead to land-use and lifestyle changes too. Anyway, if we look, we can see change already underway.

We are not just changing fuel source, but also vehicle size and how we use our urban areas. And these changes are happening real fast.

Smaller e-vehicles offer an answer to both the need for rapid transition from fossil fuel vehicles and the demand for more spatially efficient city movement systems. This is great news because urban car traffic quantity is inversely correlated to almost every measure of city success there is; for public health, safety, and growing the urban services economy. 

In the 21stC city: Loitering is more valuable than motoring.

So where are we at?

Auckland has been adding density to its urban area all century, building up to out at a ratio of around 75:25. This has largely been through suburban infill, and metropolitan centre apartments. Since the Unitary Plan has been operative, reducing some restrictions on building up, this ratio has grown recently up to 90:10 in the data up to May 2018. In the city centre this is most obvious but is certainly not the only urban area to be getting more complex; with more residents and more employment, education, and entertainment options, within closer reach.

Happily too, we have at last been adding alternative movement infrastructure, cycleways, and finally more effective public transit so more and more people are getting to places without a car. Again this is especially evident in the city centre, but really that’s just the early adopter area of a city-wide trend (both PT and cycling ridership growth are consistently over 2x population growth) . 

No wonder pedestrian counts are up, cycling is on the rise, but also that those little electric scooters that suddenly turned up in Auckland are proving so popular.

So what of the physics, here’s a good Wired article comparing scooters to Teslas, all in crazy US measurements of course:

So e-scooters use a fraction of the energy of a conventional car, like 1%, and still only ~5% of an electric car (not including embodied energy). 

The electric battery and motor can so much more easily and cheaply perform a movement task when the vehicle size is smaller; less mass requires less energy. And our increasingly crowded city streets can’t fit 2 tonne tin boxes to move one human around anymore either, so there’s a perfect storm of technology and need meeting these little devices.

Of course you say, we all know that, but no one’s going to scoot for 20kms on the motorway to work, duh! For sure, but they absolutely will scoot 2 kms to work not on a motorway, or 500m from the transit station to work on city streets or home again from the station in the ‘burbs. So our changing urban form and our gradually improving and spreading Rapid Transit Network, turn out to be a perfect fit for exactly these machines.

But not only the machines themselves, but also the sharing system they operate under. Some prefer to own their own, but the boom has been led by the shared ones.

note they do seem cheaper in Brisbane than in Auckland.

And it’s not going to stop. As far as I can work out (and the data is proprietary so I don’t really know- more on that later) they are, shall we say, financially sustainable:

The economics of these scooters are nuts. They cost on average around $5-600 and they do approx 8-10 rides a day (data confirmed from offshore – word is AKL is at the high end). If you assume an average trip cost of $3 the scooter will pay itself off in 2-3 weeks of use from gross revenue. The business is profitable, even paying chargers $5-7 a night and having scooters turn over (ie. depreciate) in a 6-8 week period still keeps the overall business looking very attractive.

So much so that they’re eating into other paid ride platforms: Shared scooter/ebikes are eating Uber’s trips: In the cities where Lime and Bird are popular, Uber saw a 10% drop off in car trips. It’s why they bought Jump, their own Ebike play. Where they have Jump, it’s been a boost of 15% more trips overall, just pushed to scooters/bikes. Here

Uber isn’t alone in embracing e-bikes. Its biggest rival, Lyft, purchased bikeshare startup Motivate this month, and plans to introduce more bikes and scooters. And then there are all the scooter-sharing outfits popping up lately. Bird and Lime have raised money faster than Uber and Lyft did in their early days.
And we already know a huge proportion of trips currently driven are short:
“People are realizing vehicles can be much smaller and simpler and electric,” Klein told CNNMoney. “You don’t need a giant GMC Suburban for a trip under a mile.”

The market for micromobility is massive: even if you assume that we’re only talking about short trips (sub 6kms) on a passenger km travelled perspective, the total addressable market globally is estimated at ~5 trillion kms of easily convertible trips globally.

So its clear to see how converting even a fraction of these trips to not only electric power but also much lighter weight vehicles is a huge game changer for the energy transition: It means no need to substitute fossil energy with anywhere near the same amount of renewable energy, even if many more trips are generated.

This profitability opens up the possibility of taxing the sector to fund further ‘bike lanes’ for them to use. As is happen in Portland, where 25c per trip goes to the DOT. And that’s a potentially handy sum.

And the shared services like Lime/Bird are growing faster than even Uber and Lyft. It’s likely that they’ll catch and then overtake Uber on cumulative lifetime rides by 2021, according to this observer:
This is Massively disruptive for emissions reductions: these little devices have the emissions profile only 1-2% of a car for the same kms travelled. If we’re serious about reducing emissions in transport, we should be doing everything we can to support this. This is still the case, but less so, in comparison with e-cars, which produce ~10-20x more emissions per km than an e-bike or e-scooter because it has to lug around the weight of the whole car as well. It’s all about the mass (as much as the MaaS).
Also the tech is evolving super super fast: Because the scooters/ebikes are replaced so often, they’re getting iterated on every few months and will soon include cameras, speakers and in the not too distant future, we’ll start to see intelligence emerge like auto braking before curbs, speed limiting on footpaths, etc. Maybe because the regulations on deployment/safety concerns are less, we’ll see some form of autonomous bikes/scooters/lightweight electric vehicles that can drive themselves to the customer/back to the charging point before we see widespread autonomous cars.
So there are 10 conclusions from all this, add more in the comments below:
  1. At the city policy level this just more evidence that we need to get on and add that ‘3rd space‘, bike lanes, between the footpath and the traffic lanes as quickly as possible so there are safe places to use these new smaller machines (and it must be legal for these devices).
  2. And that this should be done by converting existing traffic lanes because this is where we want the new users to come from, and will come from. And this is the cheapest and quickest way.
  3. Slower speeds on urban streets too are vital for shared use.
  4. A programme of dedicated, and ideally separate, walking and bike/scoot paths focused on Transit Stations as a priority.
  5. The same for Schools.
  6. Manage but not restrict these new entrants into the market, and, and I think this is important, do so at the cost to the companies of sharing their data with the city. Our public agencies need this data to serve their people well. And there are ways to do this without compromising commercial viability.
  7. If there is a case for public subsidies or stimulus in the e-vehicle market then it should be at the light weight end. Scooters don’t need this, but e-bikes are not nearly as accessible so could be a good place to consider this.
  8. It is vitally important that or planning agencies, AT, NZTA, Ministries of Transport and Energy, the Productivity Commission all understand that bike and scooters etc, Micromobiliy, are transport, not just recreation. They need to include them in their analysis and guidance. They currently have a huge blind spot about this, and only have eyes for e-cars.
  9. Ditto the urban form changes that partner the uptake of these devices; consistently downplayed in official studies I’ve seen.
  10. The same is the case for our transport models, make sure mode-shift to these devices is actually a possibility in the model.

Here’s a really good podcast and blog with NZ contributor Oliver Bruce on this technology from a market perspective. And here’s an article on Santa Monica the birthplace of micromobility. And an interesting local perspective on Stuff too.

Disruption may well be an overused word, but all three of transport, energy, and urban form are being disrupted by new technologies, new economies, and the reality of climate change pressures. And that means real change, whole communities doing everyday things really differently to how we did them last week, last year, last century. It’s coming like an electric train.

So on a last note, below is the Council comms on transport and climate change. Note it says ‘reduce the number and length of trips’. If that really means the number and length of motorised vehicle trips well that’s dead right. Because as we know that every new transport technology to date has stimulated new journeys that previously weren’t taken, so we can expect there to be new micromobility e-trips as well as substituted ones… rev your small and relatively low powered e-engines, citizens….

The answer is not just better cars one day, but fewer cars now.

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  1. It’s funny isn’t it. For all the talk of innovation and e revolutions coming out of tech valley… it all seems to be intended to maintain the status quo of auto dependent suburbia against the iterative pressures of urbanism. The revolution will not be suburbanized.

  2. I can’t help but feel that if this wasn’t a trendy mobility revolution that some would be suggesting Lime et al are socialising their costs through public healthcare and ACC.

    1. Wouldn’t be the first, eh, and to discuss it fairly, you’d have to look at the DSI and public health costs the car industry has socialised… You’d also have to look at the environmental costs socialised by the different modes.

    2. No more so than Avanti, Harley Davidson and Kawasaki have been socialising their costs for years.

      This could equally apply to Black Diamond, who manufacture ice axes.

        1. They do pay some sort of levy to help cover their costs, but even with the significant increases a few years ago they don’t go anywhere near covering their full costs, there is still a significant amount of socialization of costs going on.

        2. Jezza, have you seen figures for how many motorcycle DSI and injury costs were for crashes with cars and trucks, and which were not? I’d be interested in knowing.

        3. From memory about 40 % of motorcycle DSI accidents were just the motorbike, with the remainder having another vehicle involved. Of those about 60 % were caused by the driver of the other vehicle.

        4. Hmmm… and I imagine there was more D in the 60% and more SI in the 40%…

          Does suggest upwards of 60% of those costs have been socialised by drivers, not motorcyclists…

        5. We should really question what barriers to entry are preventing wider adoption of motorcycles as a commuter mode. They use little road space, little fuel and are fast enough to be ridden on the motorway. That makes them a practical option for commuting from far-flung suburbs that are difficult to service with good PT. Electric motorcycles are currently very expensive compared to the petrol versions, but that hasn’t stopped Tesla selling cars.

        6. And what sort of levy is Lime paying to cover the costs of their users? Because “none at all” is a lot less then “not really covering your full costs”.

          I get what is being pushed here, but people here are forever bemoaning socialising the cost of the car as a transport option, but will openly advocate for tech with no personal injury protection at all and expect ACC to pick up the tab.

        7. Regarding escooters, Buttwizard, it comes down to physics. And you’re flogging a dead horse here, because no light-weight human-scale mobility device is ever going to cause the level of injury and trauma that motor vehicles – with their weight – have been causing for decades.

          If you’re so concerned, get with the campaign to stop NZTA and AT putting in shared paths. If they think escooters are dangerous, they shouldn’t be putting in shared paths, right? So there’s your first port of call.

        8. Buttwizard – I suspect the burden e-scooters are placing on taxpayer funding of ACC is much smaller than motorbikes even with motorcyclists contributing proportion themselves.

          I agree – ideally ACC would be entirely user funded, and it would probably make some sense to levy lime a small amount. However, it opens up another can of worms, private e-scooters, bikes etc and how to levy them.

          The best approach is to accept that no ACC system will ever be perfect, but also understand that car and motorbike accidents are big users of ACC and it makes sense to levy them.

        9. Heidi – the data have tended to show that motorcyclists are very aware of the risks posed by other road users but have a terrible awareness of the risk they pose to themselves.

          ACC has always been a no fault system, but I agree safe motorcycling is something that should be encouraged as it is much more resource efficient than a car.

        10. it costs me around 5 times the amount for my annual rego of my Vespa compared to my car. All of the difference is in ACC levies. All based on injuries received, not who causes the accident

    3. Hey Butt. By all means let’s calculate the economic costs and benefits, I have a strong hunch however if we do that fully your motorcycle licence fee is going to go up a long way and we’ll be paying Lime and Bird and whoever to spread more scooters…

      Also perhaps you missed the note about how these companies are paying local authorities… not in AKL yet, but this could be the case hear too.

      Also but I hear other operators may be on their way here too, including Bird, whose model involves paying the Portland DOT, as mentioned above.

  3. As well as creating that 3rd lane between footpath and traffic lane by converting traffic lanes, Patrick, the other cheap and easy quick fix we can do is change the speed limits to 30 everywhere (except motorways and where vulnerable users are otherwise protected). Yes, this won’t be enough for some users who will have to remain on the footpath. But it will make a lot of streets safe for a lot of users in one fell swoop. And reduce the volume of scooters and bikes on the footpath at the same time, minimising conflict opportunities with pedestrians.

    It means our money for streetscape projects can then be directed to the places that have highest safety priority.

    BTW I think of ‘3rd space’ as somewhere to be comfortable loitering, sitting… other than work or home.

    1. Good lord. That’s an eye opener. A few issues there… I saw a similarly small one recently. And it was plastered with advertising for “Sky Bus”. Smallest sky bus I’ve ever seen. 🙂

  4. Also 1.75 million made in 2017. Tesla thinks its 7000 Tesla 3’s a week is big deal.
    Of course there are 70 million cars made a year (1.4 Miilion a week) so its going to take a while to replace all the fossil fuel burning ones. Apparently there are 1 billion cars in the world so you can see the scale of the task ahead.
    Did you see the solar panel array China is not mucking around.

  5. As well as more lane space for e-scooters to travel, we also need more space for them to park. The proliferation of Lime e-scooters has really highlighted the lack of space on footpaths to park scooters, bikes, mobility scooters etc. Many Lime users park inconsiderately but they’re not entirely to blame; our footpath infrastructure is inadequate nearly everywhere.

    In places where footpaths are narrow they need to be widened. In places where footpaths are wide enough already they need to be designed with visual cues for what is ‘travel’ space (where people can walk, run or scoot free from obstructions) and what is ‘static’ space (where trees and street furniture are located, where scooters or bikes can be parked, where people can stand or sit). The difference between these two can be easily achieved by putting street furniture in a line (the gaps between become static space) or can be reinforced by using different surface treatments (different colours, textures etc for each area).

    1. I do think schemes like Boris Bikes with docking stations work better but of coyrse the cost is an issue.

      Why not just have Geo IP located designated areas where they can be left. If they are not in that area then they can’t be returned and the clock will keep running.

      That would be a good compromise between docked and dockless.

      1. Good idea but the problem is the difference between an appropriate and inappropriate place to park a Lime is often only a meter or two. This is too little for a consumer device GPS receiver (+/- 10m in good conditions) to tell the difference.

        1. Lime attempts to address this problem by making users take a photo of how they’ve parked the scooter at the end of the ride. This is to show that you’ve parked sensibly. The app has a crowd-source QA function, where you can swipe through anonymous ‘end-of-trip’ photos and report any dodgy parking.

          It doesn’t work though – people take really crappy photos which don’t show how the scooter is parked, and I don’t think there’s any enforcement from Lime.

        2. And the scooters turn their siren on while I’m moving them somewhere better, which would be offputting for most people.

  6. Can you imagine how many scooters would be going up and down queen street if they closed it off to cars! I imagine there would be at least as many scooters using it as their currently are cars, so surely closing it to cars is the most sensible and efficient thing to do.

  7. I seem to remember reading somewhere that AC plans to make helmets compulsory on scooters. Anyone know anything about this?

      1. They wouldn’t have the power to enforce helmet wearing, but they could presumably add a rule in Lime’s operating license that the scooters must be provided with a helmet

      2. Goff announced today that council would be starting a safety campaign around appropriate use of e-scooters, as well as making a submission to Government around enforcing stricter safety measures.

      1. I can’t see this government agreeing to make helmets mandatory. I think it’s likely they will remove the requirement to wear helmets on bikes before they leave office.

    1. If they make helmets compulsory with harsh speed limit and too many restrictions. People simply don’t bother and don’t use it.

      The unintended consequences is bureaucrats kills it off.

      It would be very bad for the society.

  8. Only pedantic gripe – “…and in the not too distant future, we’ll start to see intelligence emerge like auto braking before curbs, speed limiting on footpaths, etc” – Yeah, nah.

    The capital cost of developing that tech vs the margins in selling the scooters makes it a very hard sell. Speed limits based upon complexity of the environment (lots of objects = lower limit) isn’t hard, don’t even need so-called AI for that, but detecting a curb is hard. Detecting a curb at speed even more so. Detecting a curb reliably, where the outcome of a false negative could result in severe injury/death and potentially massive lawsuits (civil and other) – Well, it’s just not worth the effort.

    The technology you suggest is an attempt to work around the moral obligation for people to take responsibility for their actions, which in itself isn’t an issue. The issue is that shifting responsibility to manufacturers who are risk averse and have teams of lawyers will pretty much doom the tech. Ignoring for now the fallibility of the tech and how humans take perverse delight in gaming technology (driverless cars, security/concierge robots, etc).

    Also, whilst the new electric tech is pretty cool and very disruptive, we really need to look at what happens to the tech 18-24 months after entry into a given market. I’m not suggesting that we’ll have a plague of unwanted vehicles being dumped into the harbour, a la China with rivers and pushbikes, but with any new tech it goes through a honeymoon period. I’m genuinely curious about what will happen after the honeymoon – Will it still be a major player, or relegated to history like rollerblades, walkmans and leg warmers.

  9. Good piece: the 3rd space- bike lanes- is the key.
    Unfortunately this is the area – taking away space from cars in city streets -which provokes an emotional and sometimes vituperative backlash.
    One Hamilton city councillor’s reported comments about people actually riding to work seemed almost as if he held them in contempt.
    I think these attitudes reflect a minority but expect some screaming matches at meetings.
    Fortunately many of those most opposed could also be in the mobility scooter cohort within ten years. They might then be very happy to use these lanes!

    1. The Gold card converted plenty of older people to being PT users and, to some extent, advocates. Enabling entry seems to be a wise move to progressing the discussion in a healthy way.

  10. Great post. Really interesting information. I really wasn’t aware of how profitable they were, but it makes plenty of sense. It is a great business strategy for the first mover.

    I prefer my e-bike but I can see the appeal of e-scooters. I prefer to just chuck them over the sea wall when they block my path on Tamaki Drive. Part of my civic duty and what not. Just wait till the Onzo Lemons arrive. What fun.

    I can see how they can quickly change things because of the development turn around for such a simple device. But with the glacial pace AT moves at, it will be years before we see anything from them.

  11. At the city policy level this just more evidence that we need to get on and add that ‘3rd space‘, bike lanes, between the footpath and the traffic lanes as quickly as possible so there are safe places to use these new smaller machines (and it must be legal for these devices).


  12. The bleating of the unimaginative who hanker for a future still dominated by cars (e- instead of ff-) will I am sure, grow steadily weaker. A new generation is coming on stream which sees things very differently from their car-obsessed seniors.

    But in Wellington a group of them are mounting a rearguard offensive. A couple of erstwhile prominent businessmen – one a former city councilor, have formed a pro-car lobby hoping to topple the current ‘cycle-friendly’ mayor and get Wellington back to being a ‘city for motorists’. According to them, “bicycles are a 150-year-old technology that cars have virtually eliminated”.

    While these gentlemen have every democratic right to do this, with all due respect they are both fairly well on in years and are not the generation that will have to suffer the long-term consequences of what they are wishing for. And yet they seek to override the wishes of younger generations who have seen the mess that their elders have created, and by all accounts do not want to be steered continually back into it.

    Hopefully when the time comes, young voters will arouse from their unfortunate apathy and show this dying breed that the world needs to change.

    1. Perhaps what the young ‘uns need most is for responsible elders to take this fight on. The young have enough to do. If there’s one thing we can do for them it’s to clean up our own mess as best we can – politically, as much as environmentally and socially.

      1. I’ve been trying for 45 years in my own little way, most of that time with seemingly zero effect.

        All the young’uns have to do is vote a couple of times every 3 years, and try to remain interested or informed enough to do so meaningfully.

        Oh, and learn to distinguish truth from the propaganda of deep-pocketed lobbyists who may even manipulate that fount of all news, Facebook!

        Maybe too big an ask.

        1. Good on you, Dave. Me too. I see the young ones either:
          – managing to get political – like Gen Zero and the politically charged groups at my local high school,
          – accepting as normal their parents’ avoidance of issues after having teachers’ initiatives ridiculed at home, or
          – descending into depression. Far too many are depressed by the state of things.

  13. I use those escooters almost everyday for commuting inside the city, they are very good except:

    -Our sidewalks are mostly poor conditions with uneven bumps making them hard to handle and become unsafe when there is a hard bump. Cars can also come out from/to driveway fast which can be potentially dangerous.
    -roads has too many cars and they may not see you. I wouldn’t risk my life.
    -cycle way is the best choice but our law seem to be a grey area for scooters to use them. Also there are not enough of those in useful route such as queen st and Victoria st.
    -The traffic light phasing in some of the city intersection is ricidious, sometimes the wait is so long that takes the majority of the journey time.
    -There is a lack of sheltered bike/scooter parking. Escooters will get wet if it rains, which may become an issue since many models are not waterproof.

    Maybe it’s time to build more escooters friendly cycleway and shared path near city, town centre and transit interchanges, and tweak the traffic lights along those routes.

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