Scooters Are Making A Comeback And May Play An Outsized Role In Multifamily And Office
The coronavirus pandemic didn’t just empty out the nation’s office sector. Subways and other public transportation options were also empty for months as office workers toiled at home and even many essential workers traveling to work avoided closed-in spaces such as train cars.
It has meant a big change in some daily behaviors, with some commuters and stay-at-home workers switching to micromobility vehicles like motorized scooters and e-bikes, options that allow travelers to run errands and stay outdoors, instead of cooped up in cars and trains.
“People are looking to get out more and get more fresh air after being shut up in their houses for so long,” SummerHill Apartment Communities Vice President Alvaro Leiva said.
The California-based developer recently installed a docking station in the main lobby of Theo, its new 105-unit community in Pasadena, for electric scooters provided by Ridy, a Chicago-based firm. It’s a car-centric market, Leiva added, and before the pandemic most residents drove to work each day. But many no longer want to go to the trouble of hopping in a car and burning gasoline for quick trips.
“Residents now use our scooters to make weekend trips to get an iced tea on the main drag,” Leiva said.
That kind of convenience may turn using scooters and e-bikes into habits that outlast the pandemic. And with many companies likely to allow many employees to continue working from home, giving apartment dwellers more daily transportation options could become common among multifamily providers. Experts say the pandemic also means long-term changes at the office, making it imperative for office landlords to give their tenants similar options.
“As we enter a new era of work centered on choice and well-being, varied worker schedules and preferences will require office buildings to consider how they are addressing micromobility needs among their tenants,” according to Todd Heiser, Chicago-based managing director of Gensler, an architectural firm. “For some, supporting workers’ alternative modes of transit will include adding bike and scooter programs, docking and charging infrastructure, and shower or locker room facilities.”
It isn’t certain electric scooters are the future. There is some evidence that the use of the devices declined last year.
A four-month pilot program by the city of Chicago in 2019 that allowed residents across 50 square miles on the West, Northwest and Southwest sides to unlock one of thousands of electric scooters with their phones generated about 821,000 trips, according to city data. Riders logged 640,000 trips during a second four-month scooter pilot program that started in August, even though roughly four times the number of scooters were provided, and the geographic area served was greatly expanded by Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration to include many historically disadvantaged neighborhoods.
City transportation officials are now evaluating the latest pilot, which used the scooter vendors Bird, Lime and Spin. Their analysis will include whether the public health crisis caused the ridership drop and whether to establish a permanent scooter option, a city spokesperson told Bisnow.
With the city program’s future uncertain, Ridy Head of Partnerships Michael Rubino said there’s room in the market for micromobility firms that exclusively serve private multifamily and office developments. Ridy was founded in 2019, and in addition to SummerHill’s Theo, it provides scooters for the residents of North + Vine Apartments in Old Town and Milieu apartments on the Near West Side, along with other residential and office developments in California, Texas and Georgia.
Unlike municipal scooter programs, Ridy vehicles, which can putter along at up to 15 miles per hour, are only available to residents or office workers of developments that sign up with the company, Rubino said. That gives users more certainty, making it easier to plan trips.
“If I use a city scooter, will I be able to get it back after getting a coffee?” he asked.
Transportation experts say it will take time to see whether the pandemic permanently cuts into the use of other forms of transport, including cars, airplanes and trains, which all went into steep decline last year, and whether scooters and e-bikes fill that void.
According to a just-released study by The Urban Land Institute, 36% of micromobility trips replace car trips, and before the pandemic, more and more cities were seeing scooters as a way to lighten traffic congestion and pollution. The number of cities with dockless scooter programs increased in 2019 to 104, a 45% jump from the previous year. And although overall use of micromobility devices declined 60% to 70% throughout the U.S. and Europe while the pandemic raged, some hopeful signs have appeared.
“Over the pandemic, we’ve seen that a lot of different forms of transportation had low ridership, but scooters and e-bikes have started to bounce back,” ULI Senior Associate Diana Schoder said.
New York City’s Citi Bike, a bike-sharing program, saw its ridership increase 12% in December compared to December 2019, according to an analysis by Sandy Romero, a senior analyst with Cushman & Wakefield.
“That’s a big increase, considering that there is so little tourism in New York City and no indoor dining,” she told Bisnow.
Romero said she expects usage to bounce back even further when warm weather returns.
Leiva is also optimistic that micromobility will play an important role at many residential developments.
“Our experience has so far only been in the midst of the pandemic, but I do think the micromobility trend has staying power in the apartment industry,” he said.
Generally speaking, scooters work well in a development such as Theo, where attractions such as popular retail shops can be reached in 15 minutes or less. But it isn’t for every community. SummerHill is developing a new project in Carlsbad, California, Leiva said, where it takes at least a 10-minute drive to reach any destination, which means a 20- to 30-minute ride on a scooter.
“That market probably isn’t going to be as receptive to scooters,” he said.
But the company plans to use Ridy scooters at Anson, a 268-unit community it’s developing in Burlingame, a city just south of San Francisco with an attractive downtown close by.
“Instead of getting in a car and looking for parking, it will be a lot easier to just use a scooter and get your coffee,” Leiva said.
Facebook is building out space for Oculus, its virtual reality subsidiary, at Burlingame Point, an office complex near Anson, and Leiva said it would make a perfect scooter trip for any employees who become tenants.
“It’s just a little too far to walk, and driving might be ridiculous, but that puts it in a scooter’s sweet spot,” he said.
Theo is currently the only SummerHill community with Ridy scooters, but by the end of the year, the company plans to make them available at a number of other California communities now under development and with a total of 1,340 units, he added.
Ridy will focus much of its attention this year on signing up office developments, according to Rubino. Even if the pandemic ends, he said, many office workers may not feel comfortable gathering together in tight spaces. Parks and other open outdoor spaces will still be preferred, and with scooters, workers can reach in 10 minutes what would normally take more than 30 minutes to walk.
“We can open up many more possibilities on where that collaboration can take place,” he said.
He added that he’s not worried that the city of Chicago will bring back its scooters and create competition for Ridy. In fact, Rubino sees the more than 1.4 million trips taken by Chicago riders in 2019 and 2020 as an advertisement for all scooters.
“When you see hundreds of people riding through the streets every day, it helps.”