The micromobility industry was rocked this spring as leading e-scooter operators cut hundreds of jobs to stay afloat amid the coronavirus pandemic. Bird made national headlines in April when it laid off more than 400 workers during a short Zoom meeting. Lime cut 13% of its staff shortly after, and Uber terminated more than 400 JUMP employees when restructuring its micromobility operations in May.
While many of these layoffs were the result of industrywide constraints, the timing was serendipitous for transportation robotics company Superpedestrian. As the team prepped for the launch of its shared e-scooter service LINK, a golden opportunity was presented to scoop up some of the industry's brightest minds.
LINK officially launched June 4, and is now backed by a "dream team" of leaders: former safety and policy directors for Bird, ex-operation and strategy officers for JUMP, a former policy director for Lime, among others. Even the company's PR agency, Electric Avenue, was born from the ashes of Bird's layoffs.
"It was by far the best thing to happen to LINK and Superpedestrian, the fact that right when we were hiring up, [these companies] all let go of a lot of amazing people," said Ben Larocco, director of government partnerships at Superpedestrian and former Lime employee.
Aside from the team it has built, LINK has taken a different approach from its shared mobility market competitors in many ways, including in vehicle design, city relationships and a company culture that focuses on building a base of employees rather than relying on gig workers to ensure the reliability of its operations.
The birth of LINK
Cambridge, MA-based Superpedestrian was founded in 2013 by CEO Assaf Biderman, an associate director of the MIT Senseable City Laboratory. Biderman is one of the minds behind Superpedestrian's flagship consumer product the Copenhagen Wheel, which sat at the core of the company's business until 2018 when its e-scooter development work began.
By late 2019, LINK launched its scooters in Fort Pierce, FL as a test market, taking six months to iron out kinks and perfect the service, Larocco said. Superpedestrian also acquired the operational assets of Zagster around this time, enabling LINK to tap into Zagster's software development expertise, inherit its markets and add about 25 people to the LINK team.
"By combining [Zagster's] industry-leading operations with Superpedestrian’s intelligent e-scooters, LINK is ushering in a new chapter for micromobility," Biderman said in a launch statement.
Today, LINK's scooters are live in Fort Pierce; Knoxville, TN; Salt Lake City; Provo, UT; Columbus, OH and Manhattan, KS, as well as a number of European cities. LINK is also one of three operators to win a permit for Seattle's upcoming e-scooter pilot program, slated to launch next month.
One small scoot for scooters, one giant scooch for Seattle multimodal transportation! ????????— seattledot (@seattledot) September 11, 2020
After careful selection + prioritization of safety, parking, equity we're excited to launch our pilot w/ @LINK_Scooters, Wheels, @limebike to help you get around https://t.co/idz2AHCAQn
Aligning with cities
Biderman's background in cities gave Superpedestrian an automatic leg-up on the micromobility competition, said Electric Avenue Co-Founder Ashwini Chhabra.
"If you look at the folks who launched a lot of the other micromobility companies, they were often tech entrepreneurs looking for the next thing to disrupt," he said. "And if you look at Assaf, he was an academic at MIT, working with cities to help them improve and solve their problems."
This understanding of cities' needs informed LINK's expansion strategy: go slow.
"We don't want to and need to be anywhere and everywhere," said Avra van der Zee, vice president of strategy and policy at Superpedestrian, and former chief strategy officer for JUMP. "We want to think about the markets and the municipal partners where we can really work in collaboration, we can grow strategically and we can focus on reduced operations cost and a sustainable business model."
Van der Zee said LINK is "very clear-eyed" in this idea of sustainable growth, saying it is "critical for its success."
Larocco echoed this, saying LINK wants to partner with cities that align with its business model and unit economics, and that have the potential to be a long-term partner. "We don't have the same high-growth needs that Bird and Lime did" to meet investor demands, he said, though the company is supported by some investor backing.
Bird and Lime both defended its investors in statements to Smart Cities Dive. Bird said its investors are there to support growth, not crack the whip on executives, while a Lime spokesperson said its investors are fully aligned with the company's goals "to provide a reliable service with the financial viability to be in it for the long-run."
As for growth, Bird said its quick expansion into hundreds of markets is what made the service successful and provided the data to continue expansion. Without that data, "it's just tough" to be in the shared-scooter industry, the company said.
Overall, many cities initially saw scooter services as a revenue opportunity to help fund bike infrastructure, but the emphasis today is on finding strong, smart partners, said Colin Murphy, director of research and consulting at the Shared-Use Mobility Center (SUMC). LINK employees feel that by entering the market two years behind most leading scooter companies, they can take the time needed to meet cities where they are.
"I’m just really excited to join a team that has done its homework, and instead of trying to scale and be in every city in the world and show its investors that they’re growing like crazy, it's taking a different approach — which is really trying to get these fundamentals right before expanding," said Paul Steely White, director of development and public affairs at Superpedestrian, and former head of safety at Bird.
A look inside the scooter
What is perhaps LINK's biggest differentiator to its competitors is its proprietary scooter. Both the hardware and software that make up LINK were built in-house — a practice other scooter operators are just beginning to explore — with safety and sustainability at the center of its design.
"I’m very proud to be [on] a team that was really founded by scientists and engineers who discovered that if you really want to build a safe scooter, you can’t buy things off the shelf," White said. "You’ve really got to engineer it from the wheels up."
When building its scooter, LINK bought all the available consumer-grade e-scooters on the market and hired dozens of individuals to ride them around to assess various vehicle features and identify areas of improvement, Larocco said. LINK also worked with individuals of all sizes to measure how they each stood on a scooter and where the handlebars sat in relation to their bodies, to inform a comfortable vehicle design for any potential rider — short, tall, light or heavy.
This testing resulted in an e-scooter that can withstand 10x the bumps and 4x the stress of industry requirements, according to LINK. The scooters' features include:
- A wide floorboard and low center of gravity for enhanced balance
- A 55-mile battery range, allowing for long rides and infrequent charging
- 3 independent braking systems that enable LINK scooters to stop 37% faster than standard vehicles
- Rider-facing system safety checks
- A patented Vehicle Intelligence platform designed to enable proactive and reactive maintenance
- Geofencing enforcement that activates in less than 1 second
The scooters' durability gives LINK "really good unit economics, which allow us to have good prices and make long-term commitments to a city," Larocco said.
Bird and Lime have also seen an evolution in their scooter designs. Lime this year debuted sidewalk detection and added new geofencing technology to its software, yet it hasn't introduced a wholly new vehicle since the launch of its Gen 3 scooter in late 2018. Its vehicles are designed in-house now with a "dedicated engineering and hardware team," according to a spokesperson who also confirmed the vehicles use "modular and recyclable pieces to extend lifetime and achieve carbon neutrality."
Bird, meanwhile, developed its Bird Two vehicle from the ground-up in its R&D center in Culver City, CA, and went through rounds of testing to build a highly durable scooter, with features that could compete with LINK's design.
White said for other industry players to stay competitive, it will be key for there to be better compliance around safety and operational standards set by cities. "That compliance has been a real issue," he said. "It’s really bedeviled every operator, every incumbent operator, where they’re saying they can geofence, they’re saying they can keep scooters out of no-go zones, but in reality that hasn’t really worked."
LINK's late market entry has shown "the benefit of hindsight," allowing the team at LINK to learn from the mistakes of others in building an improved product, he said.
Weaving safety, sustainability into company culture
Another key differentiator is LINK's use of W2 employees for scooter maintenance and rebalancing — a stark contrast to the larger, industrywide practice of hiring gig workers for these jobs. While some operators may hesitate to invest resources in replacing gig workers with W2 employees, it can have direct and ancillary benefits on operations, said Kyla Hanaway-Quinlan, vice president of people & culture at Superpedestrian and former Zagster executive.
W2 employees can be put on a schedule, giving operators a higher degree of control over consistency and reliability, Hanaway-Quinlan said. She also pointed to the benefits of those workers developing a sense of ownership over their work, which is not as common among gig workers.
"It makes a ton of business sense for us," Hanaway-Quinlan said of hiring W2 workers. "I think it’s kind of just the right thing to do, right? Providing employees with stability and consistency and reliability in their income stream feels more important than ever, especially at a time with so much economic uncertainty."
Since the Zagster acquisition — which occurred months after the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) swept across the U.S. — Hanaway-Quinlan has taken on the challenging task of marrying two company cultures as employees work remotely. She said all employees have been tasked with a proprietary training curriculum called Training Wheels, which ensures teams are properly aligned on safety and sustainability.
"Sustainability needs to be a mindset that's taken from top to bottom," Van der Zee said, noting that companies must think "beyond durable vehicle design" to prioritizing sustainability around rebalancing efforts or scooter disposal.
Durability is important, but just one factor of success alongside having smart and efficient operations and understanding and meeting the needs of cities and transit agencies, Murphy of the Shared-Use Mobility Center said. Murphy predicted that as the shared-scooter industry expands, consolidation is inevitable.
"There's only room for a few [high-quality companies] in the market," he said.
To continue on a path of growth, micromobility companies must focus on policy as much as they do technology, Van der Zee said.
"I like to say, Amsterdam wasn’t always the bike Nirvana it is today," she said. "It took smart policies, activism and oil crisis. Today with COVID, we have a health crisis, and you’re seeing cities around the world pass these kinds of smart policies ... that I believe will usher in this new era of transport."
In three years from now, micromobility in all its forms will be ubiquitous, she predicted. Until then, LINK will continue to "follow its own value system" and avoid being swayed by what other operators are doing, she said.
"It’s a long game, it really is," White said. "I’ve been in this sector for my whole career — gosh, 25 years — and I do sincerely believe that the company that gets it right is going to change the world."