Electric Scooter Services in Asia: Untapped Potential or Pipe Dream?

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By Alvin Mak

Scooter sharing platforms have been slow off the line in Asia. Are Asian riders ready for fresh wheels? 

Scooters are no longer a child’s toy found in skate parks. They are secretly transforming the world of transportation. 

Studies show that electric scooters bring never-before-seen energy efficiency; they average 82.8 miles per kilowatt-hour, towering over the measly 0.8 from conventional gas vehicles. One of these microtransit vehicles also reportedly costs 106 times less than one premium electric car, drastically increasing the affordability of electric transportation. 

These sleek, next-generation scooters have been running in cities all over the Americas, Europe, and Australia. When driving down the streets of downtown Miami, London, or Berlin, one cannot help but notice the green and black electric scooters parked along sidewalks. 

Companies such as Lime, Bolt, and Bird have scattered their two-wheeled rides across countless cities. Ridesharing giant, Uber, also rents out electric bicycles and scooters; known as JUMP, the company describes its service as “a new way to get around your city.” 

Two Lime scooter users in Prague.

How do they work?

JUMP scooters are dotted across each city and are available to rent via a designated app. The app scans a unique QR code laminated onto each scooter, and within seconds, the server unlocks the ride. A lever on the handlebars controls the electric throttle, and riders are charged by the minute. 

These scooters have no designated parking locations, and can, therefore, be parked exactly where the rider decides to stop riding. At night, each scooter is collected, charged, and returned to high rental-traffic hotspots by dawn. 

Bird and Lime, both ‘unicorns,’ are leaders in the industry. Bird doubled its valuation to US$2 billion in just four months in 2018. It’s clear that this industry has serious potential, as its presence continues to penetrate many corners of the world. 

However, one region that has been slow to embrace this new transportation model is Asia, despite several notable attempts. 

A Grab Bike driver with a passenger. Grab is the largest ride-hailing platform in Southeast Asia.

Grabbing the wheel

Founded in Singapore, Grab is a ‘superapp’ that began as a ridesharing platform. Its scooter-sharing service, GrabWheels, launched in December of 2018 on the campus of the National University of Singapore (NUS). But the program was terminated by the Singaporean government after less than a year due to the high number of accidents post-launch. 

During GrabWheels’s operation, it received predominantly positive feedback from the public. Within the first two months, over 100,000 trips were recorded. A study from the NUS reported that over 96% of students were pleased with the service, and a whopping 80% rode on GrabWheels’s scooters between one to four times a week. 

During its trial period, several students reported safety concerns of Grab’s new service. A 22-year-old NUS student reported instances of scooters being piloted through large crowds at high speeds. She called for “improvements to the infrastructure.” Cracks in the service were beginning to reveal themselves. 

Several months later, Singapore’s Land Transport Authority (LTA) ordered the reduction of Grab’s bicycle service operations from 5,500 to 440 kilometers of pathways. More restrictions were to be put in place, as the LTA prohibited the riding of e-scooters on all footpaths. In response, Grab suspended its service indefinitely.

Grab was thus forced to focus on its Uber-like ridesharing services after its short stint experimenting with scooter-sharing. 

Losing traction

Hong Kong’s e-scooter economy has experienced a similar push-back. The tug-of-war with government regulations has not yet allowed ridesharing companies to expand to the region. Hong Kong’s Transport Department categorizes these electric scooters as “motor vehicles” and are consequently subject to high safety scrutiny. 

Criticisms have been directed toward the lack of regulation in the manufacturing of these new-age vehicles. The region’s Legislative Council (LegCo) noted concerns in regards to long braking distances, high collision forces, and battery stability. These concerns were realized when Lime was forced to recall a portion of its fleet

Lime’s supplier and Chinese microtransit vehicle manufacturer, Ninebot, had made scooters that were at risk of spontaneously catching fire. These issues were eerily similar to the battery fire troubles of hoverboards during their short-lived popularity in 2015. 

The LegCo also cited several concerns with the implementation of these vehicles in Hong Kong, including increased congestion, lack of space, and undesignated third-party insurers in the event of an accident. 

Ultimately, these Asian metropolitan areas’ governing bodies have cited strict yet legitimate safety concerns over electric scooters. The market for e-scooter ridesharing ecosystems continues to struggle with licensing regulation, casting doubts on its viability within the region. 

Founded in 2015, Mobike made Shanghai the largest bike-sharing city in 2016.

Spinning out

Asia’s reluctance to jump on the two-wheeled bandwagon may also be due to the unsavory legacy left by the bike-sharing concept. China’s largest bike-sharing platforms, Mobike and ofo, raised sizable investments in 2017, raising nearly $2 billion combined. 

However, many companies of the kind were met with serious financial troubles during their international expansion efforts–largely a consequence of unsustainable growth. Ofo had to lay-off much of its North American staff due to its reckless overseas expansion. 

Hong-Kong-based bike-sharing app GoBee also went out of business when its fleet faced uncontrolled theft upon expansion to Europe. Bluegogo also failed even when the Chinese bike-sharing company once catered to two million riders; its outpaced growth paired with rampant mismanagement led to its shutdown in early 2018

Perhaps these developments also generated doubts over the viability of microtransit business models in Asia, encouraging the belief among entrepreneurs and investors that similar ideas would also turn out to be underwhelming. 

First gear?

When walking through the streets of Asia’s global cities, sleek scooters do not line the sidewalks like they do the rest of the world. Hopes of possibly seeing an electric scooter sharing platform in Asia seems beyond the horizon. 

With Grab securing $30 million from Taiwan’s electric vehicle frontrunner Kwang Yang Motor Co. in February 2020, electric microtransit could see a revitalized presence in the Asian market. The new partnership demonstrates a commitment to creating an ecosystem of two-wheeled transportation, along with a determination toward solutions that work harmoniously with government licensing requirements. 

The Hong Kong Transport Department is also conducting a review of electric mobility devices (EMDs) in its “Consultancy Study on enhancing Walkability in Hong Kong.” The LegCo states that it is taking into account “technological advances and overseas regulatory [trends]” in its study. There is renewed optimism that the governing bodies of these major Asian cities are reconsidering their stance on electric vehicle sharing. 

Perhaps there is hope for electric scooters in Asia, after all. 

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