Where do scooters go for the winter?

Scooter company Voi operated through snow in Oslo last week.
Scooter company Voi operated through snow in Oslo last week.
Image: Voi
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Scooter companies often seem indistinguishable, with their monosyllabic names (Scoot, Skip, Spin) and identikit hardware. But this winter—the off-season, in the business—is giving European firms a chance to set themselves apart: they are determined to operate through the colder months, while some of their California-based rivals hibernate until spring.

Stockholm-based Voi, founded in August 2018, operates in about 40 European cities, including 16 Nordic ones where average winter temperatures range from -6°C (21°F) in Tampere, Finland, to 6°C in Copenhagen (43°F). Voi’s “Jack Frost” winter plans include limiting scooter speeds in snow, working with local plowing companies, restricting riders to well-plowed areas and the heated streets of some city centers, and disabling its fleet in particularly treacherous conditions like black ice.

Last year, Voi suspended its shared electric-scooter service in Stockholm for just over a week in total, said Kristina Nilsson, a company spokeswoman. “We’re Swedish, we’re used to the winter,” she said, having just returned from snowy Oslo, where Voi kept a limited fleet in service. “In Swedish there’s a saying, ‘There’s no bad weather, just bad clothing.’”

For most scooter companies, this is their second winter in business. They learned during their first to expect a drop in ridership. E-scooter unicorn Bird’s gross revenue fell about 60% in the first quarter of 2019 from the previous quarter, reported tech news site The Information (paywall). Voi’s ridership last winter was around half of what it was in the 2018 summer.

“Everyone understands that there is a seasonality effect in this business,” Voi CEO Fredrik Hjelm said.

It makes sense that fewer people ride scooters in the winter, when they’re exposed to the cold, wind, and snow, than in the summer when the sun is out and the weather is warm. Winter also poses operational challenges for scooter companies, which have to work harder to maintain their fleets and keep a close eye on when conditions are too dangerous to provide the service safely.

Like Voi, most scooter companies have a winter contingency plan. European firms, perhaps because cold weather is a fact of life in so many of their markets, are generally interested in working to maintain service throughout the winter months.

Berlin-based Tier Mobility operates in more than 40 cities, including Helsinki, Oslo, and Tampere. David Krebs, a spokesman, said by email that Tier is currently rolling out a scooter model better equipped for winter conditions, with features like a bigger front wheel, brighter lights, and rear-wheel drive. Tier will reduce its fleet in Nordic markets this winter but operate normally in Germany. The company will limit or pause service as needed during bad weather.

“Generally our experience so far has shown that coldness has less impact on the usage of our e-scooters than wetness and rainy weather,” Krebs said. “In winter people still have to move around the city.”

Circ, another Berlin-based scooter company that operates in 41 cities, plans to maintain service in its core German markets throughout the winter. Circ will hibernate operations in a handful of cities, including Brussels, where it expects ridership to drop off and relocate those scooters to southern markets. Circ laid off around 50 people in late November, reductions its founder told TechCrunch were timed to an expected 50% drop in ridership from the summer.

Marco Lietz, Circ’s head of public affairs for Europe, said the company believes the scooter is a “serious vehicle” that should be able to handle all weather conditions. (Like other companies, Circ will suspend operations as needed in response to serious adverse weather conditions.) Lietz noted that having Circ’s bright-orange scooters out on the streets is its best marketing, “so we don’t want to make people believe the scooter is just a summer gadget,” he said. “It’s not.”

Certain Silicon Valley competitors are less determined to plow through winter. Bird, based in sunny Santa Monica, told Quartz it is pausing operations in a handful of US and European markets, including Poland, Sweden, and Germany. It won’t relocate scooters in suspended European cities to warmer markets. “Safety is the number one priority at Bird, and while our scooters have been tested for all conditions we’ve decided to pause,” Bird spokesman Harry Porter said in an email.

San Francisco-based Lime, which operates in more than 120 cities around the world, has chosen to suspend service for the season in places with “harsh weather conditions” such as Calgary, Minneapolis, Helsingborg, and Helsinki, and to pare back in others, said Sean Arroyo, a regional general manager for operations. In other cities, including Brookline, Massachusetts, and Montreal, Lime said its pilots ended in anticipation of winter.

Uber-owned Jump hasn’t planned any blanket suspensions but is cutting access to its fire-engine-red bikes and scooters in snow, ice, and below certain temperatures (in Europe, -5°C for bikes and -5°C or 4°C for scooters, depending on the model). Jump plans to email European riders soon to remind them of safety tips for winter riding. Jump’s advice to winter riders includes to “layer and wrap up,” according to a draft of the email Uber shared with Quartz, as well as to “remember to switch that wooly hat for a helmet.”