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‘I’m Back to Riding My Own Bike.’ Higher Prices Threaten Silicon Valley’s Mobility Revolution

11 minute read

When JUMP’s bright red bikes started appearing on the streets of San Francisco last year, Ian Chesal was relieved. His lengthy commute, from the hills of Oakland to his tech company’s San Francisco office, involved driving to the subway, sitting for 40 minutes, and then walking a mile to his office. Once the JUMP bikes appeared, he could use his phone to unlock one outside his subway stop, and ride it the rest of the way. The electric motor-assisted bikes gave him a push up the hill to his office, and at $2 for a 30-minute ride, they didn’t add significantly to the cost of his commute.

But in June, JUMP, which is owned by Uber, suddenly raised its prices, instantly doubling the cost of Chesal’s ride. He stopped using the shared bikes, dusted off an old bike from his garage, and started bringing it on the subway and riding it that last mile to work. “For now I’m back to riding my own bike and happier for it,” says Chesal, 42.

JUMP’s price increases were part of a larger trend across the sharing economy. On-demand services of all kinds have been significantly subsidized by investors as a means of attracting users with low prices. But as companies like Uber and Lyft go public and face shareholder pressure to make money, those subsidizes are ending. That means customers are now being asked to pay what it actually costs companies to provide them with shareable bikes, scooters, and rides. “The amount that venture capitalists are subsidizing people’s lives right now is much higher than people realized,” says Sam Korus, an analyst with investment firm ARK Invest.

Lyft, which acquired JUMP rival Motivate last year, said in its earning call Wednesday that it had begun charging customers more for car rides in June in select routes and cities. “We believe these price adjustments reflect an industry trend,” Lyft’s chief financial officer Brian Roberts told investors. The company lost $644.2 million last quarter, three times what it lost over the same period last year. Uber, meanwhile, said Thursday that it lost $5.4 billion in the last quarter and that its revenues grew only 14%, the slowest quarterly growth the company has publicly disclosed. Bookings were up 30% from the same time last year, but that’s a much slower growth rate than the company had previously experienced. On Uber’s earnings call Thursday, CEO Dara Khosrowshahi said the company was going to focus on improving its bottom line. “As a service, we have pricing power,” he said, meaning he believes Uber can safely raise its prices over time without losing too many customers.

But commuters say that sharing bikes, scooters and other rides isn’t as appealing when the costs go up. “If I had my own scooter, I’d be riding it a lot more,” says Andrea McPherson, a 25-year-old Indianapolis resident. She says she loved to use the shared electric scooters from companies like Lime and Bird scattered around town. When those companies raised their prices, though, she started looking into buying her own scooter to save the $6 per trip she was spending. McPherson also used to charge Lime scooters in her apartment to earn a little extra money, but eventually the incentives for that got too low, too. “Even though I really love the company, and I think what they’re doing is incredible, as a user I want a little bit of a break,” she said.

The sharing economy was pitched as a way for consumers to give up owning things—cars, bikes, scooters, clothes, vacation homes, and even books and movies, and to share them instead. It quickly caught on. Consumers eschewed buying cars for taking Ubers and Lyfts, switched to shared electric bikes or scooters for their commutes, and even signed up for platforms like Rent the Runway and Le Tote that allowed them to borrow clothes and then send them back, freeing up space in their closets. The number of car-free or car-light households (defined as those with fewer cars than workers) grew more than 23% in Seattle between 2012 and 2017, 10% in San Francisco, and 7% in Philadelphia, faster than population growth in all of those cities, according to Bruce Schaller, a transportation consultant in New York City.

But many of the companies behind those initiatives were financed by massive venture capital (VC) investments. When their goal was to gain as many customers as they could, they spent that VC money to lure in customers with artificially low prices, and beat out their less well-funded competitors. Customers have gotten very used to VC subsidies, with one man who aggressively sought out start-up discounts and promotions telling The Wall Street Journal he earned $10,000 in goods. Now that companies are maturing and hitting the public markets, investors expect them to start making money, leading them to scale back the subsidies that attracted people in the first place.

“We want to build a viable e-bike operation that allows us to serve riders for years to come, an Uber spokesperson said in a statement provided to TIME. “To support that we have introduced new pricing in some cities that brings us in line with the market so we can continue to deliver clean and reliable bikes and scooters with a sustainable business model.”

For many customers, that means no more sharing. “Can I afford to pay $3-something for the bike ride? The answer is yes,” says Martin Petracca, a 33-year-old who was a dedicated JUMP rider until the prices went up. “However, if I can save money on an everyday thing like that, I will.” He now tries to wear comfortable shoes and just walk to work.

Many of the ride, bike, and scooter sharing companies are beginning to offer monthly passes or subscriptions to hook customers and lower the costs of their rides. Uber launched RidePass and Lyft has an All-Access plan. Bird, the scooter company, launched a program in which consumers can rent their own scooter for a monthly fee. Early users were skeptical of the model, though, saying that lugging their own scooter around town when they weren’t riding it, rather than just leaving it on the sidewalk, was a hassle.

Korus, the analyst, thinks that shared scooter companies in particular are in trouble as subsidies come to an end. By his math, it costs scooter companies like Bird $2.55 per mile to rent dockless scooters to customers. Before they raised their prices, these companies were generating just $2.43 in revenue per mile, he says, meaning they will eventually have to raise prices to make money. But as they do, fewer people will use the service. The question is whether enough customers will stick around to make the economics work when subsidizes are out of the picture. “I wouldn’t be surprised to see a number of the scooter companies go out of business,” said Korus.

While we’re in an economic expansion at the moment, these companies appear particularly vulnerable to the threat of an economic slowdown. If another recession is coming, as observers like presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren have warned, consumers may be even less willing to pay for rides and other shared services once subsidies disappear. “When we go through a recession and customers become much more price sensitive, what is going to be the market size?” said John Marshall, senior capital markets economist at the United Food and Commercial Workers Union.

Bird Scooter
People ride Bird shared dockless electric scooters along Venice Beach on August 13, 2018 in Los Angeles, California.Mario Tama—Getty Images

The subsidization issue affects Uber and Lyft’s core on-demand car businesses, too. People are paying about $2.50 a mile when they use ride-sharing companies like Uber and Lyft, estimates Korus. If they buy a car, they are essentially paying 70 cents a mile to go the same distance. Autonomous taxis could lower that cost to 26 cents a mile, because there’s no driver to pay. Until Uber and Lyft can start offering self-driving cars at a meaningful volume, which could take years, the economics will be difficult. They could shift back to a higher-priced luxury model, like Uber’s primary offering before the 2012 introduction of UberX. But that would fall well short of the transportation revolution they have promised. “Is this a real transportation replacement, or are they just going to take over the black car industry?,” says White.

The road ahead for scooter- and bike-sharing companies is especially difficult given that the vehicles they offer can now be bought relatively cheaply. Decent electric scooters can found for around $400, about the same price as a month of twice-daily shared scooter rides. Electric bikes start at about $1,000. “In decades past, e-bikes were heavy, had bad range, and were expensive,” says Mike Radenbaugh, the CEO of e-bike maker Rad Power Bikes. “Now they’re light, have fantastic range, and advances in consumer electronics have lowered their price.” He says revenues more than doubled in 2018, to $45 million, and that many of his customers were introduced to electric bikes through sharing programs. Electric bike sales in the U.S. grew 61% over the last year, to $176 million, according to the NPD Group, a research firm.

Companies in other businesses have figured out how to hook customers and keep them coming back even as they raise prices. Wireless companies have stopped subsidizing the cost of new phones in recent years, and while growth in smartphone sales has flattened, customers are still spending billions on the devices every year. Federal electric vehicle subsidies expired last year, yet Tesla sold more cars in its most recent quarter than it did during the quarter in which customers were still receiving subsidies.

And some investors are willing to watch public companies lose money for years if they think they will eventually become profitable. The classic example is Amazon, which bled money for years as it built out expensive infrastructure to deliver packages in just a few days. Today, there are few investors who, if offered the chance, wouldn’t go back in time to invest in Jeff Bezos’ “everything store” before the company’s stock price skyrocketed.

But the ride-sharing companies are not like Amazon, argues Richard Clayton, research director at CtoW investment group, which works with pension funds sponsored by unions affiliated with the Change to Win federation. Amazon spent money upfront to build an intricate system of warehouses that allowed it to eventually dominate the two-day delivery market. It got customers so accustomed to quick delivery that they became willing to pay more for it. The same may not be true of on-demand scooters.

Shared mobility companies may work in the future — if they get significant subsidies, says Susan Shaheen, a transportation professor at the University of California, Berkeley. Governments could offer up money, as they do for public transit, she said, or advertisers could contribute in order to get their name associated with the transit. The city of Dublin, California has a program called GoDublin that pays for half of riders’ Uber or Lyft fares for rides that start and end in Dublin. Meanwhile, CitiBank and Ford sponsor bike-sharing programs in New York and San Francisco, respectively.

But those promotions would have to be significant to help make shared mobility companies profitable. Moving people around a city is expensive, which is why public transit is often so heavily subsidized. Nearly every company that has tried to improve upon this subsidized model has failed. During Uber’s call Thursday, Khosrowshahi said the company was looking into making its shared ride experiences more efficient, perhaps by piling 10 people into a shared van. But past attempts to do even this without subsidies have faltered. Earlier this year, Chariot, a company owned by Ford that shuttled commuters around a few U.S. cities in shared van routes, abruptly went out of business. Rides cost up to $5, which paled in comparison to some of the promotions being offered by Uber and Lyft.

And for many consumers, the appeal of Uber, Lyft, and shared bike and scooter services is that they make fewer stops and are more predictable than public transit. Any move that makes ride-sharing more like the bus may turn customers off. Ian Chesal, who gave up on JUMP after the prices went up, says he will occasionally take an Uber or Lyft to work from the subway if he’s running late. The bus gets stuck in so much traffic that it takes as long as walking. Taking a bus, he says, “was never really a consideration.”

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