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Micromobility grows up

August 24, 2021, 6:51 PM UTC

At the start of the pandemic, I, like many others, panic-bought a bike. 

It’s a decision I regret. Every time I took the bike out, something seemed to go wrong — a flat tire, a popped chain, a bent derailleur. Why didn’t I rent?

Even though I live just 1,000 feet from a Citibike bikeshare dock, I was skeptical about bikeshares and other so-called micromobility services since well before COVID-19. Scooters seemed like toys. And the companies that brought them to New York, where I live, showed contempt for walkers in this supremely pedestrian city by letting their two-wheelers clog up sidewalks. Revels, which are electric mopeds for rent through an app, just appeared one day — and quickly became a nuisance because their alarms seemed to go incessantly, triggered by a loud stereo system or kids messing with them. 

These new companies all seemed to have taken pages from the Uber playbook — better to ask for forgiveness, rather than permission, when it came to expanding into new cities. New York state, for instance, prohibited dockless scooters until last year because of concerns about them blocking sidewalks. San Francisco likewise has pushed back. In fact, so did a lot of other places. 

So earlier this year, when scooter company Bird announced it was merging with a special purpose acquisition company to go public, my old skepticism reared: a huge $2.3 billion valuation, for scooters? 

But now, I’m thinking I may have been wrong. It’s not about Bird per se — the company is hardly distinguishable from its main competitor, Lime, and also has had serious labor issues. It’s about the pandemic’s impact after 18 months. People still need to get around, and they’ve liked the new options that don’t require getting on a bus or subway. I eventually ended up subscribing to Citibike, a bike-rental service owned by Lyft, and now use it frequently. The e-bikes, especially, are great for crossing a bridge to Manhattan. 

After initially pulling back during the pandemic, micromobility companies now seem to be expanding again. Bird, for instance announced a move into 50 European cities — though not Paris or London. Travis VanderZanden, Bird’s CEO, cited “redesigning cities” as a reason.

Meanwhile, here in the US, New York is letting scooter companies operate again, although on a phased-in basis. Cities like Dallas are also giving scooters another shot.

But this is bigger than merely changes in transportation choices. As I’ve written before, the over $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill, if enacted, may rewire Silicon Valley’s priorities. This bill includes billions more dollars for bike lanes for cities that would make scooters, bikeshares, and all the other forms of short-distance transportation more convenient.

Moreover, ride-hailing prices have spiked during the pandemic, making Uber and Lyft unaffordable for many people. It doesn’t help that a California Superior Court judge recently ruled that Proposition 22 — a law that let ride-hailing companies classify most drivers as independent contractors rather than employees — is unconstitutional.

In fact, most car trips are pretty short. Many of those could and should be replaced by alternatives that don’t spew exhaust or require a parking spot.

Silicon Valley dubiously pitches itself as a crucible of big transformations. Despite my initial skepticism about micromobility, it, in fact, looks more than ever like one of those fantastic ideas.

Kevin T. Dugan
@KevinTDugan

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Shifting down expectations. Tesla Technoking Elon Musk offered a mea culpa on Monday when he tweeted that the technology behind his self-driving cars is "not great." Although he followed that up with reassurances that everything is hunky-dory, that admission comes as the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has launched an investigation into the technology, and why it has caused some cars to crash. Democratic Senators Ed Markey and Richard Blumenthal have recently also called the marketing of Tesla's technology, called "Full Self-Driving," misleading, and asked the Federal Trade Commission to investigate. 

Gamify this. The Securities and Exchange Commission plans to scrutinize how online brokers, like Robinhood, use "digital engagement" — meaning the prompts and predictive analysis that make up part of its game-like program — to attract customers. The plan is still in the early stage, and is being characterized as a "consultation" that could include new rulemaking. 

A long walk. Peloton is giving its treadmill another go, after the last one was recalled following the death of a six-year old.  The new version includes a safety key and requires a four-digit code to activate. 

TikTopify. TikTok is partnering with Shopify to add in-app shopping, so that influencers can sell clothes, make-up, and other wares on the app. The move follows Instagram and Facebook, which have added shopping tabs and made it easier for consumers to buy products featured in posts. 

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

Machines of loving grace. The world will be increasingly filled up with artificially intelligent robots, but what does that mean  — and how should we treat them? Wired has an excerpt from writer Meghan O'Gieblyn's book God, Human, Animal, Machine: Technology Metaphor and the Search for Meaning. It delves into what makes a robot a robot, and where we draw the line when we come to see them as extensions of ourselves. 

From the article:

Brooks and his team at MIT were essentially trying to re-create the conditions of human evolution. If it’s true that human intelligence emerges from the more primitive mechanisms we inherited from our ancestors, then robots should similarly evolve complex behaviors from a series of simple rules. With AI, engineers had typically used a top-down approach to programming, as though they were gods making creatures in their image. But evolution depends on bottom-up strategies—single-cell organisms develop into complex, multicellular creatures—which Brooks came to see as more effective. Abstract thought was a late development in human evolution, and not as important as we liked to believe; long before we could solve differential equations, our ancestors had learned to walk, to eat, to move about in an environment. Once Brooks realized that his insect robots could achieve these tasks without central processing, he moved on to creating a humanoid robot. 

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BEFORE YOU GO

Payment process. Last week, the often sexually-explicit video site OnlyFans announced it would shut down some sexually explicit content on its platform, even though sex workers were by far the largest force behind the app's popularity. This piece in New York Magazine's The Cut lays the blame for this on the banks and payment processors that have balked at the "declassé" content, and squeezed the company into cleaning up its service. 

Here's the thing: before it was OnlyFans, it was firearms manufacturers. Before that, it was Wikileaks. This isn't to say it's fine, or should be ignored — just the opposite. These decisions have real implications for people who are doing legal things to make a living. Is that really so great?

From the article:

Payment processors are the ultimate arbiter of what can be sold online in a sustainable, aboveboard fashion, and they can deny service to anyone they deem suspicious or high-risk. OnlyFans is acting out of self-preservation, making defensive decisions to protect what (comparatively little) profit it can.

In an increasingly cashless economy, the banking industry exerts a terrifying degree of control over us all, but sex workers have long been especially vulnerable to denial of accounts, loans, and mortgages, regardless of whether or not their work is technically legal. Paypal, VenmoStripeSquareCashApp, and ApplePay all have terms of service that forbid payment for any sort of sexual product or service — again, including those that are legal — and those processors can also refuse sex workers just by virtue of their engagement in the sex industry, even if their use of the platform is unrelated. While many sex workers have tried to pivot to cryptocurrency, it’s far from a permanent solution, and even as a stopgap requires fresh-tech literacy and the time to acquire it, which are luxuries many workers can’t afford.

 

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