WORKING: Juicing on the go
As I pulled a 180 on the hot asphalt, the sun glinting off the chrome handlebars, I felt like Peter Fonda in Easy Rider. As the 110 pounds of whirring steel between my legs leaped forward, I wanted to fling my Fitbit in the dirt and take off for the bone orchards of New Orleans.
Unfortunately, I had to give the scooter back to the guy who swaps the batteries out, so I'm still here.
Shared, a Portland-based start-up aims to change the status quo (don't they all?), with beefy red-and-white electric sit-down scooters they're calling "Scooters 2.0". Shared scooters have fat tires (as wide as a small car's), which makes them a smooth ride — especially over maintenance holes, potholes and light-rail tracks. Shared scooters are much more robust than the other sit-down option, the ones with the basket, which are made by Razor. As with all scooters, the Portland Bureau of Transportation mandates that software limits their top speed to 15 mph, but they can actually go uphill.
I learned the Scooter 1.0 "ecosystem" that Shared hopes to improve upon is a mess: unorganized and inefficient day-to-day operations with incentives that lead to third parties hoarding scooters, high vehicle miles traveled, and fragile yet nimble hardware that encourages users to ride on sidewalks or leave scooters strewn thoughtlessly about.
Tarani Duncan, Shared's chief operating officer, said the lifespan of a stand-up or kick e-scooter is 19 to 28 days, citing an article on QZ.com..
"We are shooting for two years for our frame and normal attrition for off-the-shelf wear parts like hydraulic brakes, rotors, and brake pads, which we'll proactively service after X miles, just like you do with your car," Duncan added in an email.
They employ a full-time staff of operations employees instead of contracting to third parties. Instead of bringing scooters into the warehouse by van every night for recharging, Shared employees journey to the scooter to swap out the battery, which is the difference between eight hours and 30 seconds of downtime per scooter.
This is why I spent Sunday morning riding around with Owen Christofferson, 25, Field Operations Manager at Shared. He helps run the team that swaps batteries and maintains the vehicles.
It's good that Shared doesn't need to bring scooters in overnight because you can't fit more than 10 in the van. They also take a while to maneuver up the ramp and to strap down — Lime and Spin juicers can toss their scooters in a truck bed and keep hurrying along.
Christofferson was following the Shared map app. Various symbols show which units need recharging, which have sounded an alarm (after 20 seconds of rough handling) and which need repairs.
During our first stop, we replaced a battery. The batteries are hefty and report to have a range of five times that of other scooter providers. The onboard electronics are secured to the frame of the scooter. Standard scooters are vandalized frequently. Owen says one myth is that if you can get the SIM card out of a scooter, you can use it for free cell service on your phone. Not true, he says.
After their first week launching in September, Shared suffered a series of vandalism incidents. Duncan used cellular data to track down the responsible parties and landed Shared on an anarchist whitelist. She calls that "a testament to the kind of hyper-localized coalition-building Shared values, which is a sharp contrast to Scooter 1.0's hyper-scaling model."
Shared workers try to reposition scooters in places with high foot traffic, and to leave them in areas where people can count on them for trip planning. We transported a scooter we collected near the train tracks near OMSI to Southwest Third Avenue near Terry Schrunk Plaza, a high-revenue area.
Owen has a real-time view of tickets as they come in. Priority one is helping people with pressing scooter issues, such as a complaint from someone called Sue in Southeast. A customer has parked a Shared scooter on a strip of grass outside her home. With big stickers all over the back of each vehicle, the public is invited to contact the company. One of the gripes about Portland's second scooter pilot is the city passes off customer service to the scooter companies, who are slow to respond. He reads aloud:
"A Shared scooter's on my outer sidewalk strip of grass on the corner of Southeast Market and Southeast 34th Place. How soon can it be picked up? Thanks."
"And I say 'Hi, Sue, Thanks for your message. I'm Owen with Shared operations. It's 12:47 p.m. I will be there by 1.30 p.m.'"
Shared is a small company, taking their time ramping up from 50 to 200 scooters. Shared uses best practices when it comes to labor, which means no contractors. Christofferson spent time driving for Uber and Lyft, and began working with the Oregon AFL-CIO to organize the drivers after hearing horror stories of people crashing and being unable to drive, losing income, having rates cut (he was there for the big chop from $1.55 per mile to $1.15) and also of women and minorities putting up with harassment for the sake of their rating.
Christofferson was also a juicer for Lime, but as well as his street experience, what helped him get the job at Shared was his Bachelor's in Business Management from PSU, with a political science minor. He also did a social innovation certificate program with a focus on socially responsible for-profit companies or B-corps.
He claims victory against Uber and Lyft, saying Oregon is the only state where they don't have a blanket right to start operating in any city, but have to lobby city by city.
"We went up against Uber and Lyft at the state legislature in 2017 and 2018 and won both times. We were opposed to the fact that it would take away all local control of Uber and Lyft."
Uber now owns Jump Scooters, and Lyft has its own brand, because they realize almost half of Uber rides are under three miles and 20% are under one mile. That's scooter territory — average kick scooter rides are 1.1 miles, whereas Shared's average distance is 2.8 miles.
Listening to this Gen Z-er, I felt proud of the way he took a tool of convenience (rideshares) and found its dark side. Yet he still wants to work with these tools and sees them as a force of good. He just wants to make them better for everyone.
He points out that PBOT has eight different rules about where you can park your scooter on the sidewalk. Observing Christofferson line them up between a bike rack and a tree downtown is entertaining.
Lean, but not too far
As we drive around, he says he was inspired by training he's receiving on the job in Toyota Production Systems and lean manufacturing.
At Shared's warehouse at Southeast Eighth and Morrison, Shared's mechanical engineer keeps a 3D printer running day and night, making parts for small improvements based on feedback received by operations teams. For example, Shared made a thick plastic collar to reinforce the lock on the battery compartment, which vandals and thieves try to jimmy.
Shared's goal is to figure out how to keep the scooters out on the streets as long as possible before they scale to other cities.
Christofferson sees e-scooters as a blend of old and new, Silicon Valley fast innovation, and old-school, on-the-ground fleet operations.
"I also believe that (continuous improvement) very much so connects with treating workers properly. That's something that a lot of American companies miss when they're looking to do lean and TPS (Toyota Production System)-related things. It's not software we're just pushing out. So, you have the lightning-fast, Tesla-style innovation. But then we have to do these tiny, process-driven improvements; we have to be like Toyota. We have to figure out the most operationally efficient way of doing things that technology can complement. But it doesn't come from that kind of software style innovation."
He explained what Shared does differently.
"Anything that's structural, mechanical, anything that affects the ability of the scooter to remain in the field for the longest time, we want to be sure that we do our best to fix those issues before we scale massively — before we enter dozens and dozens of cities like other companies. Yes, the goal is to expand, but we want to get our hardware right before we do that. And, we want to provide just an absolutely exceptional and sustainable product and service."
We all know how Easy Rider ended, but that was a very different take on naive optimism.
So far, it's a tiny company. The app has just over 5,000 downloads. Ultimately, can Shared build a nicer e-scooter company, cushioned by fat tires and humane working conditions?
Reporter, The Business Tribune
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