Electric Scooters, Soaring in Numbers, Could Help Solve Israel’s Traffic Jams

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File photo: Woman rides electric scooter in central Tel Aviv, January 22, 2019.
File photo: Woman rides electric scooter in central Tel Aviv, January 22, 2019.Credit: Moti Milrod

It’s hard to ignore the presence of electric scooters on the streets of Israeli cities, especially Tel Aviv. They’ve been around for several years, but last year they turned into a phenomenon: Sources say Israelis bought around 25,000 scooters last year, twice the number in 2017.

They may very well be the start of a transportation revolution in Israel, which is choking on traffic because of underinvestment in infrastructure.

“I can’t think of any other product that has penetrated the Israeli market so quickly,” said a person in the industry who asked not to be named. “Sales would be even higher, but there aren’t enough of them in inventory,” said another.

Read more: Rented electric scooters taking Tel Aviv by storm ■ The solution to Israel's traffic problem: Tax those who drive at peak hours

A study by the city of Portland, Oregon, shows just how much of an impact electric scooters could have on the way people get from one place to another. In a city with a population of 650,000, researchers found that 2,000 electric scooters were used for 700,000 trips.

More than a third of city residents said they had used them instead of a car, taxi or Uber. Nearly half of tourists said the same. There was no increase in accidents, and city residents didn’t consider them a nuisance.

If anything, Tel Aviv and much of Israel offer an even more hospitable environment for scooters. As Cohen and others have noted, Israel’s mild winters and rainless summers make scooters a viable transportation alternative. Tel Aviv and other cities cover small areas, and Israel’s coastal plain is flat. Also, public transportation doesn’t operate on Saturday.

In Portland, the study found that one reason for the scooters’ success was that the city and the rental companies coordinated efforts, such as ensuring there were scooters where they were needed.

In Israel, however, there are no regulations or infrastructure for the vehicles. Already scooters – along with electric bicycles – are regarded as a nuisance by both pedestrians and drivers.

A study released last year by the Knesset Research and Information Center found that the number of people hurt in accidents involving personal electric vehicles rose just 5% a year in 2014-17. But that was before the electric scooter explosion of 2018, when 19 people were killed in accidents.

The two top-selling brands in Israel are the Xiaomi and the Segway Ninebot, both made in China. Together they account for an estimated 70% of the Israeli market; they’re the reason the electric scooter revolution came to Israel.

Until the start of last year, the main brands were Inokim and Mii2, costing a steep 6,000 to 7,000 shekels ($1,900). A Xiaomi or a Segway Ninebot, which were introduced in Israel a year ago, run for just 2,000 shekels – and you can often find them for less.

Scooter ownership, however, explains only part of the phenomenon. In the last few months two foreign companies – Bird of the United States and Wind of Germany – have begun offering short-term rentals.

Another American company, Lime, has made its app available in Hebrew and will soon start rolling out scooters on the streets.

All three companies use the same model. You download an app and use it to find and unlock an available scooter on the streets. At the end of the trip, you leave the vehicle at your destination for another user to pick up. Payment is via the app.

Even by high-tech standards, the three companies have experienced hypercharged global growth. Lime and Bird were formed only in 2017 and today are valued at $1.1 billion and $2.1 billion, respectively. Uber and Lyft are entering the segment.

In Israel, the two services are no less popular. According to a study by Ido Cohen, the CEO of the company Loadmill, there are 330 Bird scooters in Tel Aviv that are used for thousands of rides daily. Other numbers show that Bird has 25,000 users in Tel Aviv alone for its app.

Bird and Wind source their scooters from the official importers – Hamilton supplies Bird with Xiaomis, and a division of the auto importer UMI supplies Wind with Segway Ninebots.

A big technical hurdle still hinders use of the scooters: They have to be recharged daily, which requires complicated logistics. But that could soon be solved with swappable batteries, a technology being introduced by companies like SKip and Uber’s Jump. The day of self-driving scooters, which deliver themselves to a user, may not be far behind.

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