Wind CEO: Scooters are here to stay

Eric Wang  / Photo: Eyal Izhar, Globes

Eric Wang: Of all the cities we operate in, Tel Aviv leads in the speed and scale of adoption. Infrastructure needs to catch up.

The 10,000 ridesharing rental electric scooters that have been deployed around Tel Aviv in the past eighteen months have aroused strong emotions among many residents. Supporters cite them as a transport solution in a city afflicted with traffic jams. Opponents cite the urban chaos created by users ignoring the law by riding on the sidewalk, and the scooters blocking passageways and entrances to buildings. Although only a quarter of the scooters are shared, with the rest being privately owned, the three scooter rental companies - Bird, Wind Mobility, and Lime - have been singled out in a series of regulations recently published by the Tel Aviv municipality.

Public pressure on the ridesharing rental companies increased after a 14 year-old boy riding an electric scooter was hit by a truck last week in Tel Aviv and killed. The fatal accident comes on top of statistics compiled by "Globes" in cooperation with Tel Aviv Sourasky Medical Center (Ichilov Hospital) about the number of people injured as a result of riding electric scooters and bicycles. The tragedy has reignited discussion about scooters and bicycles on the streets and sidewalks, in parks and on promenades. Supporters are naturally less vocal than those demanding doing away with the scooters immediately.

Good for both efficiency and happiness

Like many other things in Israel, the quick adoption of this technology has aroused the interest of international companies providing the service. "Of the other cities in which we operate, Tel Aviv leads in the speed and scale of adoption," Wind founder and CEO Eric Wang told "Globes." "Everyone wants to get where he's going faster, and is discovering that he's wasting a lot of time on the road. The scooters solution addresses exactly this point. It's also related to people's character and the warm weather, which makes it possible to pedal and reach your destination. We're not just talking about arriving quickly; it also makes people happier."

Happiness is one thing; bike paths are another

Wang says that the technology reflects the difference between it and the municipal infrastructure, which was much less ready for the technology than the consumers. "Road infrastructure in a city is planned for cars. Changing infrastructure is a lengthy process. Municipalities in Israel are aware of the problem, but we realize that these processes move slowly. Tel Aviv moves relatively quickly, for example in marking parking places for scooters," Wang says.

"Globes": It took eighteen months. This is fast?

Wang: "Marking public space involves burdensome bureaucracy, so 18 months is fast. Cooperation with local authorities rests on reciprocity. In Bordeaux, France, the police asked us for scooters for undercover police officers. In Tel Aviv, the municipality wants us to take care of the scooters in high-demand areas, for example during the Eurovision Song Contest or near a soccer stadium (Bloomfield)."

Wind operates in 15 cities, and is expanding rapidly. Its next target is Milan. During the short time in which it has been operating, Wind, like its competitors, has improved the simple scooters that it started with. "Our most recent scooter is something we developed independently and got a patent for. It's more stable and safer, and also water resistant. It's more expensive to produce, but it lasts for 24 months. The battery accounts for 40% of the scooter's cost and is replaceable on the spot, so that the scooters don’t have be transported for charging. A battery is replaced every 3-4 days, and lasts for 60-80 kilometers, compared with 20 kilometers in the previous version. We have a scooter that traveled from Lisbon to Moscow, 4,800 kilometers, and it's fine. As long as the skeleton is all right, the scooter can survive for more than two years," Wang declares.

Unless it is vandalized

"Vandalism is part of the game, and we have no control over it when it involves the character of the city. In South Korea and Japan, it barely happens at all. In Japan, we leave helmets hanging on the scooter - not one of them disappeared. Starting in mid-June, according to the regulations, we'll also put helmets in Tel Aviv. We're developing a helmet attached to the scooter that can't be stolen. We're working on this 24/7, and we'll wind up with our own development. In Japan, the helmet is put in a bag hung on the scooter. The new design also makes vandalism difficult. We even make the screws. We saw attempts to steal the battery, color scooters in order to conceal the yellow, and steal them," Wang says. In the repair warehouse on Schocken Street in Tel Aviv are a number of scooters that have been colored gray or black. They were taken from the fleet and thrown away, because the original color cannot be removed.

This week, Wind introduced electric bicycles for short-term rental in Tel Aviv. This pilot includes dozens of electric bikes, after which Wind will decide whether to leave the bikes together with the scooters. The user fees for scooters have greatly changed since they were launched. They now cost NIS 0.85 per riding minute without payment for locking (this is more worthwhile than short and medium-length trips). The price for riding a bicycle is NIS 5 to open the lock and NIS 0.50 per riding minute - the initial price in Israel when three companies began operating. Bird and Lime now charge NIS 5 to open the lock, plus NIS 0.60 per riding minute.

It is rather crowded in Tel Aviv, a relatively small city, for the three companies competing in it.

"Our goal isn't aggressive expansion; it's being stable in the long term. Tel Aviv has the potential to grow. The one who supplies quality and availability is the one that will survive, and we're in a good place. The aim is to increase the volume of users and trips, including with our scooters, which is more stable and durable than those of the competitors."

The Tel Aviv municipality published new rigorous regulations that apply only to rented scooters. Among other things, riding in certain places in the city is banned. Will this make people buy private scooters and stop using yours?

"A person switching to a private scooter or bike has to take the maintenance costs and fines into account. We pay for the scooters that aren't parked properly. There's a market for both things. Besides Uber, there are also private cars. The balance changes, but no segment will disappear."

Like the other companies, Wind has 2,800 scooters, according to the restrictions imposed by the Tel Aviv municipality, which raised the number from 2,500. Does this number match the demand?

"As long as everybody complies with the law, each of the companies can get a fair share. The number matches the infrastructure. In the summer, when there are tourists and warm weather, it many not meet the demand. We're working with the municipality to find the balance, and expect reciprocity from them - to keep the number of players down and maintain the market at the same business level for us."

In recent months, "Globes" has published the number of people injured in accidents every day involving scooters and electric bicycles The figures are continually increasing. The US is also reporting three times as many accidents.

"Accidents are unfortunately part of the transport package. We're trying to provide a safe experience, and recommend riding with a helmet, and not on the sidewalk. We provide instruction and training. It's sometimes easier to point fingers at the leasing companies, but it can be assumed that the number of accidents is growing in proportion with use. You can't just accuse the companies; it's a package that also includes the drivers' behavior in the public space. As a supplier, I know that my scooters are being checked, and the helmets that we supply will improve riding. The problem is that they're focusing on accidents, but not on the broader picture, and this isn't so fair. People use private scooters a lot more, and the leasing companies are still being blamed. You have to examine the circumstances that caused each accident, where it happened, the road conditions, and the human factor. The drivers also have to learn to be alert with the scooters, which are fairly new in the urban environment. It's a collective responsibility."

Wind Israel CEO Yohai Abadi adds, "In contrast to the private scooters and bikes, the leasing companies are subject to municipal regulation, for example speed limits and the obligation to wear a helmet. We're the municipality's only partners in educating riders. We have control over the quality and the speed, in contrast to the private scooters and bikes. When an accident happens, and every accident is one too many, they blame the leasing companies. They put an accident involving a private scooter in a headline, and the picture displayed shows a rented scooter. We're the partner for reducing accidents, not the people who should be blamed."

On the other hand, we hear about other cities deciding to get rid of scooters. The most recent report was from Montreal.

Abadi: "We see local authorities panicking instead of investing in infrastructure and using information that the companies can give them about where infrastructure should be placed in high-demand areas, which is happening in Tel Aviv. Instead of halting the development of cities, they should think about correct planning. It's a question of time, and I assume that they will change their mind."

A 100-kilometer traffic jam as inspiration

Wind was founded ten years ago. "I studied at a university in Germany, and in the summer, I traveled to Spain. There was an historic 100-kilometer traffic jam there that lasted for days. I thought that this couldn't be the way to develop cities, with pollution and traffic jams and infrastructure only for cars. I was writing a thesis on financial education just then, and I asked for the subject to be changed to sustainable transportation. My idea was for purely academic purposes. Then I flew to China, and started working at DiDi, which is the Chinese version of Uber. There were problems with the idea of traveling by private vehicle, and we switched to a carpool model. The aim was shared travel in real time, long before Uber began working with it. A fleet and users were needed, and the technology fell far short. After three years, we said that we'd do it with bicycles, and why shouldn't we do it in Germany? I returned to Europe in 2017, and we started with rented bicycles via an app. In 2018, we switched to scooters, and realized that this was the right product. Ever since that thesis, I have always wanted to leave my mark on the transportation sector," Wang says.

Wind has already raised $72 million, but Wang still calls it a startup. "To start from scratch is a challenge, and in a new industry, it's an even greater challenge, but we're optimistic. It's challenging, because we've had to chase after scooters left outside countries, which happened in France, and the teams chased after the riders. They stole scooters from us in Bordeaux, and we discovered that it was a gang from a neighboring country, and called in the police. We're optimistic, because we believe in this solution. We're giving the users time to spend with their families and their hobbies, instead of sitting in traffic jams. We call our teams 'local heroes,' because we're really causing a change. The scooters are here to stay."

Published by Globes [online], Israel business news - en.globes.co.il - on February 20, 2020

© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd. 2020

Eric Wang  / Photo: Eyal Izhar, Globes
Eric Wang / Photo: Eyal Izhar, Globes
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