Wellington's Lime e-scooter launch a sign of NZ's transport evolution

by Peter Griffin / 14 December, 2018
Lime e-scooters on the Petone foreshore. Photo/Peter Griffin

Lime e-scooters on the Petone foreshore. Photo/Peter Griffin

Despite an initial flurry of ACC injury claims, transport sharing schemes look set to become part of the fabric of urban transport as Onzo and Lime scatter their bikes and scooters across our cities.

The latest area to get Lime e-scooters is Wellington’s Hutt Valley, where several hundred were deployed today. Lime still needs to secure a permit to operate the scooter sharing scheme in central Wellington, but that’s just a formality – the yellow wheel rims of the Onzo dockless bikes have been a familiar sight across Wellington since they arrived in October. The New Zealand-owned company is also set to launch its own e-scooters in Auckland in competition with Lime.

Bike sharing schemes have been around for years overseas, many of them subsidised by local authorities to battle inner-city congestion. Scooters are a newer addition – the Californian company Lime launched just last year but already operates in 130 cities around the world, including Auckland, Christchurch and the Hutt Valley, and has facilitated 23 million rides in barely 18 months.

Last mile transport

"The Wellington region is so well set up for our scooters,” said Lime’s Wellington Region Operations Manager, Sam Seiniger, as he launched the e-scooters outside the Settlers Museum on the Petone foreshore this morning.

“It is well linked by public transport and people are interested in green and active transport. But at the same time there is definitely strain from congestion at park-and-rides and the problems you see with lots of cars."

From San Francisco to Singapore, it’s those “first and last mile” trips that these sharing schemes are targeting. The average distance for a Lime trip here is just over a kilometre.

“You have people driving their car to get to the bus and parking at the park-and-ride or people hopping in an Uber to go a distance that is just a little too far to walk,” said Seiniger.

“That really puts a lot of strain on infrastructure.”

The ‘dockless’ nature of the bikes and scooters means that they don’t need to be taken and dropped off from dedicated docking areas. Walk along Oriental Parade in Wellington and you’ll see numerous Onzo bikes randomly placed where the previous rider has left them. A smartphone app guides the next rider to the bike’s location, where they simply scan a QR code on the bike using the Onzo app to unlock the bike and pay for the ride.

The system is largely similar for the Lime scooter. It’s this application of location-based services, the convenience of the smartphone and mobile-based credit card payments, that allows the whole system to operate so smoothly.

A network of “juicers” staff and independent contractors, collect the scooters from far flung locations and Onzo has a team doing the same for its bikes. A Lime scooter can be hired 8-10 times in a day, before being retrieved.

Around 600,000 Lime scooter rides have been completed in New Zealand since Lime launched in October, said Seiniger.

“Worldwide around 40 percent of trips stop and start at public transport locations,” he added.

“We are seeing that between 25-50 percent of trips are replacing Lyft, or car or Uber trips. It's really helping them do the short trips without getting in a car.”

An Onzo. Photo/Peter Griffin

An Onzo. Photo/Peter Griffin

Scooter vs car

That really puts Lime and Onzo in competition with ride hailing services like Uber and Zoomy, which have disrupted the taxi companies and lowered the cost of short trips considerably.

It’s too early to tell how Lime, Onzo and other bike sharing companies are alleviating transport congestion in our cities. But urban authorities, from which Lime and Onzo need to receive permits to operate, have been enthusiastic supporters.

Taking his first Lime ride this morning along the Petone boardwalk, Hutt City deputy mayor David Bassett cut an unlikely figure, a middle-aged local government bureaucrat scooting along, his tie flapping in the breeze.

But expect that to become the norm – as long as scooter and bike riders learn to safety co-exist with pedestrians and drivers. The debut of Lime resulted in dozens of accident reports to ACC as enthusiastic punters hurt themselves or others in scooter mishaps.

But Seiniger said that after 600,000 trips, the statistics showed Lime’s e-scooters to be as safe as any other comparable form of transport.

Mobility casualties

“The incident rate is a fraction of a percent. ACC has said they see more accidents from push scooters than from e-scooters.”

Still, Bassett cut quickly to the safety message after dismounting the Lime scooter, urging Hutt Valley residents to make themselves aware of the New Zealand Transport Agency rules governing the scooters’ use.

“I would just plead to everybody to observe those rules. Some of the important things are, watch your speed, keep your helmet on and have clothing that clearly identifies you not only for the traffic but also pedestrians,” he said.

“I hope the whole thing is going to turn out to be a great success.”

NZTA recommends that e-scooter riders wear a helmet, but it isn’t a requirement and scooters can be ridden on footpaths. Onzo bike riders are required to wear a helmet which is provided with each bike. But the majority of Onzo riders I’ve seen around Wellington have been helmetless – some of them even ride with the helmet sitting in the bike’s carrier basket. Helmet theft has also emerged as an early issue. Enforcement of the helmet rule seems lax, perhaps due to the fact that Onzo riders tend to ride at low speed and often on the footpath, though I have seen a pair of Onzo riders helmetless and hurtling down the Wadestown hill towards the city.

If you shake your head in disapproval when you see a helmetless Onzo biker weaving through pedestrians on the footpath, you need to lighten up. Go to any big city around the world and you are likely to see a similar site. The pros outweigh the cons.

I visited the Chinese industrial city of Shenzhen a couple of weeks ago, and shared “Mobike” bikes were everywhere, on the roads and on the footpaths, with not a helmet in sight. During rush hour, yellow and orange bikes carried workers to and from the subway stations and the city’s massive inner-city apartment blocks. It’s organised chaos at times, but China has a long history of bike usage.

The same went for Singapore where I visited a few months ago, though in the city that demands order, bikes cluttering streets and causing accidents has provoked a mini backlash against them and some operators have struggled to make money.

Mobike bikes in China. Photo/Peter Griffin

Are they any good?

The simplicity of a Lime or Onzo ride hire is at the heart of their appeal. The convenience of being able to use your phone to book and unlock a bike or scooter quickly makes the system so easy to adapt to.

The Lime scooter is just like a regular scooter but a bit heavier due to the lithium-ion battery powering it. You push start it to get going, then press the accelerator lever to engage the motor. From then on you can accelerate up to around 25-30km/h. Range is rated as 20 miles plus, so at least 32 kilometres. On the day it launched in the Hutt Valley, someone rode a Lime scooter all the way into Wellington’s CBD, a distance of 12km.

There’s a manual brake just like on a bike to slow down. It’s designed for flat surfaces – asphalt, concrete, wooden boardwalks etc, though the sturdy tyres will handle bumps and uneven surfaces quite well.

I feel reasonably safe on a Lime, though as a Segway mobility scooter owner, I’m used to watching my speed, particularly when approaching pedestrians, who can move into your path with little warning. The Lime’s electric motor is quiet, so you need to make liberal use of the bell to signal you are coming. The Lime can handle a hill gradient up to 15 degrees, which will see it challenged by many Wellington streets. But when the electric motor gives up, you can use good old foot power to keep going.

The Onzo bike is a more relaxed ride. It’s a single gear bike that will remind you of the BMX you might have had as a kid. It isn’t electric, so you need to put in the pedal power. Tall people will find it awkward as the frame is relatively compact. Already, some of the bikes appear to have had heavy use, though they are serviced regularly so you shouldn’t be landed with a dud.

Both the Lime and Onzo apps are easy to set up and use. Loading in a credit card number gives you the ability to pay for the trip and the map will show you the location of nearby bikes and scooters, as well as no-go zones where you shouldn’t leave them when you’re finished.

The usefulness of both schemes depends on a scooter or bike being close at hand when you need one. That will improve as more of them are deployed, which seems likely given the early success. Onzo attracted 11,236 registered users who made 13,910 in Wellington after just two weeks in operation. It has 1,607 bikes between Auckland and Wellington.

My pick, if the two are available, is the Lime scooter for shuttling between business meetings as the motor will save you from turning up a sweaty mess. For a bit of exercise and a more leisurely pace, such as for sightseeing, the Onzo is a good option. I also feel safer on the Onzo as it takes longer to get up to speed and sitting down gives greater stability.

Lime e-scooters

  • Available in Auckland, Hutt Valley, Christchurch
  • Cost: $1 to hire the scooter and 30 cents per minute of use (equivalent to $18 an hour).
  • iOS and Android smartphone app

Onzo bikes

  • Available in Auckland and Wellington
  • Cost: 25 cents per 15 minutes of usage. Trips under 15 minutes are charged at 25 cents.
  • iOS and Android smartphone app

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