Lime’s Plan After Cornering the E-scooter Market? Profitability
Are cities, people, and Lime itself really ready for what the e-scooter behemoth wants to do to the world?
Near San Francisco’s bustling Fisherman’s Wharf in the middle of the afternoon two weeks ago, a 69-year-old woman took what was likely the last e-scooter ride of her life. It’s not clear who struck who at Embarcadero and Bay, but the point is moot. The scooter collided with a massive cement truck, the sort of cataclysmic transportation asymmetry now endangering lives and disrupting communities all over the world. The city bears some blame. It had been tragically slow to deal with the upsurge in e-scooters and e-bikes. Ironically, SF transportation bureaucrats were scheduled to meet just days later to discuss safety improvements — too little, too late for the elderly woman, who suffered life threatening injuries.
These days, eyes in the back of your head come in handy on the streets of San Francisco. Walking to a meeting recently, I dodged an e-skateboarder slaloming through the crowd, then pivoted again just in time to avoid being flattened by an oncoming scooter, followed closely by a near collision with a glowing red hoverboard and e-bike — just some of the tech-enabled vehicles competing for control of the sidewalk.
This is a fight with dramatic consequences for our cities.
Augmented pedestrians balancing on all manner of powered personal crafts rule the concrete footpaths to success in the world’s startup capital. My destination that day was the headquarters of Lime, a double unicorn that’s chasing global scale while upending the landscape of our cities one pedestrian walkway at a time.
As with any paradigm shift, there are skeptics on one side and true believers on the other. This is a fight with dramatic consequences for our cities. When and how micromobility ultimately morphs into a stable marketplace in the near future is an open question.
Is this a passing phase of urban millennial infatuation subsidized by venture capital billions, or are we witnessing a green revolution in transportation?
Lime started in bikes. A scant two years ago, they saw the spike in the adjacent e-scooter industry and jumped on board so fast and effectively that today they are far and away the world’s biggest e-scooter player in the U.S. and worldwide.
Bird, of Santa Monica, was first to market and got the early business press, but is now a distant second. Lime, in contrast, hit 50 million rides in April, doubling that figure to eclipse the vaunted 100-million mark in September, a benchmark achieved twice as fast as Uber.
But rapid growth has costs. This January 9, CEO and co-founder Brad Bao announced in a post that Lime was abandoning 12 markets, including giant cities like Sao Paulo, Rio De Janeiro, Buenos Aires, and Bogota in order to shift “our primary focus to profitability.” As Axios noted: “After two years of explosive growth, scooter companies have entered a new phase — survival of the fittest in a capital-intensive, money-losing industry.” Lime also laid off approximately 100 employees, or roughly 14% percent of its workforce, a fact I couldn’t help but notice. My email requesting final comments for this article from the nice communications manager who had worked for four years for another venture-backed transportation company before hopping onto the Lime train bounced. She, too, had gotten the axe.
Toby Sun is tall and athletic. Dressed in a colorful, sporty outfit, he looks and sounds like a confident tech co-founder. Sun was Lime’s original CEO, and swapped roles with Brad Bao this past May to focus on culture and future research. “I’m a big fan of people and culture… with those we’re going to make everything happen. Going through iterations of product, moving from bikes to e-bikes to scooters and now testing many things.”
While competitors talk about customers and users, Sun gushes that “we use community a lot as a term internally, because we know as the micromobility provider serving people, it’s not just the riders, it’s also the nonriders, the cities, the partners we work with.”
I pointed out the headlines the past two years scream a darker narrative. “‘Defective’ Lime Scooter Left Indianapolis Rider With Traumatic Brain Injury… Nashville Is Banning Electric Scooters After a Man Was Killed…Lisbon Battles Scourge of Electric Scooters Abandoned on Streets… An Electric Scooter Scourge Is Stalking Paris. Scooters Set on Fire, Thrown Into Ocean by People Fed Up With Clutter… San Francisco Smacks Down Scooter Startups Bird and Lime.”
Mayor London Breed is an unabashed e-scooter fan. “I like scooters,” she told the Examiner.“ You can ride ’em in a dress.”
And, of course, that poor woman on Bay Street represents a larger, disturbing trend. Between 2014 and 2018 there have been 39,000 known scooter related injuries nationwide, according to a new study by the University of California, San Francisco. Scooter-related injuries and hospital admissions soared by 222% during that period. Most troubling: one-third of these patients suffered head trauma, twice the rate typically sustained by bicyclists.
E-scooter usage has grown in part through convenience and ubiquity. Venture capital millions have made them readily available in many cities with an Uber-like experience: the app unlocks the scooter for a dollar or euro, and then it’s 15 cents a minute for what generally is just a one to two kilometer ride. If you live in a major city, you’ve seen it unfold — a full-on invasion fueled by profit-seeking VCs. Seizing upon a regulatory vacuum, operators tossed thousands of scooters at cities with a libertarian disdain for public safety (shoddy, early Chinese models featured defective brakes, steering failures, and toy-sized tires). Zuckerberg’s famous motto, “Move fast and break things,” comes to mind. Except the “things” breaking happened to be bones and communities.
Bird may have been the most brash, but Lime was a close second. When the company dumped scooters in San Francisco in June of 2018, they were almost immediately hit with a cease-and-desist order for operating without a permit. Lime sued, but not before losing out on the city’s year-long pilot program, launched with two smaller providers. After Lime’s appeal, San Francisco’s Municipal Transportation Agency put forth a competitive bid process for scooter operators, with criteria ranging from safety to sustainability to hiring and community engagement.
All seems forgiven today. This October, Lime, Bird, Scoot, and Spin won permits to operate 1,000 units each in San Francisco, with a potential expansion to 2,500 per company if they play nice. Mayor London Breed is an unabashed e-scooter fan. “I like scooters,” she told the Examiner. “You can ride ’em in a dress.”
What about those horrendous headlines chronicling the bellicose behavior of so many e-scooter startups assaulting cities? That was pre-pivot. Lime has changed. “We always take a collaborative approach,” Sun asserts, and points to signs that Lime’s new stance is delivering key results: permits to operate. “At the beginning, when we talked with 10 cities, maybe only two were saying an immediate yes.
Now, probably seven to eight have immediate, strong interest or are working on some regulations. New York, Tokyo, and London “might take a little more time,” Sun calmly adds. “But if you look at the number of markets we’re in now, over 30 countries, over a hundred markets. That’s a huge number.” It’s also a number that appears to have declined as Lime has retreated from at least four countries — Brazil, Argentina, Peru, and Colombia. Bao explained why to Marker: “While our focus on growth gave us the necessary scale and cemented our position as the market leader in micromobility, we have shifted our focus over the last few months from growth and expansion to profitability and building a durable, long-term business.”
It’s all riding on data
Data gained from tracking usage patterns to predict when and where to place scooters may be one of Lime’s competitive advantages. Says Bao: “We take data seriously in terms of how to enable the city to build trust and to help them do better urban planning. Everything that we share is anonymous so that they can use aggregated data to know, ‘Hey, which street is getting more ridership?’ to potentially build more bike lanes, scooter lanes, or parking.” Lime is leveraging its analysis of riding patterns with the city of Austin to help determine where to locate new mobility lanes. Similarly, it has helped Santa Monica decide where to place more than a hundred parking corrals. Lime has also joined the Remix standardized data platform to “help cities manage shared bike and scooter vehicles and understand demand, trip patterns, and utilization.”
Raising funding for micromobility firms is getting far harder (with lowered valuations) in a business where multiple players hold contracts.
Lime claims another advantage — it bakes its own bread, unlike many competitors who have relied on cheap Chinese scooters plagued with safety and reliability issues. “From day one, we’ve been manufacturing the bike, the scooter, and e-bike with our OEM partners,” he says. “Because we own the quality of our vehicles, we own the experience of the product.”
Sun has clearly laid out some of the operational rationales underlying why Lime may one day prosper… but then again even before this January’s layoffs his company was projected to lose $300 million in 2019 on just $420 million in gross revenue.
Given that harsh reality, it’s only natural that Lime would focus more on profitable markets and “achieving financial independence.” Raising funding for micromobility firms is getting far harder (with lowered valuations) in a business where multiple players hold contracts. Both Bird and Lyft laid off staff dedicated to micromobility last year. This past December, e-scooter startup Unicorn shut down without issuing refunds for what turned out to be a phantom scooter. CEO Nick Evans blamed pricey Facebook ads — and the weather. “Unfortunately… the ads were just too expensive to build a sustainable business,” he wrote in a final email. “And as the weather continued to get colder throughout the U.S. and more scooters from other companies came on the market, it became harder and harder to sell Unicorns…”
It’s worth pausing a beat and taking in what a sea change this has been. During the giddy e-scooter boom of 2018, Silicon Valley VCs couldn’t throw millions at the sector fast enough. That was the year Lime raised over $400 million in its series B and C rounds, including major contributions by Andreessen Horowitz (a backer since seed stage), Google Ventures, Uber, and others. Then competitor Bird shocked investors by reporting a loss of $100 million in the first quarter of 2019. Lime was lucky to raise another $310 million this February, bringing its valuation to $2.5 billion. Just in time. Last spring, the IPO belly flops of Uber and Lyft spilled more doubt onto other ride-sharing models.
In June, TechCrunch’s Kate Clark wrote in Startups Weekly: “The scooter cash desert” that “investors are more aware of the steep costs of building and scaling these hardware-heavy businesses.” Sarah Smith of Bain Capital, a Lime investor, told FreightWaves that sharing economy trends and a “near vertical demand curve” led it to invest. “But it’s certainly a risk,” she acknowledged. “You have a physical fleet on the street; are cities going to invest in this? There are a lot of questions.” Nor should it be eye-opening that e-scootering is far from a 365-day-a-year business, and that many cities are inhospitable to the highly exposed transport mode during the winter months.
Joe Kraus, Lime’s President, (Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story had his title as COO; he was recently promoted to president.) is my next interview and there’s a break, so I tour Lime’s bright, clean offices and can’t help but notice… how few people seem to be working here. Downstairs my friendly PR handler shows me several Lime scooters available for staff to take out. She offers me a gift — a cool collapsible helmet, one of the 250,000 Lime says it’s giving out free to promote safety. I remember a friend who collects trivia and artifacts from overvalued startups gone bust. Who has the extra cash to give away a quarter million helmets?
Kraus breezes into the meeting room, sporting the ponytail and mojo of a man who’s hit it big. Veteran general partner at Alphabet’s venture arm, Google Ventures, and co-founder of Excite, an early internet search engine, Kraus knows how to sniff out potential hits and he’s not afraid to go all in. He put his own cash and GV’s into Lime in June of 2018 and later that year took on the role of COO. He was excited by the growth and the trends, he told Recode’s Kara Swisher, thrilled by “the smile Lime riders would have on their face when they took off on one of these scooters. I argued that this is the closest thing humanity has devised to a magic carpet.”
Kraus is blunt about why Lime is onto something big with shared e-scooters.
“Product market fit,” he declares. “Your top bike sharer has been around for a while, and it’s been marginally successful in a couple of cities and mostly unsuccessful in other cities.” Kraus ticks off why. Docking is not helpful “because the density of docking stations” is poor. “The last mile is about convenience. People want to start where they are and go where they want to go.”
The e-scooter business is still a highly fragmented physical transportation business. Some markets scale and others suck.
He’s got another argument that plays right into what Derek Thompson of the Atlantic recently dubbed the “millennial lifestyle sponsorship.” E-scooters are extra popular because they propel you without personal effort. “Pedal bikes require people to sweat… People just want to spend less energy per unit of movement for better or worse,” Kraus asserts. “I don’t make a judgement. It’s observable.”
Kraus goes on to argue that there’s another, more subtle reason for the vehicle’s popularity. The e-scooter “form factor is far more handleable than bikes. You don’t have to throw your leg over it. Adjust a seat. Pedal.” Lime, in other words, is investing in laziness.
Despite Lime’s recent scalebacks, e-scooters are ubiquitous in many cities. The company also claims to have “won 88% of the international RFPs” for permits it has sought since May. “Cities want a reliable supplier that’s going to meet the promises they say they’re going to make,” says Kraus, and size matters. “We’re two times bigger than pretty much everybody else in the business. Weekly average users. I feel good because we were not the first in this business and we’ve managed, over the course of 18 months, to come from behind to now double the size of anybody else.”
These stats now carry an asterisk. The costs of rapid growth in this new, unproven business are only now becoming clear. Still, Kraus notes that unlike Uber, Lime doesn’t pay drivers. “You have the cost of the scooter, but that’s a fixed cost that does depreciate, whereas the driver is often a variable cost component. Economically speaking there’s just more power when you have fixed costs… You also benefit from data. We’re profitable already in the vast majority of cities in which we operate. And we see evidence of scale benefits. As you get bigger you get more ability to make a greater profit.”
It’s an investment thesis that has yet to prove out on the bottom line. The e-scooter business is still a highly fragmented physical transportation business. Some markets scale and others suck.
Lime has provided few public details for why it abandoned so many potentially lucrative regions. It was a decision based on judging “where micromobility has evolved more slowly and where we do not believe there is a clear path to profitability,” Bao told Marker after it exited several cities. “Many different factors like local regulation and market maturity have contributed to us making this hard decision.”
This service is so novel that nobody really knows the costs. Are they truly as “fixed” as Kraus suggested? What about the cost of scooters that wear out in a few months? The cost of shuttling them around cities? Running a regulated business? Gone are the anything goes prototyping days. Today cities are demanding that operators pay for docking, bike and scooter lanes, and more.
Lime spent untold millions, yet was caught flat-footed when hooligans tossed hundreds of their scooters in the sea.
Unpredictable, city-imposed restrictions are posing a business model Russian roulette. England, for example, has taken a tough stance against e-scooters riding on public roads, pavements, or cycle lanes. Then there’s sunny San Diego — seemingly made for scooters — which Lime just departed in January. Strict new designated parking zone requirements, and geofencing within certain areas that clamps speeds to the walking pace of three mph (down from 15 mph) are stifling demand, down 50% since the summer. An isolated case? Or something more worrisome? Now that the willy-nilly dumping of scooters on cities is verboten, might e-scooter usage sag?
The political challenges alone are a snake pit. The recent catastrophe of Marseilles must trouble investors. Lime spent untold millions, yet was caught flat-footed when hooligans tossed hundreds of their scooters in the sea (an unmitigated environmental disaster Lime was slow to combat). Result? Lime failed to win a permit in one of France’s biggest cities when it balked at forking over hefty operating fees to Marseilles.
Not long after interviewing Kraus and Sun, I flew to Europe to see how Lime’s grand game plan of global domination is unfolding. My arrival in Paris coincided with Halloween, where drunken e-scootering revelers in full costume commandeered the sidewalks, frequently two to a scooter. Strolling around this beautiful city, especially at night, I encountered even more random scooter revelers and hundreds of scooters dumped on sidewalks like garbage.
Over the next week, I see firsthand that few French riders bother with traffic rules. Young men go “scootering” in packs like wolves, gleefully weaving through pedestrians, and more than once I am nearly struck in the middle of a crosswalk by a Limer slicing through the dozen crossing Parisians.
Back in the spring, Paris’s Mayor said enough and tweeted, “Les trottoirs, c’est uniquement pour les piétons! Désormais, une personne roulant en trottinette électrique dessus s’expose à une amende de 135€.” (Sidewalks are only for pedestrians! From now on, anyone riding an e-scooter on one risks a fine of 135 Euros.) For a bit, police swept down and gave a flurry of tickets for scootering on the sidewalks, but as far as I saw in late October, there’s little evidence of continued enforcement.
Geofencing the Seine has greatly reduced the number of drunks tossing scooters into the river.
Yet, for all the headlines, the streets and boulevards of Paris continue to roar with the fury of tens of thousands of traditional motorcycles, seated scooters, and old-fashioned bikes and e-bikes. This is today’s de facto micromobility in Paris (over 460,000 motorcycles and traditional scooters are registered in France, the majority of them in Paris and Nice). These seated two- or three-wheelers race about in the streets or in the abundant bike lanes, while the much-ballyhooed invasion of e-scooters is puny in comparison, roughly just 15,000 total units.
You wouldn’t know that talking to Arthur-Louis Jacquier, General Manager of Lime in France. “Today, Paris is one of our biggest markets globally,” he proudly tells me. “In 16 months, we’ve made more than 16 million trips. Lime Paris went from being a cool startup with an innovative project mid last year to now being a mass transport company.” An independent firm recently determined that 1% of the total trips in Paris on all vehicles or transport are on Lime scooters. One in 10 Parisians scoot, according to Lime, and one in four intend to.
Jacquier argues the lawless phase of scootering is coming to an end, noting that Lime has taken a number of tangible steps. Geofencing the Seine has greatly reduced the number of drunks tossing scooters into the river. The Lime Academy teaches safe riding and community friendly habits twice every Saturday at the Place Saint-Gervais in the 4th arrondissement. A 50-person “foot patrol” promote responsible and safe scooter riding, use, and parking. And perhaps most importantly, given the wear and tear urban street riding has on scooters, Jacquier tells me that Lime works around-the-clock to repair and recycle scooters, with a team of 380 people in the outskirts of Paris.
Jacquier, like so many I’ve encountered at Lime, is a true believer. But you have to wonder how much of this is standard startup fervor propped up by cash and greenwashing. Billions in funding has backed wild ideas that don’t prove out — from the fraudulent (Theranos and WeWork) to the scandalously inane (Juicero).
Yes, scooter sharing is hot but is Lime simply the latest sort of tech company cramming a square peg into a round hole? The environmental mantra feels forced. Consider Lime’s oft-quoted tagline, declaring its mission of “helping people move around their cities in an affordable and convenient way while eliminating their carbon footprint.” The word choice is brazen. The word “eliminate” means to “completely remove.” E-scootering requires electricity — electricity that is potentially adding to your carbon footprint, especially if your shared scooter is “eliminating” your carbon-free walking. Or your efficient bus or metro ride.
The data is mixed. Lime touts studies suggesting 25% of e-scooter rides replaced a car trip. This August, Are e-scooters polluters? The environmental impacts of shared dockless electric scooters, a study by North Carolina State University, rocked the industry’s green stance. Researchers examined the e-scooter life cycle, from production to manufacture, shipping from China, and charging and redistributing. E-scootering, their independent survey found, was simply replacing biking or walking an astonishing 49% of the time. “E-scooter companies tout themselves as having little or no carbon footprint, which is a bold statement,” said professor and study author Jeremiah Johnson. “Biking — even with an electric bike — is almost always more environmentally friendly than using a shared e-scooter.”
One sign read, “Scooters don’t replace cars. They motorize walking trips.”
Lime works to reduce its carbon emissions by buying renewable energy or certified Renewable Energy Certificates. Positive steps, yet undercut by recent studies, such as one from Sally Benson of Stanford University’s Precourt Institute for Energy, who says that “to guarantee 100% emissions reductions from renewable energy, power consumption needs to be matched with renewable generation on an hourly basis.”
As to the carbon cost of operations, Lime’s green initiative is committed to eventually fielding an all-electric operations fleet, and the company will introduce what it calls “carbon-free cargo bikes” to reduce operational impacts. By supposedly replacing car trips with scooter rides, Lime claims to have prevented over 25 million miles of car travel. Lime is also the only scooter company “integrating with Google Maps and the Uber app, which easily allows users to see how they can incorporate a scooter into their trip instead of a car.”
France will severely test Lime’s environmental commitment and pose a huge international test-market for the entire industry. On November 20, the French Parliament passed a new law to provide a clearer framework for cities to procure e-scooter operators on public roads. “The market will become more structured and predictable,” says Philippe Rapin, CEO of Urban Radar, which provides a micromobility data visualization platform for cities, including Versailles.
“Lime has a fantastic reputation but is facing newcomers that innovate fast.” And he adds that France is now hip to the “whole-life environmental cost of the e-scooter life: from construction to operation to end of life. Is it actually less polluting than a car? Battery charging, battery recycling, deployment of fleets and rebalancing, lake and river pollution — all have an environmental cost.”
Interestingly, Rapin cites the other major question his company is asked by cities: “‘Are e-scooters an alternative to cars or walking?’ If it’s the latter, it is counterproductive to their goals.” This October, protestors at the Paris Extinction Rebellion gathered up a huge pile of the latest models of e-scooters cluttering the streets, denouncing them as pointless pollution. One sign read, “Scooters don’t replace cars. They motorize walking trips.”
Environmental questions aside, the jury is out on whether usage will continue climbing astronomically. Standing scooters are not, as Kraus breathlessly suggested, some new “magic carpet.” The Autoped, a gasoline powered scooter, launched in the U.S. during World War I. Hot with suffragettes and the elite, ad copy emphasized the freedom and mobility it provided, especially for women: “Look out for the Autoped girl.” There was even a battery powered version. But the fad came and fizzled like the yo-yo or rollerblades. Who really knows what will happen this time — a century later?
‘The oil of the 21st century.’
For the contrarian view, I arrive one evening at the imperial Hotel de Ville (city hall), for an interview. Pascal Julien is an elected member of the ecologist party. His wild mop of hair and thick mustache lend him a striking resemblance to Mark Twain. Though his English is good, he’s brought his American translator and two members of his team.
He begins in a scholarly tone. “Today, the big idea in the newspapers, in the politic, is that the ecology crisis has an answer, the electric model. We will live tomorrow like today, but with electric engines.”
“It’s a false belief,” he snorts. “The natural resources that are needed to manufacture the models and batteries are limited, just as oil is limited.” He cites the rare minerals core to the batteries. “The oil of the 21st century.”
“Infinite growth is a myth,” says Julien. “The myth has a name. Green growth.”
Then he tells how, if not for a foolish previous Parisian mayor, ordinary bikes might today be all the rage. A story that underscores the local, quirky reality of micromobility, where the divergence of individual cities is the wild card.
“It’s a scooter rodeo in the street.”
More than a decade ago, Julien says, he was subscriber #20 to Vélib’, the bike operator which came to Paris in July of 2007. By 2014, roughly 18,000 of Vélib’ bikes achieved more than 100,000 rides a day (that’s 36 million rides a year, a far faster adoption rate than Lime’s). The program was a huge success — without electricity. Then a new mayor chose an unproven operator promising the future — 30% of the bikes would be electric. “It was a catastrophe,” says Julien. “The electricity to charge the bikes stopped working. The docking stations didn’t work. Vélib’ had a system in place that was so successful, it worked great, and then they changed the system and it was a disaster.”
That disaster set the stage for the 2018 to 2019 Paris scooter invasion. “So taking advantage of these difficulties private operators launched thousands and thousands of e-scooters and free floating bikes.” Paris’s mayor dubbed it “the anarchy of scooters.” By the summer of 2019, a dozen companies were competing for a share of the market, with a combined fleet of 20,000. Recalls Julien: “Scooters ride anywhere. On the sidewalks. With two or three people on the scooter. It’s a scooter rodeo in the street.”
One evening, the 65-year-old grabbed a scooter as an experiment, and conceded its appeal. “It was like a game. One night with my wife, we wanted to go to the movies, but we were late. “I said, ‘Come with me!’ and the two of us were riding on the sidewalk… and it’s very fun.”
Essential and environmental? Not so much. Jean-Pierre Orfeuil, an engineer who specializes in urban mobility, told a local French publication, “Generally speaking, those who are using these new means of transport are people who used to use the Metro. So e-scooters haven’t played a role in easing the traffic.” Julien agrees: “It’s problematic. Research shows e-scooters are taken for pleasure, not work. E-scooters are not in competition with the other modes of transport. With scooters, we are the same number of cars, the same number of bikes, the same number of bus and metro rides.”
Julien is ruminating, struggling for the right words. He blurts it out in French: “Pieton augmenté.”
His colleague explains: “An e-scooter rider is an ‘increased pedestrian.’ Meaning it’s taking up pedestrian space. Because an e-scooter is like a big pedestrian. A supersized pedestrian.”
Julien nailed the quandary. E-scooters compete with humans. “Supersized pedestrians” render ordinary humans small.
An Uber drops me in an industrial banlieue south of Paris before a green metal gate with a sign reading “Limebase.” I give my name to a security guard, and am immediately met by an intense, wiry man with black hair that matches his puffy parka. We enter the side door of a large corrugated steel warehouse. Nassim Redjem may seem insignificant, his title modest: Mechanic Manager, Paris, France. But in the next couple of hours, he will afford me a new sense of whether Lime can pull off its grand plan.
“We only got this warehouse a year ago,” he says, waving toward the cavernous space. “It was empty. Absolutely no infrastructure inside. We had to create everything from scratch, from the way we repair scooters, to how we get the scooters back on the streets.”
It’s an example of the very sort of seat-of-your-pants moxie that reflects Lime’s massive global task — to invent a new system architecture for micromobility. Nassim himself was a newbie. Six months ago, he knew next to nothing about repairing e-scooters. But for years he’d toiled for another fruit-named tech firm — managing dozens of technicians at Paris’s opulent Apple Opera Genius Bar.
Now, as we enter the warehouse, one wall featuring a giant rendition of the green Lime logo, I take in Nassim’s ode to micromobility. To our right, two long aisles of scooters plugged into charging stations, and before us, waves of scooters in rows, several hundred of them, a sea of green, black, and white. Motion and a cacophony of mechanical sounds are constant: the ebb and flow of men tinkering with scooters, the brief dance, as they hop on for a test cruise before the denouement, delivery squads intently packing dozens of scooters, sardine-like, into a van to head back to Paris.
There’s a carefully designed choreography unfolding here around-the-clock. These “diagnosers,” donning blue-and-yellow vests, make a quick evaluation of each incoming scooter, determining not just what needs to be fixed, but separating out the 85% or so of them that are more straightforward repairs for the roughly 50 mechanics on duty.
The men in blue are busily repairing scooters — tightening brakes, adjusting kick stands, replacing fenders and wheels — with a Tayloristic efficiency. “Every mechanic in blue has one table,” Nassim proudly explains of the dozens of French North Africans arrayed before us, who earn 11€ to 13€ an hour. “One toolbox, one charger, and one seat if he wants to work seated. He has everything he needs to fix the scooter within 15 minutes.”
Three of these men work before us, a scene that might inspire a Diego Rivera canvas. There’s a rhythm at play, as the men swing hammers, tighten screws, and wield pliers, performing triage on the casualties. Ten or 12 minutes later, all the pieces miraculously come back together, and they gracefully step on for a final test swing around the warehouse
“We want every scooter to be fixed within 15 minutes,” emphasizes Nassim with the sort of gravity and authority that announces this is a strict Lime policy. “Because if we don’t do that, we wouldn’t have the space to move around.” This is a sophisticated 24/7 operation drawing upon three teams of 50 to 60 mechanics, each working eight-hour shifts, each repairing 20 to 25 scooters during a shift (while dozens of other laborers confront the tedious burden of sorting through and recycling spent scooter parts).
Lime, Nassim says, essentially “created this new micromobility job” developing a week of training before they start, and his eyes light up as he compares his mechanics’ skills to soldiers’ ability to rapidly disassemble their weapons and put them back together. He smiles: “I’m proud to say most of my workers can fix a scooter with closed eyes.”
Upstairs, the Lime models are lined up on green artificial turf along a wall, from slim to sturdy. Cobblestones wreak havoc on scooters in Paris and other European cities, explains Nassim, “So we improved that by making this new one that has a new fork with double suspension.” Heavier and sturdier than the flimsy models you’re accustomed to seeing or riding, this model is the SUV of e-scooters — more stable, yet actually more efficient. The bigger radius of the wheels, along with improving safety for riders, increases energy efficiency, and with an improved battery, can go 50km on a charge — a 15km to 20 km improvement in range.
More innovation is coming, notes Nassim, pointing to the heavy-duty X model being tested in Paris and other cities. The battery can be swapped out in the street, eliminating the time and environmental waste of retrieving and recharging scooters. “This will be a game changer,” asserts Nassim, a man who clearly believes he’s playing a part in the next big evolution in micromobility. “We’re on the edge of a new way of transportation.”
Who knows? Lime might be onto something. Or as Julien suggested a few nights before I left the Hotel de Ville, perhaps this is simply our latest electrically charged dalliance. “I have a proposition,” he brightened, leaning in. “Why not propose a scooter with a pedal, a mechanical scooter where you move it yourself?”
It’s not a fantasy, as Julien excitedly showed me on his smartphone on Amazon. “When I was young, I rode that. You go very quick, more quickly than walking. Maybe 10 kilometers per hour with the pedal. It could be a good answer to the supersized pedestrian — drive a mechanical scooter with a pump.”
Except for one problem. There’s no electricity. The investors would have to find a new way to make money off of it.