Does COVID-19 spell the end of the bike-sharing boom?

Uber Lime

As COVID-19 wreaks havoc on economies all over the world, there are many businesses seriously feeling the effects, and taking extreme measures to try to survive.

But there’s one trend in particular that’s been on the up and up for the past few years — in success, if not popularity — that may well be grinding to an unceremonious halt.

Bike-sharing hasn’t always had the most welcoming reception in Australia. In Melbourne, in particular, people displayed outright contempt for the whole concept, railing furiously against the bikes that clogged up walkways, or found their way up trees and into the river.

Uber thought it might be the provider to win the city over with its red Jump bikes. For a while, the CBD did play host to those particular dockless e-bikes dotted about.

By for a while, I mean for a grand total of three weeks and one day.

The service launched it’s shiny new bike-sharing arm in Melbourne on March 4. On March 26, Uber announced it was “temporarily pausing” the service, because of concerns about the spread of COVID-19.

It also pulled the plug on its bright red bikes in Adelaide, Auckland and Wellington.

I’m no accountant, but I imagine such a non-start in a new market would be bad for business. I doubt Uber’s return on investment here so far is quite what it had in mind.

But, it’s indicative of a broader crash in the bike- and scooter-sharing space.

Shared scooter startup Lime has paused its services in every market except South Korea, while an emergency funding round will reportedly see its valuation drop by a massive 80%.

Its most recent funding round valued Lime at US$2.4 billion. The latest round is expected to value it at just US$400 million, meaning it will surrender its unicorn status and then some.

Bird, which usually operates a scooter-sharing service in more than 100 countries around the world, has also reportedly laid off more than 400 employees — about 30% of its workforce.

In Australia, Ride scooters has confirmed it has ceased operations in Adelaide. But the business hasn’t responded to questions about what this means for its ongoing business and future operations.

On the other hand, while bike- and scooter-sharing operators are going into hibernation everywhere else, in the US, they seem to be hanging on. Or at least, they’re trying to.

According to The Verge, Uber competitor Lyft is offering discounted trips and free one-month memberships for hospital workers, first responders, transport employees and other workers involved in combating the virus, in New York, Boston and Chicago.

Minnesota’s Nice Ride, which is also operated by Lyft, actually pulled its bikes, and then reintroduced them last week with a free membership offering for health care workers.

The idea here is that for those who do still have to travel, grabbing a bike could be more hygienic than braving public transport (the business is promising each bike is disinfected after each ride).

But, there’s no word yet on how many people are taking Lyft up on its offer, or what it means for its bottom line.

Of course, both Uber and Lyft both have their original ride-sharing arms to fall back on. And both are now offering meal and package delivery, in a bid to support (and, ahem, make money from) customers no longer booking a ride to the pub.

Whether that’s enough to protect them in this downturn remains to be seen.

We don’t know how long the COVID-19 lockdown is going to go on. When it’s over, we don’t know when sharing last-mile mobility solutions will still seem appealing to a more germ-phobic general public.

And even if the demand is still there, there’s no guarantee the pioneers in this space will be around to meet it.

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