Despite early growing pains, the popularity of municipal electric scooter programs in Canada is surging. As one of the leading operators, Bird Canada — whose users logged over a million trips in 2021 — is banking on more of the same this year
In 12 months, electric scooters have been transformed from novelty items to integral modes of transportation in some Canadian cities. Last month, one of the country’s leading providers of e-scooters, Bird Canada, announced it had registered over 1.3 million trips taken on its e-scooters in 2021 — more than doubling the trips made in 2019 and 2020 combined.
Bird Canada has deployed e-scooter and bike-share pilot programs in Ottawa, Windsor, Kelowna, Calgary, Edmonton, Okotoks, Red Deer and St. Albert. The company says there were more than 200,000 unique Bird riders in 2021 and a combined distance travelled of more than 2.9 million kilometres across all eight cities.
Compared to year-over-year numbers from 2020, the company saw a 187 per cent increase in the number of trips taken in Calgary, a 52 per cent increase in Ottawa and a 78 per cent increase in trips in Edmonton.
Now it plans to expand into 12 additional jurisdictions in 2022.
Part of the landscape
For Bird Canada’s CEO, Stewart Lyons, the boost in the number of trips taken in 2021 is a significant sign that micro-mobility vehicles are becoming “a part of the landscape of cities.” The hope is that as people embrace the mobility option, the e-scooters and bikes will replace combustion engine trips with electric trips and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
“If you look at the 1.3 million rides and that most cities report that 40 per cent of the time someone taking an electric scooter would have taken a vehicle, you’re then looking at approximately half a million car trips that weren’t taken as a result of those 1.3 million scooter trips,” says Lyons in an interview with Electric Autonomy Canada.
The company says Bird Canada riders saved around 147,000 litres of gas and prevented around 800 metric tonnes of CO2 emissions in 2021.
“I truly believe this is the single easiest thing a city could do to reduce motor vehicle trips in short order. I don’t really know of a lot of other things that a city can do, without spending any of their own money, where they could kind of wave a magic wand and several 100,000 motor vehicle trips just disappear from their streets,” says Lyons.
Most still in pilot phase
Yet despite all this activity, Raktim Mitra, associate professor at Ryerson University’s school of urban and regional planning, says it’s still too early to know if the e-scooter market trend is here to stay.
“It’s hard to say what’s happening in Canada because, in most places where e-scooters exist in the Canadian context, they’re still in their pilot phases,” says Mitra. (Bird launched its pilot program in 2019, with Calgary as the first city to host Bird e-scooters).
That being said, he acknowledges that data from both the U.S. and Europe shows that e-scooters are becoming more popular than bike-share systems, due to how easy it is to ride them without any training.
Lyons estimates the reason behind Bird Canada’s significant increase in trips taken last year on e-scooters has something to do with the ongoing pandemic: people who are uncomfortable taking a crowded bus or participating in ride-share programs such as Uber may be more likely to switch to a more independent form of transport.
Another part of e-scooter’s rising star, Lyons believes, is the growing acceptance of scooters in cities as a practical and viable mode of transport.
A study conducted by the University of British Columbia’s school of engineering looking into the demand for shared e-scooters in Kelowna, B.C., in 2019 found that e-scooters were very popular for recreational travel by residents and tourists.
However, one of the findings from the study, says Mahmudur Fatmi, assistant professor
at the school of engineering at UBC and one of the study researchers, shows that in areas where there is a high mixture of residential, commercial, industrial and destination locations (such as a downtown urban area) demand for e-scooters is higher.
“This might indicate that folks who are residing in those areas might be using it more so there might be the opportunity to make a shift from it being recreational to more a commuter mode of transport,” says Fatmi.
“It might also be useful for first- and last-mile travel [and] a good solution for folks that might be going for coffee breaks or maybe going for work-related meetings. So, there are opportunities for translating e-scooters from a recreational to a more mainstream mode for shorter travel.”
Big expansion plans
In the year ahead, Bird Canada expects to see a dozen cities across the country launch scooter programs, with Richmond, B.C. starting its program soon, as well as a number in Ontario. Cities usually begin by piloting the scooter program for a year or two, says Lyons, before adopting it as a more full-time program.
Notably, Bird Canada scooters have been absent in some of the bigger — and often time “green-friendly” — cities in Canada such as Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver. But all that may be about to change.
In Montreal, the city banned all e-scooter rental services following a year-long pilot program using Bird and Lime electric scooters in 2019. At the time, city officials said the scooters led to safety issues and created mobility problems for other road users, while docking rules were disrespected by scooter operators.
“We’ve been talking to Montreal [officials] ever since,” says Lyons. “We’re pretty optimistic that scooters will come back relatively soon in Montreal because it makes a lot of sense given the effort and the energy the city put into expanding its bike lane infrastructure. Not to mention the technology has changed so much since 2019 that we can pretty much address all the concerns the city has or had at the time. So there’s really no reason for them not to move forward with the scooter program, so we think we’ll move forward hopefully this summer.”
Similarly, in Toronto, the city council voted against granting Lyons’ company permission to run a pilot in 2021 due to safety and accessibility concerns. At the time, Bird Canada released a statement opposing the decision, saying that it “flies in the face” of research into micro-mobility vehicles, with the city ignoring positive data and results from other jurisdictions that have participated in the program.
Lyons says Toronto’s ban on electric scooters won’t likely be permanent, while in Vancouver, he says, the city already allows private scooters to operate and is confident that permission for public scooters will be allowed in “fairly short order.”
Equitability and economic sustainability
Ryerson’s Mitra says that as a micro-mobility option, shared e-scooters systems have the strong potential to “contribute meaningfully to Canada’s transportation system” — but only if municipalities plan for them in “smart” and “better” ways.
Two concerns municipalities need to focus on is making access to e-scooters equitable and economically sustainable.
Addressing the first requires making them available to lower-income families and neighbourhoods.
“For the sake of equity, we need to have X per cent of e-scooters to be deployed in low-income neighbourhoods,” says Mitra. “Or they could say that X proportion of e-scooters should be deployed near transit stops so that they can then be used for connections to transit.”
Appropriate regulations are also needed to ensure economic sustainability, he adds.
“When you have a municipality and no regulations around the transportation mode, e-scooter companies can get into the market [and] everyone tries to compete with each other,” says Mitra. “At the end of the day, none of them become financially sustainable so that’s another thing that cities have to think about. They have to guesstimate demand, evaluate them year-over-year and based on that determine the optimum number of e-scooters on their streets.”
In the end, however, the future as Lyons sees it is clear: “[The program] is growing exponentially and I think it’s inevitable that within another couple years, every city including Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver — all the big cities — will have scooter programs.”