Will Segway Be the New Citi Bike?
There’s a new contender in the fight against the dreaded “last-mile” issue facing cities. Once you park your car, exit a subway station, or alight from your Lyft, you still need to walk to your destination — and it’s often further than most want to schlep on foot.
Previously, one approach to closing that gap has been bike-rental programs like New York’s Citi Bike or London’s Santander Cycles, with their ubiquitous bicycle stations and wallet-friendly rates. Now, Segway — the company whose “self-balancing” motorized vehicles have often been objects of ridicule — wants in on the action.
Segway acquired “e-scooter” brand CityGo last year and is planning to launch its own worldwide “electric scooter commuter network” in 2018. The scooters, developed through an Indiegogo funding campaign, have a range of about 12 miles, and can travel as fast as 15 mph. Itself acquired by China’s Ninebot in 2015, Segway announced the program, dubbed CityGo Last Mile System, at Frankfurt’s International Motor Show in September.
So why take your travels upright? “There are a few advantages over bike-sharing systems,” said Tony Ho, Segway’s vice president for global business development. “The scooters are super-compact. Compared to a bike, they don’t take up much space; you can store four or five scooters in the same footprint,” Ho said. Plus, scooters can travel where bikes can’t. “These are easier to take on the subway, for example, because they’re smaller,” Ho said. Segway also plans to build a GPS system into its CityGo scooters, taking the guesswork out of finding your final destination.
Meanwhile, bike-sharing systems have become urban fixtures worldwide since 2005, when French advertising giant JC Decaux launched Cyclocity in Lyon. Montreal’s Bixi became North America's first large-scale bike-sharing program when it made its debut in 2009. Now popular from Berlin to Boulder to Beijing, shared-bicycle networks have changed how urban commuters get from A to B.
Ho said Segway has been obsessed with the “last-mile” challenge since the company’s founding, when it was a hush-hush initiative known as Project Ginger. “From the very beginning, at the turn of the century, [inventor] Dean Kamen meant to resolve urban congestion with a smaller footprint. Segway itself was designed to revolutionize [the] last mile of travel,” Ho said.
The scooter network aims to be cheaper to operate — and far more efficient — than bike-rental systems. Ho told TPG that European cities are on the company’s target list as early-adopters, though none have been approached. “We’d be looking at public-private partnerships, some kind of venture-backed operation, or public funding. But we want cities to get involved,” Ho said.
At least one transportation guru thinks the idea might have wheels. “Large cities succeed best with multiple transportation options,” said Sarah Kaufman, assistant director of New York University’s Rudin Center for Transportation, which explores transportation and infrastructure in cities.
There’s also room for Segway to learn from Citi Bike’s mistakes. “When Citi Bike launched in New York, the main opposition was not to the bike itself, but aesthetics — the advertising for Citibank that went all over the city. If the scooter network were providing something without explicit branding, it’s more likely to be fairly received,” Kaufman said. Segway’s proposed system could also become a perk for apartment and office buildings to lure tenants, Kaufman added.
Kaufman seemed surprised, however, that Ho said he has yet to consult any policy wonks, academics, or even government transportation czars about the CityGo "Last Mile" system. “I think Segway would certainly gain a lot by consulting with experts in the field, particularly people who know the specifics within each city,” she told TPG. “They’d have a pretty good idea of where their city’s going to be going in five or ten years. That’s the kind of population Segway should tap rather than going on market assumptions. And if they’re planning a dispersed network, they’ll need to work with power companies, departments of transportation and community boards.”
Could scooters replace bikes altogether? Kaufman says no, but that “there’s potential for them to co-exist.”
Ho seemed to agree. “We are ambitious, but realistic,” Ho said. “Supplementing bikes seems to be the best approach right now. We’ll let the customer pick.”