It’s the calm before the storm in Canada’s e-scooter wars.
In Montreal, Edmonton and Calgary, the controversial devices are off the streets for the winter. But come spring, many more Canadian cities are likely to see them on their streets.
Ontario, Quebec, Alberta, British Columbia and Nova Scotia are all considering permitting the widespread use of e-scooters — and if they do, Stewart Lyons, CEO of Bird Canada, will be ready.
In June, The Logic broke the news that the franchise of one of the world’s largest e-scooter companies was coming to Canada. Bird has since put scooters on the ground in three cities. But its rollout hasn’t been smooth.
Lyons has clashed with Toronto Mayor John Tory and Edmonton Mayor Don Iveson. Prominent disability rights groups and emergency room doctors have sounded the alarm about a mass rollout of scooters. Meanwhile, Bird is facing competitive pressures from Lime, Uber subsidiary Jump and Ford-backed Skip, along with a number of other firms.
Lyons told The Logic he isn’t concerned about any of that. In an exclusive interview, he discussed Bird’s many critics, revealed the cities he wants to put scooters in next and made a pitch for why municipalities should do business with him instead of his rivals.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
It’s been about five months since Bird Canada announced its launch. How are you feeling so far?
Great. A lot of things exceeded our expectations. This is a new business for Canada. The first thing you wonder is, ‘OK, will people really use these things in large numbers?’ When they finally shut down operations in Calgary, there were over 700,000-something rides, which is pretty crazy. The population of that city is 1.3 million. Now, obviously, people ride them more than once. But close to 15 per cent of the population went on a scooter at some point this summer.
I’ve heard from the Ontario government that regulations permitting scooters are coming very, very soon. How are things going for Bird in Canada’s biggest province?
So far, so good. We are expecting those regulations anytime. I was in Ottawa a couple weeks ago. I will say that Ottawa is an amazing city for scooters. St. Catharines has approached us, Brampton’s approached me. Mississauga is another one we would talk to. There’s a lot of campuses we’re talking to.
Most of Canada could be open to scooters come spring. How many cities do you want to be in by then?
We’re already in Calgary, Edmonton and Montreal. We’d like to add Toronto, Ottawa, Vancouver. Victoria, B.C. has expressed interest in a scooter program. From there, we’d fill in some of the smaller cities.
The key things about Vancouver and Victoria: obviously great markets for scooters from a bike-lane perspective and their commitment to green transportation, but also year-round service, which is a big departure from what we’re able to do in Calgary, Edmonton or Montreal.
Do you have a target number in mind
No. We don’t. Truth be told, the model gets a bit challenging when you get to the smaller markets from a density perspective. It’s not to say we couldn’t do those cities. We’d just need to change what we do.
Edmonton Mayor Iveson had concerns about scooters being left on sidewalks causing problems for people with mobility issues. At the time, you said you were blindsided by those comments. Toronto Mayor Tory has publicly flagged a number of issues with scooters. Is there anything you wish you’d done differently in dealing with the mayors?
We have a great dialogue with Edmonton, and I actually talk to the mayor’s office fairly regularly, so that’s why I said that. I spoke to them again after. If you speak to the city, I think all in all, they said we did a pretty good job.
Toronto, the mayor here, he’s certainly in favour of scooters. City councillors have been very receptive to what we’ve proposed.
They’ve proposed a ban on e-scooters.
That’s a temporary ban. Their fear was that we were going to show up here unannounced and dump 10,000 scooters and disappear. I’ll take them at their word that it’s temporary. If next summer the ban is still there, then you can come back and maybe I’ll have a different quote for you.
Are you profitable now, after four months?
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No, no. But we’re on the path, which is great.
Lime has been in Canada for well over a year. Do you feel like you’ve caught up?
Yeah. Other than the scooter-count issue, which is really a big issue in Calgary. In Montreal and Edmonton, we’re pretty toe-to-toe with those guys. Which is great considering they were here for a year planning and we showed up a month and a half before we launched. The bad news about winter is you get no revenue and no rides. But the good news is when things kind of refresh back in April, it’s kind of a fresh start for everybody. I think for most people in most of those cities, they see the two companies as neck-and-neck.
Anybody else you’re worried about? Ford’s Spin is operating in Kelowna, B.C.; Uber’s Jump electric bikes are in Montreal. They’re both backed by massive multinational firms.
Who knows what Uber and Lyft will do? If I was an executive at Uber and Lyft, if I was going to play with scooters more and sort of get into that business more, I’d want to refine it more in the U.S. before I’d look at a small Canadian city.
Uber is lobbying in Toronto on e-scooters.
The only thing I’d say, though, is that I don’t know if a regulator wants to handle more than two or three operators. I actually think the experience you see in Chicago or L.A. — and this is just me trying to be as neutral as possible — I think it gets unwieldy, and that’s where you get to the scooters clogging up street corners when there’s too many operators, too many scooters.
Having five or six providers in Toronto isn’t going to get Toronto anywhere. For any Canadian city, I think two or three providers is probably the right number.
You’re talking to everybody, but so is Lime, Uber and a bunch of other companies. If cities are only picking one or two providers, why should they pick Bird?
Number one: it’s our focus; it’s all we do. Number two: it’s a new industry and you probably want to go with the bigger players, so that cuts out some of the smaller guys. They tend to overpromise and underdeliver. They say things like, “I’m going to put a scooter on every street corner and I’ll pick them up in 10 seconds.” They overpromise and then when they don’t deliver, it looks bad on everybody. It looks bad on the city, too.
Number three: we know what we’re doing. We’ve got a proven track record as an operator. I mean, Uber and Lyft are pretty spotty. They operate in this city, they don’t operate in that city.
Number four: We’re Canadian. We’re local guys. Our money is from here. We’re operating from here. For all those reasons, stick with a couple of guys, stick with the known players, the Birds and the Limes. Or just Bird.
Alberta Health Services is doing a study to look into the health impacts of scooters. What are you doing to address concerns around injuries?
What’s important to look at is, if you look at the proportion of rides, it’s actually quite small. The last time that they released both rides and injuries at the same time, it was something like 540,000 rides and about 400-and-something injuries.
There’s a lot of safety issues that result from poor behaviour, and the way to combat that for the most part is education. “Here’s how you ride a scooter correctly,” “Here’s why you shouldn’t ride a scooter while drunk” — which sounds like a stupid thing, but people still do that.
The CNIB Foundation, the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act Alliance and a number of other disability rights groups have raised a lot of concerns about e-scooters. Have you met with any of them?
We have some upcoming meetings with — I can’t remember which group it is — but there’s some meetings we have upcoming. We can’t talk to everybody.
How would you respond to their concerns around scooters blocking wheelchair ramps and being tripping hazards for blind people?
I get it. I totally get it. The last thing we would want to do as a company is block an accessible pathway or some blind person’s path.
Having said that, I don’t know that that is as big a concern as they’re worried about. Almost three-quarters of a million rides in Calgary later, that certainly wasn’t an actual issue. There was no big issues around blocking accessible pathways and things like that.
In Montreal, you have little corners of street parking where they actually have stencils and where you park scooters. There are a myriad of ways you can solve that without impeding a blind person’s path. And at the same time you make scooters convenient for people.