When Commuting Comes Back, the E-Scooters Will Be Ready

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Of all the things to look forward to post-vaccine, commuting might not be on the top of the list. But despite grand promises of a work-from-home forever, white-collar workers who went remote when the coronavirus crisis began could be back at their desksstarting in June, joining the essential workers that have been trekking to their jobs through emptier streets and tunnels. 

To make the journey into the physical office more enticing for everyone, some employers will be adding a new benefit to the mix: micromobility dollars. 

Lime, the shared bike and scooter company, announced a new partnership with one of the largest commuter benefits providers in the U.S., Edenred Benefits. Starting this week, all 10,000 employers that use Edenred’s commuter benefits system will have an option to subsidize micromobility trips for the more than 10 million employees they cover. 

Edenred already offers its clients transportation benefits for public transit, parking and work-related shared ride-hail trips. Adding micromobility furthers its quest to become a commuter’s “one-stop shop,” says Ed Fleischmann, Edenred’s CEO. Lime scooter and bike-riding benefits would be loaded onto the same debit cards that Edenred provides to users to cover bus and train fare. (While IRS regulations allow employers to give workers pre-tax benefits to ride transit to work or pay for parking, for now, micromobility is a benefit that can only be offered post-tax, through reimbursements.) The new micromobility program officially began on Thursday, and a few large clients are already in the process of onboarding, Fleischmann says.

It’s a perk that could help shift some rush hour travelers out of single-passenger vehicles and into greener modes. But the pandemic has dramaticallyscrambled the getting-to-work picture in U.S. cities. As of June, a Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Researchstudy found that 42% of Americans were working from home full time, with another 33% not working at all. Bus ridership remains depressed, butless so than modes like commuter rail, which serves more office-bound professionals. All major cities saw vehicle miles traveledplummet to record lows,  even as car ownership rates revved up. And there’s still great uncertainty about whether life after Covid will include a commute at all for many of those who once regularly trekked to offices.

Before the pandemic, shared micromobility was booming, according to a report by the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO): The number of trips made in 2018 and 2019 made up two-thirds of the nation’s total since 2010. Scooter trips alone more than doubled between 2018 and 2019, from 38.5 million to 88.5 million. But in March, the industry collided with the coronavirus. Lime pulled out of 95% of its global operations that month. In mid-April, the company started getting its scooters back online in most markets, but micromobility ridership has still not returned to pre-pandemic levels. Take San Francisco, which saw an average of 6,700 scooter rides per day in 2019 across four companies, according to the San Francisco Examiner: After collapsing to just 730 per day in March, ridership had bounced back to an average of 3,300 daily trips  by November 2020.

Lime did not provide total 2020 ridership figures, but the company shared how the pandemic appears to have shifted scooter user behavior. In 2019, 40% of Lime’s weekday rides took place within morning and evening commuting hours, though that number fluctuated depending on each city’s density and job market. In 2020, “what we saw was a quick shift away from what we would traditionally view as connecting-to-transit trips,” said Sam Sadle, Lime’s senior director of government relations for North America. As millions of ex- commuters stayed home, there were more trips within neighborhoods — back and forth from the grocery store, for example. But the company also saw that trips heading towards urban downtowns got longer. Essential workers appeared to be using scooters for entire door-to-door commutes, instead of as a last-mile solution. In the second half of the summer, Sadle says “the average trip was up to 60% longer in duration.”

Getting employers in on incentivizing scooter trips could help the micromobility industry position itself for whatever awaits the white-collar worker post-vaccine — whether that’s more flexible, off-rush-hour travel, or hops to neighborhood “remote work hubs,” or some hybrid model. And after a year away from their old commutes, office workers will have an opportunity to rethink what they look like, Sadle says. “I don’t expect the commute to die.”

Neither does Fleischmann. For the moment, fewer workers are taking advantage of commuter benefits, he says. But none of his 10,000 clients have canceled their commuter benefits service entirely during the pandemic. Edenred also works with institutions like the City of New York and USPS, which employ essential workers who never stopped traveling to workplaces during the pandemic. Even remote-heavy technology companies, like Adobe Inc., are sustaining their programs in anticipation of an eventual return to using them.

Based on the conversations Fleischmann is having with employers, the pandemic could end up making micromobility a more attractive commuting option going forward, especially for employees “who do not feel comfortable enough to be in a closed space with other people.” Bike salesboomed during the pandemic, and NACTO says docked bikeshare systems — which only saw a 44% drop in ridership between March and April, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics — “have largely rebounded.” (Although public transit has not proven to be a site of coronavirus spread, some riders remain wary, and might prefer traveling solo with the wind on their face.) Encouraging the use of electric, shared transit options also furthers companies’ environmental commitments, which Fleischmann predicts will be an even bigger priority under the Joe Biden administration.

Also a possibility in the Biden era: a national push to provide pre-tax bicycle commuter benefits. In 2009, a tax benefit bill allowed bike commuters up to $20 a month in reimbursements, but the program was suspended until 2025 as part of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017. TheBicycle Commuter Act of 2021, a bipartisan bill introduced this week in the House by Oregon Representative Earl Blumenauer, could bring back and strengthen the system, adding bikeshare to the list of pre-tax commuter benefits, increasing the benefit amount, and ensuring that cyclists could also be eligible for other transit coverage.

“If it gets approved, and I think there’s a good chance it will, it’s going to be fantastic,” said Fleischmann of Blumenauer’s bill. “Many, many more companies are going to provide this to their employees. I think it’s going to have a fantastic impact on how people move across the country.”

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