The electric scooter and bike race in Washington, D.C. has gotten complicated in the last few months, as the nation’s capital has moved both to expand and contract the dockless electric vehicle program it first rolled out a little over two years ago in late 2017. The program saw thousands of electrified scooters buzzing about the streets of the capital, operated by about eight different companies — JUMP, Lyft, Skip, Spin, Bird, Lime, Razor and Bolt.
But in late October the District Department of Transportation (DDOT) changed the landscape under which those scooters and motorized bicycles would be operating. The goods news for operators was that more vehicles were going to be permitted for the streets. The agency announced last October as it rolled out its new permitting process for dockless electric vehicle operators that in 2020, up to 10,000 scooters would be permitted. That is nearly a 60 percent increase from the previous limit, and thus a big opportunity.
An opportunity, however, for fewer companies, as D.C.’s new permitting process halved the number of operators that could compete in the market. Good news for Uber-owned JUMP, which made the cut and plans to expand its vehicle fleet of vehicles by 1,500. Less good news for firms like Mobike and Ofo, which left the city because its regulations were too strict, and operators like Lime and Bolt, which are currently appealing the decision to leave them out of a market in which they had already been operating.
Entering this competitive and increasingly confusing market is Helbiz, a “newcomer” to the U.S. market and something of a surprise entrant to the D.C. market, considering how many established players didn’t make the cut. Calling Helbiz a newcomer to the U.S. market, however, is only sort of accurate. Helbiz is headquartered in New York, and has its eBikes and scooters on the streets in 20 different cities worldwide — but its footprint is mostly in European cities such as Rome, Milan and Belgrade. D.C. was its first U.S. market, it has since followed on with Miami. And though globally it offers eBikes and eScooters, in D.C. it is only offering eBike products thus far — as that is what its one-year permit allows.
Helbiz CEO Salvatore Palella noted that there might be a future possibility of adding in its eScooter product, though for now the firm is largely focused on introducing its emission-free, rechargeable bikes.
As to how Helbiz was able to make it into a market where slots for operators were suddenly cut in half last fall, particularly since it was new to both the market and the U.S., Palella said Helbiz had an edge because its model is different. While its offerings are similar to those of other players — low-speed, electrified transportation products for urban users — the firm's underlying structure is quite different. Its workforce isn’t gig workers, but will be comprised of 21 full-time to 22 part-time workers in D.C. to manage and maintain its fleet. The only people who are allowed to touch the bikes for maintenance or charging, according to Palella, are those employees who have been trained to do so — not gig workers who may or may not feel a connection to the material.
Moreover, he noted, the Helbiz fleet is built around accessibility to all consumers and all income levels. While prices for eBikes have been on the rise in the District of Columbia since the operator pool was effectively cut in half when the new year began, Helbiz bikes are a notably thrifty alternative. Renting a bike cost $1 to unlock and 15 cents a minute to ride.
And for low-income consumers for whom even that is too high a price point, the company has created what it calls the Helbiz access program, in which D.C. residents using public assistance programs like SNAP, TANF and Housing Choice Voucher programs are eligible for unlimited free 30-minute rides. It was that focus on access, affordability and employing district residents that highlighted the firm’s application to DDOT, Palella said — and what allowed Helbiz to secure a spot in the electric small vehicle lineup, despite being a newcomer to the both the D.C. market and the U.S. in general.
“Mayor [Muriel] Bowser’s plan to build an additional 20 miles of protected bike lanes, other critical infrastructure safety plans and Vision Zero policies gave us the confidence that D.C. is committed to building the future of safe mobility options we deliver,” Palella said. “Our technology will allow residents and commuters to better navigate every corner of the city and connect with existing transit services, while also allowing visitors to explore and enjoy all that Washington, D.C.’s vibrant communities have to offer.”
After D.C. and Miami, the U.S. is a big country with many markets to explore. And while Palella would not confirm what’s next for Helbiz, he could confirm that more is on the way.