A version of this story originally aired on Marketplace.
For a city that built its name on car production, it might seem a little counterintuitive that Detroit would take such a liking to electric scooters. But Ford Motor Co. is getting into the game with its recent acquisition of e-scooter startup Spin. Detroit has other e-scooter companies in the area as well. The city is requiring the companies to place some of their e-scooters in outer-city neighborhoods. With e-scooters, Detroit is setting the stage for more changes in mobility and new options for transportation.
David Helton is in a rush to catch the bus. He usually takes the line uptown on Woodward Avenue from work, but today, his normal stop is closed. Helton says he’s taking an electric scooter to get on the bus at a different spot. “Because it gets me to Point A fast,” Helton says. “Without walking.”
Craig Steiner faces a similar dilemma. He lives downtown but needs to go a couple miles north to do some shopping at Eastern Market. So instead of walking there, he’s looking for an e-scooter. But he has not had much success in finding one that works, even though there are groups of them piled together throughout the city. “You start going on this hunt,” Steiner says. “And you’re like, ‘Let me try one more time…’”
Still, he prefers the free-standing scooters to established public transit. “I just don’t know the bus schedules,” Steiner says. “I don’t care to master them. The scooters are just a little bit all over the place.”
“The companies were coming to us and saying, ‘Demand is very high. We want more scooters,’” de la Vergne explains. “We were very clear that we see this as an option to work for all Detroiters and wanted to make sure all Detroiters have the availability to use this option.”
Now, transportation officials say companies can put out more scooters, but they must be set up in all seven of Detroit’s city council districts. “For everybody in the city to access these opportunities,” de la Vergne says. “We need more options for them to get there.”
Access to transportation has been a perennial issue in Detroit. It’s expensive to get around in a place designed to be the Motor City.
“For a lot of folks car insurance is the inhibitor for them to access any type of opportunity,” de la Vergne explains.
The mayor’s office is keen to add more mobility options to connect Detroiters with jobs, schools, and shopping. And it’s not just Detroit’s political leaders that see a demand for new modes of transportation. So does one of the city’s biggest automakers. Sunny Madra, the Vice President of Ford X, the company’s transit incubator, says Ford’s purchase of Spin shows it’s serious about scooters.
“We’ve kinda come out and said that we’re really going to take Spin to over 100 markets in the next 18 months,” Madra says. “That’s a pretty aggressive growth plan for us.”
According to Madra, the number of people using e-scooters has grown faster than ridesharing companies like Uber or Lyft did when they first started.
“If we look at the scooter space, the two biggest companies in the space each did 10 million rides in less than a year,” Madra explains.
To Madra, Scooters represent an expansion into mobility for Ford, not a turn away from automobiles.
“We want to make sure that people that are interested in sub-three mile rides have another option available to them and we have that,” Madra says.
Companies like Spin, Bird, and Lime are sharing data on scooter rides with Detroit. The city is developing a tool to better analyze that information, with the idea it could inform changes in future transit design. And the scooter companies figure that kind of data exchange with the city might pave the way for a smoother ride when it comes time to hop on the next big thing in transportation.