From Ridesharing to Bikesharing

And some reflections on my time at Uber

As I leave Uber and take on a new role, I wanted to take a minute to reflect on my time in ridesharing and on why I’m excited about what’s next.

On Uber

My last day at Uber was a few weeks ago, after a little more than a year and a half as an Operations Manager. I joined in August 2016 thinking, I can’t wait to skateboard around the office and shoot nerf guns for a living. That’s what startup life is all about, right?

Nope.

I had no way of knowing that I joined the ridesharing behemoth ahead of the most tumultuous year in its history — possibly even the most tumultuous one for any major tech startup since the Tech Bubble burst in the early 2000s.

And boy, what a ride it’s been. This may be hard to believe for those who’ve been following tech news (or really, any news), but I can say without reservation that my time at Uber was the most rewarding, challenging and positively transformative period in my adult life yet.

Obviously, there are the concrete learnings and experiences: working alongside some of the smartest people in their respective fields is one thing. But also doing it in a highly cross-collaborative environment with heavy exposure to product, eng, marketing, comms and policy work was a rare opportunity that taught me to take a truly holistic approach to complex problem solving.

There’s the data-driven approach. Uber measures and produces tons of analytical data — most of which it owns. This leads to stunningly clean, organized and generally reliable data that can be accessed with relative ease. With Uber’s strong data foundation, it can afford to be data obsessed. More than any organization I am familiar with, Uber drills data-driven decision making into its team (yep, sometimes to a fault).

Then there are the people I worked with: supremely competent, always willing to help, always willing to roll up their sleeves and do the work, and, perhaps more importantly… just good people. I am so grateful.

But there was also everything I learned by being on the inside of a company in flux.

We went from invincible — at least that’s how it felt in late 2016 — to rock bottom in a New York minute, and then slowly, gingerly, found the rocky path to recovery, to a humbler, more mature place.

It definitely wasn’t easy: at it’s worst, internal revelations of cut-throat practices mixed with media exaggerations to make for a pretty salty-tasting cocktail. Friends sent links to articles with provocative headlines (‘Is this what it’s like?’). Our global security team asked us not to wear Uber swag. Relatives called to ask if I’d be out of a job soon, and if so, what do you plan to do then?

But goddamn, did the team come together. We questioned and worried, of course. We learned what to do and, certainly, what not to do when building a team and a culture. But we also put our heads down where it mattered and did good work. We supported each other and made sure our driver-partners could continue working and our riders could get to where they needed to go. We did this transition after transition, executive exit after executive exit, lawsuit after lawsuit.

A few months in, as they are wont to, things began looking up. We got new leaders (Dara is exactly what the doctor ordered), new cultural values, and executed a true company-wide about-face. So as I announced my resignation, I didn’t feel like I was leaving a team in crisis. I dare say that Uber, after much soul searching and a lot of hard decisions, is in a pretty good spot.

It’s not a startup anymore, and there are drawbacks to that to be sure. There are also many more chicanes to navigate around and, no doubt, existential crises too. But it’s a young adult of a corporation now, building its values and finding a way to live and work more responsibly. I don’t want to jinx it, but it’s looking like one hell of a corporate turnaround story and I’m proud to have been a part of it.

Where next?

I’m staying in transportation. Actually, I’m staying in the sharing economy. I’ve joined LimeBike as New York GM to bring multimodal smart mobility to the Tri-state area.

Wait, what?

It’s clear there’s a large gap in the range of transportation options available to Americans today. In most places you need a car to get around. Buses are scarce, subways are limited (with some exceptions) and trains… ha. Unlike their European counterparts, public transit systems in US cities are sprinkled lightly throughout, almost as an afterthought, rather than as a fundamental layer of city life.

As a result, public transit networks across the US — buses, subways, trains — have lower ridership levels, are in service for fewer hours and have longer wait times than practically every comparable wealthy European or Asian country.

This is despite the fact that the US spends a much higher percentage of its public tax dollars to subsidize public transit costs. In other words, as this Vox piece puts it,

We pay more for transit and get far less — basically the worst of all worlds.

Even where public transportation is considered quite good, like NYC, public transit alternatives have seen explosive growth in recent years, which suggests that the existing infrastructure doesn’t cut it. Low-cost ridesharing companies have been the obvious beneficiaries here. But so have smart mobility startups, providing access to cheap, on-demand, bike, e-bike and e-scooter rentals targeted at local communities.

Indeed, dozens of bikesharing providers have sprung up across the world as cities began to realize what they’re missing out on: transportation options that are not only cheaper (for the city even more so than riders) and faster than existing alternatives, but that are also healthier and more environmentally sustainable.

A Short History of Bikesharing

The evolution of bikesharing until today can be roughly grouped into three distinct waves.

The first serious attempt to introduce bikesharing to a wider audience came in the form of the Free Bike Programs. These were launched in Amsterdam as early as 1965 and did what their name suggests. These publicly-sponsored programs failed, though, because the local governments trusted people to use them ethically and responsibly. Which they didn’t. They got stolen.

The second generation tried to attenuate this issue by implementing a coin-operated model, first in Denmark in 1995 (still in operation today), followed quickly by the Twin Cities in the US. This system was, as the more discerning amongst you may have guessed, coin-operated. It was also, importantly, dock-based, meaning you had to pick-up and drop-off the bikes at designated stations.

The second generation wasn’t very successful either. Theft remained a fundamental issue and, lacking a tracking mechanism, redistribution of bikes was tough. Without bikes consistently available, people were loath to change their habits.

The third generation was dock-based with self-serve kiosks. If you’ve been to the downtown area of a major city in the US recently, you’ve probably seen them. These systems combine the dock-based approach of the coin-based bikes with key innovations like cheap GPS tracking to curb theft and provide more effective bike redistribution, improving bike availability.

The New Bikeshare Model

The first generation introduced the concept of sharing bikes within a community. The second brought with it a per-ride fee and a dock-based system. The third relied on technological innovations to make the model work.

Dock-based systems were bikesharing’s first major success on a global scale and did well to popularize it beyond a few select communities. As the first viable, exportable model, this was Bikesharing 1.0.

However, dock-based bikesharing faces several significant drawbacks:

  1. Inefficient: bike distribution ebbs and flows with commuting patterns meaning many bike docks are overutilized while others sit empty. What’s the utilization of bike docks in New York’s Financial District on weekends? 20 percent?
  2. Inconvenient: users often face difficulties trying to find empty docks to park, especially during peak times. And even when you do find a dock further away, you now have to walk x more minutes to get to your destination. I’ve personally been through it so many times I had to stop using bikes as part of my commute in NYC.
  3. Inflexible: once a dock is installed, dock-based systems cannot easily or cheaply adjust dock locations in response to riding patterns. Operators just kind of have to guess and hope they get it right on first try.
  4. Expensive to start up and relies on government subsidy: to make bikes available to riders when and where they’re needed, you need a LOT of docks, which translates to a lot of real-estate, usually in prime location. The majority of these programs are subsidized with tax-payer money, and that’s a serious issue.

I think of dockfree systems — like LimeBike’s — as Bikesharing 2.0, because they draw on aspects of every generation that came before it and combine it with a few new technologies that are blurring the line between the online and offline world: the ubiquity of smartphones, RFID technology (those barcode-looking squares you can scan with your phone), digital payments and cloud storage and computing.

What this allows you to do is pretty cool. You upload a credit card, find a bike that’s close to you on the app’s map, unlock it by scanning the RFID with your phone, and drop it off right at your destination, locking the wheels with a simple mechanism. Then the next person can come pick it up wherever you dropped it off.

Beyond Bikes

And yet dockfree bikes are just a stepping stone. LimeBike’s broader vision is to expand into neighboring verticals to create a true multimodal smart mobility solution. Today, it already operates thousands of pedal-assist bikes and stand-up e-scooters across more than 50 markets in the US.

In this way, LimeBike is creating a transit architecture that can fit a variety of ages, use-cases and preferences: standard pedal bikes are the most traditional and physically strenuous, pedal-assist bikes open up the world of active commuting to a whole new demographic and electric scooters allow you to get to work in fresh air without breaking a sweat. And there’s more to come, too.

With thoughtful regulation and effective execution, I believe that this kind of multimodal transit system will be the future of transportation in American cities.

Why I’m Excited about Dockfree Stuff

I wouldn’t be joining LimeBike and the dockless world just for the sake of a product that’s pretty cool. I am joining because I believe that the integration of dockfree vehicles into everyday life will have macro effects for both cities and their inhabitants that go far beyond the product’s tagline.

Among other things, large-scale adoption will reduce traffic congestion, noise and carbon emissions; improve public health in a measurable way; taper America’s car dependency, which will reduce accident-related injuries and fatalities, limit road infrastructure costs and allow cities to repurpose the endless space earmarked for parking for better public use; offer economic development opportunities through tourism and urban development; provide valuable (anonymous) data on commuting and traffic patterns to cities and urban planners, among other things.

The truly cool thing is that, absent the high infrastructure costs of dock-based systems, the unit economics of dockfree actually work as long as utilization is high (which it has been across the board), meaning there’s no need for any public subsidies. Plus, unlike traditional public-private partnerships, this whole system can be up in weeks, not years.

Providing Transportation to Underserved Communities

Helping Americans get from A to B in a way that’s cheap, fast, environmentally sustainable and healthy will be a huge win. But there’s even more to it. The most exciting use-case for me on a personal level is to provide communities that have been historically underserved by public transit an opportunity to get places: and by places I really mean jobs.

People who cannot get access to reliable transportation are stranded in ‘transit deserts’, areas where demand for transit is high but supply is low. The most impacted are low-income neighborhoods. This is a major issue. Research has consistently shown that reduced transportation options keep people from finding jobs and limits access to medical services.

In fact, transit access was found to be one of the most fundamental factors in determining upward mobility in the United States.

Cities have been rightly trying to address this problem for years. But it’s hard. And it’s expensive. And it’s why I think short-distance multimodal transportation (some call it micro-mobility) that is self-sustaining, reliable and has low startup costs will go a very long way.

Let’s get going.

I’m excited to bring this vision to life in New York and beyond. It won’t be easy. The operation is capex and opex intensive, and we’ll have to run non-stop shifts so that vehicles are positioned where they should be. We’ll need to work closely with community stakeholders to make sure the solution is responsible, safe and works not only for riders but local communities too.

But damn, it’s so worth it.

Oh, and if you want to jump on this train (bike? scooter?) we’re hiring for a bunch of stuff. Also feel free to hit me up at gil@limebike.com for more info.

A Damn Optimist | Newslettering @ damnoptimist.substack.com