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A woman walks past electric Lime scooters parked on the sidewalk in downtown Los Angeles on Oct. 16, 2019.

MIKE BLAKE/Reuters

When shared electric kick scooters appeared overnight on street corners in U.S. cities in 2018, the companies leading the charge promised they’d change how we get to work.

But by the time COVID-19 hit this spring, several cities worldwide, including Montreal, had already pulled the plug on their scooter pilots.

Cities griped about users riding unsafely and leaving scooters in the middle of sidewalks.

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Some scooter companies, worried about profitability, also began pulling out of cities on their own. That exodus only got worse when the pandemic-induced lockdowns started.

On March 21, Lime CEO Brad Bao wrote that the company was “winding down or pausing” service in all markets except South Korea.

"[Companies] Bird and Lime started pulling service without really thinking things through, says Chris Robinson, a senior analyst with Lux Research. "The scooter companies that were actually working with cities didn't have that knee jerk reaction."

But now, because the pandemic is pushing people away from transit and shared vehicles – and many cities are quickly adding more bike lines – scooters might start to make more sense, Robinson says.

"The direction of the change is toward fewer cars and more walking and biking – it was already happening, but COVID gave us a taste of what a dramatic decrease in cars could look like," Robinson says. "E-scooters might be a part of that, but it's too early to say definitively."

A recent analysis by management consulting firm McKinsey and Company predicted that the micromobility industry – companies who offer small electric vehicles including e-scooters and e-bikes – will surge back over the next year or two.

“Based on an analysis of Apple iPhone data, the number of passenger-kilometres travelled by private and shared micromobility vehicles has decreased by an estimated 60 to 70 per cent in Europe and the United States,” lead author Kersten Heineke wrote. “Interestingly, the same data source already shows a U-shape recovery; extrapolating this trend indicates a recovery to pre-crisis levels of travel by 2021–22.”

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Back to the scooter?

In Edmonton and Calgary, where Bird and Lime operate, each city now has 1,000 more e-scooters on the street than it had last year. Right now, there are 2,900 in Edmonton and 2,500 in Calgary.

In Calgary, the full rollout followed a one-month trial period to see whether scooter sharing would work during the pandemic. During that trial, which ended June 22, only 300 scooters were allowed.

Neither city had data available on how many rides there had been so far this year.

But e-scooter use is rising again in most cities in the world, said Stewart Lyons, Bird Canada CEO.

"In Canada, in both Calgary and Edmonton, we are seeing ride lengths that are more than twice what they were last year," Lyons said in an e-mail.

In both cities, the average ride length is now close to 20 minutes and there's heavy usage between 4-6 p.m.

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"This indicates they are truly becoming a commuting tool," Lyons says.

While Montreal banned shared e-scooters this year, Ottawa just introduced 600 of them in a pilot.

In the first week, Bird saw over 9,000 rides on its 260 Ottawa scooters, Lyons says.

Other places are reconsidering scooters. The U.K., which had banned e-scooters on streets, is accelerating plans to allow e-scooter sharing because of the pandemic.

For scooters to help people get where they need to go, companies have to work with cities to integrate scooters into the local transportation plan – and that's happening more and more, Lux's Robinson says.

"We're past the point where these companies can just roll in, dump these things on a corner and frustrate cities," Robinson says. "And, I think for cities and residents of cities, there is an interest in removing cars from the downtown equation."

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With city budgets "decimated" by COVID-19, many cities may have to look for a way to get people around that's cheaper than public transit, Robinson says.

“These scooters, as painful as they are for cities to manage, tick a lot of the boxes of what cities need,” Robinson says. “They’re cheap to use, they don’t take up a lot of space, they don’t produce pollution and they don’t use a lot of energy.”

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