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“Transportation isn’t sexy,” says Caroline (Carro) Hjelm. “But micro-mobility is a super interesting space to be working in.”
Interesting enough to tempt Hjelm away from a job as Partner Engagement Manager at Spotify to join her brother, Fredrik Hjelm, and other co-founders in establishing VOI, a Stockholm-based urban transport company that has been scaling up rapidly across Europe.
Launched in August last year, VOI provides a clean and relatively simple way to travel in urban areas using electric-powered scooters. It’s not the only player in the field but has been expanding aggressively. Since Voi’s first e-scooters appeared in Stockholm under a year ago, the company has gone on to launch service in nine European countries, including Spain, France, Portugal, Denmark and Finland. Today, Voi has a presence in 18 cities.
If all goes according to plan, the company will extend its reach into Belgium, Poland, Italy and Germany this summer. Indeed, Germany is expected to provide the biggest and most receptive market.
Greener And Cleaner
The expansion plans – announced this month – are certainly ambitious, but as Chief Marketing Officer Hjelm sees it, the company is offering something that is totally in tune with an imperative to create greener and cleaner cities in Europe. “We are aiming to change the way that people move in cities. These days, it is not reasonable to jump into a car to travel one kilometer across a city. And it is not reasonable to own a car if you live in a city.”
That’s something that many city authorities would agree with – at least up to a point – hence concerted efforts across Europe to get citizens out of their cars. The problem is that once people abandon their traditional vehicles they face the question: “how on earth do I get from A to B?” Some cities – including my home town of London – run short-distance bike hire schemes. And we are seeing companies, such as VOI itself, Wind Mobility, Bird and Tier rolling out e-scooter services across Europe.
Micro-Mobility’s Legal Challenge
But there are some challenges – not least in terms of regulation. For instance, Voi’s expansion plans do not include the “entrepreneur friendly” U.K. capital. As Hjelm points out, London is a traffic-choked urban conurbation, where the air – on bad days – is not fit to breathe. An ideal location, to start an e-scooter service, perhaps? But no.
“We would love to come to London, “ she says. “But we can’t because of the current legislation.”
That basically comes down to the fact that electric scooters are not legal on U.K. roads. That hasn’t deterred one operator – Bird – from running a service within the confines of the old Olympic park – but as yet e-scooters cannot be hired out for use on the capital’s streets. Similar restrictions applied in Germany, but a change in the law allows scooters to travel on roads and cycle paths, but not pavements.
Aside from legislation, the barriers to scaling up have been reduced by a “free-floating” operational model. Unlike, say, London where the City’s bike hire scheme was built on an infrastructure of payment and docking stations, VOI and other operators facilitate payment through an app, which also locates nearby and available scooters and measures the length of the ride.
Even with no infrastructure, however, Hjelm says it is necessary to work in partnership with city authorities, rather than simply marketing the service and distributing the scooters. “We believe in collaboration. We want to stay true to our Scandinavian values,” she says. “And we want to be an integral part of the public transport systems in the cities where we operate.” Partnership, she believes will play an important part in a successful scale-up strategy. In Sweden the company has signed a letter of intent promising to adhere to Stockholm’s safety standards.
To date, VOI has achieved 2 million rides. “The first one million took six months. We achieved the second million over just six weeks,” says Hjelm.
But if that illustrates a growing willingness to embrace e-scooters, is there also a chance that – in terms of public acceptance – you might hit “peak scooter” quite quickly.
Hjelm accepts that the appeal of e-scooters may be limited to those needing to travel very short distances, but the company is trying to broaden its potential market by introducing new machines with navigational aids. In addition, Voi has launched a “cargo” model with storage capacity that could be used for shopping trips. Hjelm says these developments have been a result of customer feedback.
All this costs money. Last year the company raised $50 million from investors, followed this year by an additional $30 million. Rivals have also been raising cash. Clearly, this is a market that is attracting VCs and angels.
It remains to be seen whether e-scooters will play a significant role in creating cleaner and more people-friendly cities. Scooters probably won’t appeal to everyone – especially in those urban areas where traffic conditions create a degree of real or perceived risk to riders. Nevertheless, scooters represent one potentially lucrative means to tempt city dwellers out of their cars.
May 29, 2019 at 07:10PM
Forbes – Entrepreneurs