(Updated on June 30th, 2020)
Stockholm has seen multiple transport companies that exercise a sharing economy business model (Sunfleet, Car2Go, DriveNow, oBike, EU bike…). Back in September 2018 a new player emerged – Voi – and started a new wave with their electric scooters (or kick bikes). At the time the service was started, the available information was scarce, so I decided to write a review of my own. I have since revised it on several occasions to keep it up to date, which has not been trivial as the development and changes in the electric scooter renting landscape have been swift. I would like to point out that the review is by no means backed by the company, it is purely my uncensored and uninfluenced experience. At the end of the article I also give an account of Voi’s competitors in Stockholm.
The idea behind the service is simple, there is a number of electric scooters spread around town. You open Voi’s app, locate an available scooter near you, approach it, unlock it through the app and away you go. When you are done, you park the scooter, end your rent through the app, and the fee for the ride is charged from your credit card. Which brings me to the price: 10 SEK to start a rental, plus a dynamic price per minute of riding which depends on the current demand. The lowest minute price I have seen is 1.5 SEK and the highest 3 SEK. This is quite a lot, because for all but the shortest rides of up to a couple of kilometers, the subway is both cheaper and quicker. Maybe not as fun, though :-). If we compare this to aimo, a car pool enterprise operational since October 2018, which currently costs 2.5 SEK per minute (calculated from the price per hour, 149 SEK) without any start fee, Voi is insanely expensive. Cars cost much more than electric scooters to purchase and to maintain, and they incur parking charges which scooters do not. When I had contacted the customer service back in 2018 and confronted them about the high price, I was told that they were “feeling it out” during the roll-out phase and that their competition offered similar prices across Europe and the US. I could not see these prices being sustainable after the initial “coolness” period. Despite the scooters being extremely fun, after three days of testing I already knew I would not use them regularly in the long term. My bicycle in the summer and the subway in the winter did not have their jobs threatened by Voi. However, even though I think the prices are too high and thus use the scooters only on rare occasions, I guess that there is enough demand for the service because Voi has been successful in attracting serious investment capital, and their expansion to new cities and countries has been rapid.
I had found out about the service by seeing the scooters around town. There were no commercials anywhere and the company’s presence in the media was quite shy in the beginning (now they are very active, however). Their Web page did not contain much information back then either. All of this made me skeptic to share my e-mail adress and credit card information with them, but I still did. I really wanted to try the scooters and what could possibly go wrong, right :-)? In the beginning they were relatively scarce, except in the business center of Stockholm, but their number grew significantly with time and finding an available scooter is not a problem anymore. However, there is a phenomenon that I call a “phantom scooter” – a scooter that is visible on the map but does not exist in the real world. On several occasions I walked from scooter to scooter, only to realize that all were phantom ones. This was either due to a software bug or thanks to dishonest users ending their ride in spaces that are not reachable to the general public (like their own balcony or locked yard). The customer service assured me that they were working on fixing both. The software bug should be relatively easy to take care of but I wonder how they will go about dishonest users. After more than six months in business, the issue had still not been resolved. I don’t know if it ever will be solved completely, but due to the increased number of scooters this is not as annoying as it used to be. Chances are, even if you encounter a phantom scooter, there will be a real one nearby.
On one occasion when I walked up to the scooter I wanted to ride I discovered that it was broken. I read in an article that the typical lifespan of a scooter in service is only a couple of months after which it is in such bad shape that it has to be decommissioned. Voi advertise their service as being environmentally friendly, but scraping thousands of scooters per year certainly reduces their positive effect on the environment. The fossil fuel vans that collect discharged and then redistribute recharged scooters are not environmentally friendly either.
The scooters are easy to ride, just make sure to kick-off before pressing the throttle, since pressing the throttle while stationary will not do anything – this is a battery optimization technique as the energy consumption is much smaller when the scooter is already in motion. On flat terrain they are decently fast (their speed is limited to 20 km/h) but they do lose a lot of speed on inclines. They are relatively stable but watch out for pot holes and bumps, because the wheels are quite small. Also, be very careful when the surface is wet – I lost grip easily on several occasions on a wet road. I recommend using a helmet while riding, regardless of the weather conditions.
The original scooter model is Ninebot by Segway ES2. In September 2019 I noticed that Voi added a new, custom built model to their fleet. It looks and feels much sturdier than the Ninebot. In May 2020 I read that there is a now a third version in operation. Hopefully, these new scooters will have a longer lifespan than a couple of months.
The tricky thing is to decide where they should be ridden as they are much faster than pedestrians but often slower than cyclists. I usually decide this dynamically during my rides and go there where I feel safest and where I will not annoy or endanger other traffic participants. Legally, they are treated as bicycles and should be ridden in bike lanes. They are allowed on sidewalks only if riding at walking speed. The service definitely does trigger the question of traffic safety as it introduces a new type of vehicle to the (already crowded) streets. Thus far my observation has been that scooter riders are much less careful and considerate than cyclists, unfortunately. There is also a philosophical question – as this is a private company, how should we feel about the fact that their scooters occupy public space? For car pools this is easy – they pay for parking spaces (or actually, the users of car pools pay for parking spaces through service fees), but the scooters are parked on the sidewalks. To make matters worse, they are often left without any decency or respect for public space.
Another aspect that bugs me is that the customer service is not available over the phone, only over e-mail. If you get an urgent problem, you want to call and not send an e-mail. In the beginning they were quite speedy in replying to my e-mails, but lately I have reported several problems with scooters to which I never received a reply.
All in all, I am excited about the service and hope that they will fix the problems they are facing. With this effort from their side and with some effort from our side as the customers (we have to find our place in the traffic without annoying others), this has the potential of changing how we commute within the city (at least for short distances). It will be fun to follow their progress. I hope they will stick around. I am not sure I can handle another DriveNow (a car pool enterprise that closed their business in Stockholm in October 2018).
In November 2018, Voi got competition from Lime, a service backed by Uber. 2019 was a fruitful year with ten new actors appearing: TIER, Glyde, MOOW, blinkee.city, Circ, Bird, aimo, Vosh, Wind and Wheels. Most of them offer a similar experience and price, but in my opinion three of them stand out – blinkee.city, aimo and Wheels.
What sets blinkee.city apart from the rest of the pack is that instead of kick bikes, their vehicle of choice is an electric moped. I tried it on several occasions and it is much more stable and fun to ride than the scooters. At 3.9 SEK per minute with no start fee I again find it on the expensive side, but it offers better value for money than the scooters. And as far as I know, this is the only service where you are allowed to take a passenger. Unfortunately, in August 2019 the amount of mopeds on offer was still very low and they shrunk their zone of operation. They even paused the service for the season as early as September 22nd. They claimed that they would be back in the spring – we at the end of June but there is no sign of them.
As mentioned earlier in the text, aimo is no stranger to the streets of Stockholm as they provide electric cars, but since August 2019 they also offer scooters. What distinguishes them from their competitors is the possibility to reserve a scooter for 15 minutes for free. No more disappointment when a scooter you were eyeing is taken by somebody else in front of your nose. Unfortunately, they use the same flimsy scooter model as the original one from Voi. In 2019 they offered a considerably lower price than the competition. In 2020 they raised the minute price from 2 to 2.5 SEK. They had also introduced a start fee of 10 SEK, but it has been removed starting July.
Wheels also offers a different vehicle – something in between blinkee.city’s mopeds and the usual scooters – a kind of a beefy scooter where you ride sitting down. I have only tried it once so far, but it felt very stable. Could they have found the sweet spot between stability and agility?
Some months ago I read that there were 10 to 15 different enterprises ready to offer their shared electric vehicles of different types to the people of Stockholm. Time will tell how many can stick around in the long run. The competition is fierce, and now even the Corona pandemic is interfering with the development. By November 2019 there were ten operational companies (Voi, Lime, TIER, MOOW, Circ, Bird, aimo, Vosh, Wind and Wheels), one was paused (blinkee.city) and one had closed down (Glyde). During the winter I only saw Voi, TIER and Wheels scooters out on the streets. By late May 2020 I saw scooters belonging to Voi, TIER, Wheels, aimo, Lime, MOOW and Bird. Additionally Bolt appeared as a new actor (they have been present in Stockholm with their taxis, but this is the first time they offer their electric scooters). I have recently read several news articles claiming that only Voi and TIER are still in business, but that is obviously not true (I really dislike such sloppy journalism). However, I don’t expect that all 11 businesses that were operational in November 2019 will be back for the 2020 season.