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Why everybody wants to be the Amazon of transportation — and how Lime plans to pull it off

Lime CEO Wayne Ting joins the Source Code podcast to talk scooters, bikes and the future of getting around.

Why everybody wants to be the Amazon of transportation — and how Lime plans to pull it off

Lime CEO Wayne Ting, at the launch of Lime's new moped service.

Photo: Lime

A year ago, it felt like the scooter business might be over. By one estimate, spending on scooter rentals fell almost 100% in the spring of 2020. With billions of people stuck at home for an indefinite amount of time, could any of the fast-growing micromobility startups hang on? Wayne Ting, who had only just been promoted to CEO at Lime, the largest player in the space, wasn't sure.

It didn't take very long for things to turn around, though. As people looked for ways to get outside and get around that didn't involve being trapped with strangers in subway cars or Ubers, they started picking up scooters and e-bikes. Before long, companies like Bird and Lime began to sense an opportunity to bring about the kind of local transportation revolution they'd been fighting for all along, even faster than they'd prepared for.

What does that future like? That's what Ting joined the Source Code podcast to discuss: why Lime started with scooters, what other modes of transportation it might get into and most of all, why Lime (and seemingly every other transportation company on Earth) wants to be "the Amazon of transportation." Trillion-dollar market caps, certainly. But what does that comparison mean, and what does it look like to bring the Bezos playbook to city streets everywhere?

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You can listen to the entire conversation with Wayne Ting on this episode of the Source Code podcast. The below excerpts have been edited for length and clarity.

At the beginning of the pandemic, it felt — I think for everybody, but definitely within your industry — like sort of an existential crisis. Everybody just … went inside. And no one knew what was gonna happen next. And then it seemed like it kind of came roaring back. Now, I've talked to people who are saying, "This went from being maybe the end of this industry, to kind of a moment for this industry, because people's eyes are open to what this can be in a way that they weren't before." Does it feel that way to you?

Totally. In the beginning of the epidemic, people were not leaving their homes. And we saw massive declines in public transit, and Ubers, and taxis, everything else. As it turns out, if people don't leave their homes, transportation businesses don't do very well. And it wasn't clear how long that was going to last. And it wasn't clear whether or not a company like ours could even emerge from this. Was this the death knell?

I think part of the part of what we've learned through this is that people, ultimately, are social creatures. They want to be out, they want to see their friends and they want the sun and they want fresh air. And so after a couple months, people were moving around. And at the beginning, there's also a big question around touch and surface area being a mode of transmission. And there's a lot of misinformation around that at the beginning. People were Lysol-ing their Dorito bags, and every interview I did in the beginning was, "Well, how are you going to prevent the spreading from your handlebar to the humans?"

As more research came in, it was very clear: Actually, surface to human is not how you transmit. All those Lysol-ed bags of Doritos are actually a total waste of time, and transmission was happening human to human. And suddenly that shifted people's mindset. People who maybe would have never considered micromobility, they said, "Let me take a shot at this."

And so I'm hoping, and what I'm seeing, is that that trend stays. Because what they discovered was something that actually wasn't a trade-off. It was something that was better, and cheaper, and faster and greener. And it was more safe. And all those things. I hope that's the reason why they stay with us, post-pandemic.

I think when people think about Lime, or this whole micromobility space, they think about bikes and scooters. But you have always talked about yourselves in much bigger terms. I think part of that is just, like, VCs give you more money when your vision seems bigger! So I understand that. But I also get the sense that you have a several-orders-of-magnitude larger belief about what you want to be, and how the world shapes around a company like Lime. Give me the big pitch.

I think you're absolutely right. Everyone sees us as a scooter company, and we don't. Our vision and our dream and our mission is to create a transportation platform that serves all trips under five miles. And I think we'll know we achieved it when any one of us can walk out of our door, open Lime and get anywhere we want, at the price point and with the mode of your choosing.

Scooters is an important part, but it's where we're starting. And I often use the analogy of Amazon: If you look at Amazon's old mission, even when they only sold books, they were talking about an everything store, they were talking about disrupting shopping. And it seemed insane, in 1997. In 1998 they got into DVDs and music, and you're like, what, you're disrupting shopping? But over time, they're building reliability, they're building selection. And they were building a logistics back end, so that over time, you can actually shift all your usage and all your shopping onto Amazon.

For us, scooters is our books. Today we're already the biggest e-bike operator outside of China, we just launched our moped service in D.C. and Paris. And what we're doing is we're building a multi-modal offering, so that there are things that go slower, there are things that go faster, there are things that have baskets, there are things eventually that have covers. And what we're hoping is that you can, instead of a car, go on any number of rides on Lime, and every ride is shared, every ride is electric, it's affordable, it's safe.

And we have this incredible mission to get to net zero carbon by 2030. And we want to get to a point where you take a Lime, you know you're doing something that is ultimately not contributing to the climate crisis.

Does Lime control all of those pieces? Do you become sort of a travel agency for all of the other companies that want to make stuff? Or is there a future in which you're building trains that people are taking to work?

I think it should be both. There are going to be things that we want to operate ourselves: One of our core competencies is that we know how to operate lightweight hardware at scale, and we can do it all over the world with a level of reliability and quality that makes sense. I think there's also other things that we may want to add to that platform that we're never going to do.

We're integrating with public transportation in many places. We are a first-mile last-mile complement to public transit, and for us to really make that seamless, we should actually incorporate and integrate public transit into our system. And so we're never going to offer public transit, but you may be [able to book] transit through the Lime app very soon. That's the type of integration that we think makes a ton of sense.

There's this interesting transition in there, where you kind of go from "fun thing that I encounter on the street and decide to ride because it's there" to something that people rely on. If I'm going to totally stretch this Amazon metaphor, it's like Prime shipping, right? When that came out it meant anything you buy, it's just going to appear at your house in two days. And that's the moment you go to, by default, buy everything on Amazon. And that's when Amazon really becomes Amazon.

For you, going through that comes with questions like reliability, and how people find devices and how they get shared, and how many you need and how they get parked. What a system like that needs to be for me to trust you to get me to work on time, just feels really different from putting a bunch of scooters out on the street and letting people ride them to wherever they need to go.

That's almost exactly how I talk about it internally. At the beginning, Amazon was better because it was easier to find longtail books, maybe pricing is better. But it was worse on a lot of things, in particular shipping. It took a long time to ship, the shipping cost was expensive. What Prime did was that it suddenly made the number one pain point no longer a pain point. They got delivery time down so fast — in many places you can get it same day — and they reduce that cost of shipping. So they were better on almost every metric you would consider. They have the greatest selection and have the greatest delivery.

I think the equivalent here is reliability. I do think a lot of people today, if you want to use Lime, you have to make trade-offs. Maybe it's cheaper. Maybe it's more joyful, it is definitely more green. But it is rarely as reliable as if you own the car, because you own a car, it's always outside.

Right! It's where I left it.

Exactly. And so I think one of the key questions for us is how do we crack reliability. Part of that is having bigger fleets. A lot of our cities cap how many we can have in a city. A big part is deployment, because I can have a million scooters in a city and they could be all in the wrong spot, and you still can't access that, right? A lot of the time we're investing in deployment technology, predicting where riders are going to be and then making sure that we're deploying there, so that we can meet your needs when you need it. But I absolutely agree with you that that reliability is for us that two-day shipping. It's the thing that's going to crack the code and solve one of the major pain points today.

What about this trend of scooter ownership, which I'm not sure is a real thing outside of about two neighborhoods of San Francisco, but is at least a thing a lot of people are talking about? You and Bird, and even Uber and Lyft, have this big fight against the car, but the idea of people buying mopeds or scooters or their own electric bikes, is that a threat to you over time?

Two thoughts. One is, I don't think it's a threat. In fact, if you look at the city that has the highest scooter ownership, it's actually Tel Aviv. It's also one of our best cities. Because the thing that we actually see is when people use scooters for their daily commute, there's lots of reasons why they don't bring it. But they're used to that mode of transportation, and we actually see it as lifting all boats, because transportation is so big. Now they've actually shifted our mindset from "I'm a car user" to "I'm a micromobility user," there's enough instances where they are not going to have their own hardware with them.

That said, I do think one of our fundamental premises is that the future should be shared. Not owned. The great thing about the smartphone is that it now enables us to share in a more easy way. And I think Uber and ride-sharing is part of that longer trend where people say, "Do I need to own something, or can I actually get someone else's assets and share." Airbnb is part of that. I think if what we do is go from a world of owned cars into other owned hardware, I think we would have missed this enormous opportunity to reduce consumption and actually build a better system.

I think that goes back to the reliability thing, right? I think the most compelling reason to buy a scooter is because the scooter is good for all the reasons you described … and it's right there. Which is a meaningful thing to people! People talk about this with cars all the time. When there's just a network of autonomous vehicles floating around, how is it going to come to me when I need it? You can explain to them, "The reality is, how often do you need a car right this second, you can usually wait a couple minutes, it's not the end of the world." This is America, we don't wait for stuff.

I think if we look at all Americans, that's true. But I think if you look at segments, especially young people … I grew up in a generation where everyone was turning 16 and ready to go get a driver's license, because you want to own a car. If you own the car, that means adulthood. That means the American dream.

Driver's license rates amongst kids who are 16 is down 40% of the last 30 years. People don't want to get cars! And we look at lots of young people, if you say do you want to own a second home or you want to use Airbnb? They prefer not to own these things. I think that there's a generation growing up with a different sense, and a different level of responsibility to the environment. And I think that combination is going to mean that they're gonna be challenging the system. We do see many more of our users skew young, and many more of our users say they don't ever want to own a car.

OK, last question for you: Is it ever possible to make scooters cool? We've made them things that people use, but I feel like objectively, culturally speaking, skateboarding is cool. Scooters are not cool. Can we solve this problem?

Well, I think scooters and e-bikes are cool —

Yeah but you have to. Bikes are fine! Bikes are closer to skateboards than scooters, but scooters just aren't cool.

I think where we want to go, which is an everyday commute tool, it's hard to be cool. And I'm OK with that. Because if everybody does something, it's by definition not cool. Cool is exclusive. Cool is avant-garde. Cool is small-slice. I don't think we think Amazon is cool. I don't think we think Uber is cool. I don't think Google's cool. But what they are is something I use almost every single day as part of my daily life. If I have to trade off being a utility and part of people's lives that makes the world better, and in exchange it's maybe not as cool as driving a Ferrari. I'm OK with that exchange.

So the answer is no, we can't make it cool. But maybe it's OK.

I don't know if we'll ever be cool in some eyes. But what I hope is that we will be routine, we will be a utility and we will be part of their lives. Even if we are not the coolest way they can move around, we'll be the fastest, the cheapest, the greenest way they can move around.

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