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The only take about the future of media is that media is the future

By Alex Wilhelm

Hello and welcome back to Equity, TechCrunch’s venture-capital-focused podcast, where we unpack the numbers behind the headlines.

This week we — Natasha and Danny and Alex and Grace — had more than a little to noodle over, but not so much that we blocked out a second episode. We try to stick to our current format, but, may do more shows in the future. Have a thought about that? equitypod@techcrunch.com is your friend and we are listening.

Now! We took a broad approach this week, so there is a little of something for everything down below. Enjoy!

Like we said, it’s a lot, but all of it worth getting into before the weekend. Hugs from the team, we are back early Monday.

Equity drops every Monday at 7:00 a.m. PST and Thursday afternoon as fast as we can get it out, so subscribe to us on Apple PodcastsOvercastSpotify and all the casts.

Bolt Mobility launching into 48 new markets after snapping up Last Mile’s assets

By Kirsten Korosec

Bolt Mobility, the Miami-based micromobility startup co-founded by Olympic gold medalist Usain Bolt, is expanding to 48 new markets after acquiring the assets of Last Mile Holdings.

Bolt Mobility’s rise and Last Mile’s demise captures the uncertainty that plagued micromobility companies in the past year as the COVID-19 pandemic upended business models that were, in some cases, already on shaky ground.

Bolt Mobility and Last Mile were both negatively affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Bolt Mobility, for instance, had to shut down in several markets in early 2020 due to the pandemic. The company rebounded after it tweaked its business model and began to partner with local operators, added GM’s former VP global design Ed Welburn as an adviser and came out with a new scooter equipped with dual brakes, 10-inch wheels, LED lights, swappable batteries with 25 miles of range and NanoSeptic surfaces on its handlebars and brake levers designed to rid these common contact points of germs and bacteria.

Last Mile Holdings didn’t fare as well.

If Last Mile Holdings doesn’t sound familiar, the brands it once owned might. Last Mile was a holding company that owned the OjO Electric scooters and Gotcha Mobility, which had a portfolio of electric trikes, scooters and bikes. The company acquired Gotcha in a $12 million cash and stock deal that closed in March 2020.

As Bolt Mobility grew, with its customer base hitting 300,000 users in 2020, Last Mile hit headwinds. Last Mile Holdings, which traded on the Toronto Stock Exchange under MILE, ended up selling its U.S. assets in an auction. Bolt Mobility acquired substantially all of the assets of the company for a credit bid of $3 million, according to a filing at the end of the year.

Those assets include 8,500 new devices, including e-scooters, e-bikes, pedal bikes and sit-down cruisers and licenses to operate in 48 new markets, the majority of which (more than 30) are exclusive contracts, according to Bolt CEO Ignacio Tzouma. The 48 new markets include 18 university campuses.

“The acquisition represents a significant expansion for Bolt on all fronts,” Tzoumas said, adding that the company brought on former Gotcha Chief Operating Officer Matt Tolan, who will now serve as Bolt’s chief commercial officer, as well as about 20 team members who were formerly a part of Gotcha’s tech and operations teams.

Riders in Bolt’s new markets will continue to be able to access and use the e-scooters, e-bikes and pedal bikes through the Gotcha Mobility and Ojo Electric iOS and Android mobile apps. Bolt is working with cities and universities to transition these markets to Bolt’s platform. The acquisition adds e-bikes to the Bolt platform for the first time. Although, the company was already developing its own line of e-bikes that it plans to launch later this year.

Gotcha Powered By Bolt

Image Credits: Bolt Mobility

Bolt credits its new business model for helping it survive and even thrive in 2020. Instead of continuing to handle the complex and expensive task of fleet management and operations, Bolt decided to partner with local companies. These partners operate Bolt’s fleets on the ground in each individual market. This customizable approach allowed for a business partnership model in select markets where Bolt leased scooters to delivery workers, restaurants and other small businesses, the company said. 

By July, Bolt and its partners were operating in five new or re-launched markets. Bolt also has a backlog of agreements with partners for an additional 20 markets that the acquisition is primed to fulfill, according to the company. 

Tzoumas said Bolt was able to execute the deal without taking on any additional debt, and “under terms that will allow us to continue devoting our resources to expanding and improving our services in all of the markets where we operate.” The acquisition was funded in part by Fuel Venture Capital, an existing Bolt investor.  Bolt is also backed by Sofreh Capital and The Yucaipa Companies.

“We founded Bolt because we believe in micromobility as a movement that can transform the way people live and move within their communities,” Usain Bolt said in a statement. “This expansion proves that anything is possible for micromobility when you support it with talented people, innovative technology, and the incredible work ethic of the Bolt team.”

3Drens helps fleet operators use their vehicles more efficiently

By Catherine Shu

3Drens’ IoT mobility management platform not only lets fleet operators track where their vehicles are, but also produces data that helps them make business decisions. The company began operating in Taiwan, where it is based, before expanding into Southeast Asia. Currently presenting at CES’ Taiwan Tech Arena, 3Drens is focused on the increased demand for logistics during COVID-19. For example, its tech can potentially be used to enable smaller e-commerce retailers to rent unused capacity on delivery vehicles from larger platforms.

The company’s clients also come from the vehicle rental, ride-hailing and food delivery sectors. Founded in 2017, one of 3rens’ first clients was a electric scooter company that mostly serves tourists. It installed 3Drens’ IoT box onto scooters to send alerts if scooters were potentially involved in accidents or if a user went over the time they had paid for. It also generated a heat map of where the scooters traveled the most often, so the company was able to make partnerships with popular venues and attractions.

3Drens’ platform can also help logistics services pick the right type of vehicle for a delivery, predict the best routes and assign new tasks for drivers on their way back after an order is fulfilled.

Lime removes all Trump-owned properties from its list of approved corporate hotels

By Kirsten Korosec

Lime has changed its corporate travel policy to ensure not a dime of its money ends up in the coffers of the Trump Organization’s hotels and other properties in response to the January 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol that led to several deaths.

The micromobility startup wants to take that action further and has asked TripActions, the Palo Alto-based corporate travel booking service that it uses, to encourage other customers to do the same. TripActions has not returned emails seeking comment.

Earlier today, Lime asked TripActions to remove Trump properties from showing up in a search if one of its employees is booking corporate travel, according to an internal email written by Lime CEO Wayne Ting and sent to the rest of the staff.

“While some startups have argued that companies should never be political, we have always understood that the work we do here at Lime is inherently political,” Ting wrote. “We are speaking out and standing up for what we believe is right because that is the right thing to do. And we are looking for ways to ensure our actions — and dollars — don’t support those who are complicit in this attack on our democracy.”

Lime has not made any political contributions to date, according to the email. (TechCrunch confirmed with Lime that it hasn’t made any federal political contributions.) Ting wrote that the company will never support any elected official who voted to challenge the certification of the results of the Electoral College. He then went further, extending it to the Trump Organization, a real estate portfolio that includes hotels, golf properties and resorts as well as residential holdings like Trump Tower.

“Moreover, we are committing to never support or spend money at any of the business ventures and affiliates of the Trump and Kushner families,” Ting wrote. “In fact, earlier today, we asked TripActions to remove all Trump properties from Lime search results and encouraged them to institute this policy for all of their customers.”

Here’s the complete email, which TechCrunch has viewed:

I know many of us watched last week’s events in Washington DC in shock and horror. The bedrock of any democracy is the peaceful transfer of power based on the will of the people. It was horrific to see a mob of insurrectionists — including white supremacists, neo-nazis, and conspiracy theorists — spurred on by the President, storm the halls of Congress to undermine and overturn that most sacred democratic ritual through violence and intimidation. 

The day was made even more disturbing by the stark contrast in police response between last week’s violent riots and last summer’s overwhelmingly peaceful protests for racial justice. If the rioters last week had been black and brown and held high the flag of Black Lives Matter instead of Donald Trump and the Confederacy, would they have been allowed to overrun the Capitol, ransacked offices, and walked back out the front door in their own volition? The unfortunate thing is the answer is self-evident.  

As more information became available over the last few days, it’s also clear that President Trump and certain Members of Congress still do not comprehend the gravity of their offenses, show appropriate remorse for inciting such unbelievable violence, or commit to ensure they never happen again. 

While some startups have argued that companies should never be political, we have always understood that the work we do here at Lime is inherently political. We are speaking out and standing up for what we believe is right because that is the right thing to do. And we are looking for ways to ensure our actions — and dollars — don’t support those who are complicit in this attack on our democracy.

We signed on to PFNYC’s letter calling for Congress to certify the results of the Presidential election ahead of the unrest. And while we have not made political donations to date, we are committing now to never support any elected official who voted to challenge the certification of the results of the Electoral College. 

Moreover, we are committing to never support or spend money at any of the business ventures and affiliates of the Trump and Kushner families. In fact, earlier today, we asked TripActions to remove all Trump properties from Lime search results and encouraged them to institute this policy for all of their customers.

I know these events have been difficult to watch, painful to comprehend, and deeply hurtful on the most personal level for many of our colleagues. Please always know, we are here to support you and each other. And if it is helpful, you can find mental health support services here for US employees, and here for those in other countries. 

One of Dr. King’s quotes that has always given me great strength in hard times is that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” The road ahead will feel long and winding, but I truly believe when we all do our part, the righteous cause slowly, begrudgingly, and eventually triumphs. 

Wayne

Shares of Hyundai Motor Co. climb more than 20% on potential EV deal with Apple

By Catherine Shu

Hyundai Motor Company is downplaying reports that it is in talks with Apple to produce an autonomous electric vehicle, stating that discussions are still in the “early stage” and still undecided. But the news of a potential tie-up (however tentative) with Apple, which is known for keeping a tight lid on deals before they are announced, was enough to send shares of Hyundai Motor Company up more than 20% on the Korea Exchange during trading on Friday.

The talks were first reported by the Korea Economic Daily and confirmed by Hyundai to Bloomberg in a statement that said “Apple and Hyundai are in discussion, but as it is at early stage, nothing has been decided.” The Korean auto giant also told CNBC that “we understand Apple is in discussion with a variety of global automakers, including Hyundai Motor. As the discussion is at its early stage, nothing has been decided.”

A Hyundai spokesperson declined to comment to TechCrunch. Apple has also been contacted for comment.

Last month, Reuters reported that Apple’s car initiative, called Project Titan, is still going on, with plans to develop an autonomous electric passenger vehicle. But the car is not expected to launch until 2024.

Hyundai launched its own electric vehicle brand, Ioniq, in August 2020, with plans to bring three all-electric vehicles to market over the next four years, as part of its strategy to sell one million battery electric vehicles and take a 10% share of the EV market by 2025. Hyundai also has a joint venture with autonomous driving technology company Aptiv to make Level 4 and Level 5 production-ready self-driving systems available to robotaxi, fleet operators and automakers by 2022. The Aptiv partnership was announced in 2019.

 

As e-bikes boom, FuroSystems raises its first venture funding round ahead of a new model launch

By Mike Butcher

With COVID-19 making commuters switch to bikes, and cities wanting cleaner air, the e-bike revolution is only just getting started. Further evidence of this is the news that today British e-bike manufacturer FuroSystems has closed its first institutional venture funding round of £750,000 with participation by TSP Ventures and European impact investment bank ClearlySo, as well as a number of angel investors.

Not unlike the ‘new wave’ of startup e-bike makers such as VanMoof and Cowboy, London-based FuroSystems is also bringing an interesting take on the e-bike concept. Key to its appeal is that its bikes are very light and can therefore be pedaled like normal bikes when not using the electric engine. Furthermore, their pricing is also highly competitive compared to conventional bikes.

Unlike many e-Bike makers, it also has a folding e-bike, the Furo X, whose carbon fiber frame makes it one of the lightest e-bikes in the world, weighing just 15kg. The high-density removable lithium-ion battery has a range of 55km. FuroSystems also makes a point of using industry-standard parts such as Shimano gears and hydraulic disk brakes, which makes it competitive with others such as Gocycle and Brompton.

These factors are helping to make them a hit amongst commuters.

As a result the company, which also makes electric scooters, says it has seen demand surge since the coronavirus lockdown, with year-on-year sales up fivefold. Unusually, the company says it has been profitable since it started, but this latest funding will be used to invest in R&D to create its next line of products.

CEO and co-founder Eliott Wertheimer, said in a statement: “We’re currently experiencing a once-in-a-century shift in transport, thanks to increasing awareness of the impact we are having on our environment along with a renewed desire to make healthier personal choices. Electric bikes and electric scooters are crucial to solving the mobility issues we see today, of congestion and pollution.”

Wertheimer added that part of the bike manufacturing is likely to be brought to Portugal in order to fulfill demand.

TSP Ventures CEO Chris Smith, commented: “The e-bike market has exploded in recent years with sales set to reach €10 billion by 2025 and FuroSystems is at the intersection of this burgeoning industry.”

The startup has also designed and manufactured the Fuze, a high-end e-scooter with over 800W of available peak power; double front and rear suspension; dual mechanical disc brakes; remote key lock and alarm system; reinforced inflatable pneumatic 10” wheels. The power and top-speed is able to be adjusted to comply with local regulations.

Upcoming will be the Aventa, an e-bike with aerospace-grade alloys; a boost system; hydraulic disk brakes; nine gears; high-performance clutch; integrated 504Wh battery; and the weight below 17kg. Prices for the Aventa will start at £1,399 and it will be available to pre-order from FuroSystems.com at the end of the month.

Founders Albert Nassar and Eliott Wertheimer met whilst studying mechanical and aerospace engineering respectively at the University of Bristol. Nassar went on to work with the autonomous drone inspection team at the Bristol Robotics Laboratory which later spun-out as Perceptual Robotics, whilst Wertheimer developed small nuclear batteries for tiny satellites in partnership with the European Space Agency and different UK universities. The pair reunited at Imperial College’s Business School in 2015, and created FuroSystems in 2017.

How four European cities are embracing micromobility to drive out cars

By Natasha Lomas

The coronavirus pandemic is acting as a catalyst for urban transformation across Europe as city authorities grapple with how to manage urban mobility without risking citizens’ health or inviting gridlock by letting cars flood in.

Micromobility and local commerce are being seen as both short and long-term solutions for urban revival in a number of cases. We’ve run down key policy developments in four major cities, Paris, Barcelona, London and Milan, which — at varying speeds — are pushing to rethink and reclaim streets for feet and two wheels.

Paris’ 15-minute city

Every year, around 2,500 people die prematurely because of air pollution in Paris. Like most European cities, the number one cause of pollution is motorized traffic.

Due to consistent policy changes over the past two decades, pollution has been slowly decreasing. It’s a long and difficult process and each step provides a new set of challenges.

The city has only had two different mayors for the past twenty years — Bertrand Delanoë and Anne Hidalgo. That consistency combined with long terms as mayor has led to some divisive changes and long-term thinking.

Paris has a long and conflictual relationship with cars. Nearly 20 years ago, bus lanes were highly controversial because it reduced space dedicated to cars. Today, nobody is asking for the removal of those lanes.

That’s why it’s a bit ironic that the same thing is happening again and again. For instance, Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo banned cars from the right bank of the Seine in 2016. Many political opponents and car enthusiasts criticized the decision. Earlier this year, none of the candidate in the municipal election mentioned the right bank of the Seine — it became a non-issue.

But the city’s policies aren’t just focused on banning cars. Paris has become a mobility lab for European cities with many public and private initiatives. If they work in Paris, chances are those initiatives will be reproduced elsewhere.

There are two reasons why Paris is an interesting city for mobility experiments. First, the Paris area is the 29th metropolitan area in the world by population density. Georges-Eugène Haussmann initiated some radical urbanization changes in the second half of the 19th century leading to the city’s modern layout — mostly seven-story buildings circled by the ring road.

As the limits of the city haven’t changed in over 100 years, it is still relatively small compared to other major cities. For instance, San Francisco, which is a small city by American standards, is still larger than Paris when it comes to area.

Second, Paris attracts a lot of tourists (in a normal year). In 2019, 38 million tourists came to Paris. These tourists tend to do normal touristy things — they move around the city all day long.

Vélib’ as the epicenter of mobility changes

Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo and Vélib' bikes

Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo and a fleet of Vélib’ bikes. Image Credits: Loïc Venance / AFP / Getty Images

In addition to a dense public transportation network with subways, regional trains, buses and trams, other transportation methods have emerged. In 2005, the city of Lyon introduced Vélo’v, a publicly subsidized bike-sharing service based on a network of stations spread across the city.

Two years later, the city of Paris introduced a similar servie called Vélib’. It’s hard to overstate how big of an impact Vélib’ has had on transportation. Just a few years after its launch, Vélib’ had hundreds of thousands of subscribers generation over 100,000 rides per day.

Other cities in Europe and the U.S. have followed course and introduced their own bike-sharing service. But nobody has come close to reaching the success of Vélib’. Despite some growing pains, Vélib’ now has over 400,000 subscribers. On September 4th, 2020, the service handled 209,000 rides. There are around 15,000 bikes on the service, which means that each bike is used nearly 14 times per day.

The reason why Vélib’ is much more successful than Citi Bike in New York or Santander Cycles in London is that Vélib’ is much cheaper. A standard Vélib’ subscription with unlimited ride costs $3.70 per month (€3.10). In London, you pay nearly $10 per month (£90 per year). In New York, it costs $15 per month. Subscribing to Vélib’ is a no-brainer.

And this is all due to political will. Vélib’ is a subsidized service. But it’s hard to understand the financial impact of Vélib’ as there are fewer cars on the road, which means that it’s less expensive to maintain roads. Additionally, the impact on pollution and physical activity means that people tend to be healthier, which reduces the pressure on the public health system.

Bike-sharing services can’t work without public money as it fosters network density, which boosts usage. Once the network reaches a critical mass, it’s a never-ending virtuous circle of network expansion and new clients.

Micromobility’s key battleground

A dozen Bikes from Obike in Paris

Image Credits: Romain Dillet / TechCrunch

Many startups have tried to enter the lucrative market with their own take on bike-sharing without docks. Gobee.bike, Obike, Ofo, Mobike and more recently Bolt have all deployed thousands of bikes in the streets of Paris. They’ve all shut down since then. Jump, which is now a Lime subsidiary, is the only remaining contender.

But bikes are just one transportation method among what people call ‘soft mobility’ in France. A French startup called Cityscoot has also been thriving with tens of thousands of rides per day. The company operating free-floating electric moped scooter service.

And then, there are scooters. At some point, there were just too many scooter startups — Bird, Bolt, Bolt by Usain Bolt, Circ, Dott, Hive, Jump, Lime, Tier, Voi, Ufo and Wind. They all had funny-sounding names and there were even two different companies with the same name (Bolt). And I’m probably forgetting a couple of companies.

Image Credits: Romain Dillet / TechCrunch

This shows once again that Paris is an attractive city for micromobility startups. There are many tourists and you can go from A to B quite easily.

The city of Paris had to regulate the market because scooters were taking over urban space. There are now three permits to operate shared electric scooters in Paris — Dott, Lime and Tier. They each operate a fleet of 5,000 scooters and there are now dedicated parking spots.

The 15-minute city

Up next, Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo has some ambitious plans to accelerate the pace of changes. During her reelection campaign earlier this year, she laid out a clear multiyear plan with a key concept: the 15-minute city.

“The 15-minute city represents the possibility of a decentralized city. At its heart is the concept of mixing urban social functions to create a vibrant vicinity,” Carlos Moreno, a professor at University of Paris 1, told Bloomberg.

Essentially, Moreno believes that there shouldn’t be residential neighbourhoods, business districts and commercial areas. Each neighbourhood should be a tiny town on its own with workplaces, stores, movie theaters, health centers, schools, bakeries, etc.

In addition to reducing carbon emissions, the 15-minute concept has the potential of revitalizing neighbourhoods altogether. By prioritizing social functions, roads immediately become an afterthought.

The 15-minute city is a concept that sums up a lot of things in three words. Suddenly, there’s a clear political agenda with a strong brand for the next decade of urban planning.

If I paraphrase neoliberal ideology, many policies trickle down from the 15-minute city. Car ownership is relatively low in Paris — more than 60% of households don’t have a car. Even more striking, people going to work use their car extremely rarely — in 9.5% of cases.

There are two consequences. First, cars are no longer the priority. In 2024, you won’t be able to drive a diesel car in Paris. In 2030, gas-powered cars will be banned.

Some major roads are now primarily focused on ‘soft mobility’. Due to the coronavirus outbreak, the city of Paris took advantage of the lockdown to accelerate their mobility agenda with new bike lanes and repurposed roads. It feels like they’re copying the neoliberal shock doctrine, as explained by Naomi Klein. And yet, in that case, it feels like a reverse shock doctrine as the administration is focusing on green initiatives.

For instance, the Rue de Rivoli used to be a major road that connects the Champs-Elysées to Bastille. Now, one-third of the road is dedicated to buses and two-thirds are reserved for bikes and e-scooters.

Rue de Rivoli. Image Credits: Romain Dillet / TechCrunch

Second, the City of Paris wants to reclaim space. Cars in Paris remain parked 95% of the time. That’s why Paris is going to remove 50% of parking spots. Instead, the city of Paris wants to turn some streets into gardens. There are bigger plans for new parks as well in front of the city hall and between the Eiffel Tower and Trocadéro.

After decades of incremental changes, everything is lining up for a drastic transition. In Paris, change happens progressively, then suddenly.

A bike traffic jam near Bastille, Paris

Image Credits: Romain Dillet / TechCrunch

Barcelona’s Superblocks

The Catalan capital — Spain’s second largest city — approved a new Urban Mobility Plan in 2013 with the aim of flipping street space in favor of pedestrians and away from prioritizing private vehicles. The city has the highest vehicle density in Europe and that’s a major problem.

City authorities report vehicle density at around 6,000 per square kilometer — highlighting the deleterious impact on air quality and public health. Per official stats, traffic pollution causes 3,500 premature deaths annually, 1,800 hospital admissions for cardiorespiratory problems, 5,100 cases of bronchitis in adults, 31,100 cases in children and 54,000 asthma attacks in children and adults.

The city’s solution to this public health crisis is an ambitious pedestrianization plan focused, in recent years, on creating ‘superilles’ — also known as ‘super islands’ or ‘superblocks’ — which switch the function of a number of streets from carrying cars to putting neighbourhood life first.

One of Barcelona’s early superblocks in the Poblenou district. Image Credits: Toni Hermoso Pulido / Flickr under a CC BY-SA 2.0 license

A handful of superblocks have been established over the years. Some, such as one in the Gracia barrio, is already so well established it’s all but invisible to the eye unless you stop to ask yourself how come there are so many pedestrians out and about and the cars that pass have to creep along behind them? Or why the edge of the pavement blends seamlessly into the road with no change of level.

But Barcelona is now planning a major expansion of the policy, championed by mayor Ada Colau, that will see it transform the dense, central Eixample district — creating masses more green (and low speed) urban space over the next ten years. They’re dubbing this the Barcelona superblock, given its central location and the larger scale vs what’s come before.

The superblocks model is naturally suited to micromobility — and building out the city’s network of bike lanes is a key part of the urban mobility plan.

Barcelona has had a red-liveried docked bike rental scheme — called Bicing — since 2007. Recently upgraded to include e-bikes alongside mechanical rides, the scheme isn’t yet as heavily used as its equivalent in Paris (and isn’t open to tourists as the subscription requires a local ID to obtain) but it is very popular with residents.

Per official data, Bicing had more than 127,000 subscribers as of September 2020 who racked up around 1.3 million journeys in the month.

In recent years e-scooter ownership has mushroomed, with no specific legislation preventing private use on public roads, though rental companies have faced regulatory controls — not that that’s prevented plenty of scooter startups, from Bird to Bolt to Wind, from scooter-bombing the city seeking to workaround restrictions.

A pair of Wind e-scooters parked in a Barcelona street in the barrio of Gracia where pedestrians and bikes already have priority over cars. Image Credits: Natasha Lomas / TechCrunch

As well as boosting biking and micromobility, the superblocks plan also aims to boost local commerce as streets flip from being ‘for cars’ to greener and more pleasant spaces where people are encouraged to meet, gather and do business.

In other traffic control policy measures, Barcelona began applying restrictions to vehicles based on their emissions at the start of this year — banning older petrol and diesel cars from entering during peak times. (The policy will apply to delivery transportation from next year.) While residents who own polluting vehicles have been encouraged to give up their cars in exchange for a free three-year public transit card (nudging people toward the existing metro, train and bus network).

With the superblocks transformation, there’s a historical architectural challenge that Barcelona’s urban planners are aiming to overcome.

The grid structure of the central Eixample district — conceived in 1856 by Catalan civil engineer, Illdefons Cerdà — aimed to extend the growing city in a healthy way by allowing for green space within every housing block.

However, the plan was implemented with a lack of regulation that allowed infill by developers and speculators over time, fuelled by rising land values and housing prices. That gobbled up gaps in the blocks intended as open public spaces. The result is a far denser city than Cerdà had planned. And one with streets that — so long as they remain packed with petrol and diesel vehicles — are noisy, polluted and unpleasant places to hang around in.

The Barcelona superblock is thus an attempt to right a historical wrong in the implementation of the city’s urban planning. Or “to modernize the Barcelona of the late nineteenth century and achieve better conditions for public health,” as city authorities put it.

It’s also a cautionary story about the need for proper regulation to accompany urban planning to ensure it serves the public interest — to protect residents’ health, quality of life and local commerce — guarding against deleterious external forces powered by private economic interests.

Around a third of Eixample’s 61 streets will be flipped to make way for a “green axes” of pedestrianized carriageway by 2030, under the Barcelona superblock plan. It will also create 21 new public squares at diagonal intersections.

The transformation of the zone will be slow, with city authorities wanting to make sure they bring residents along with them. But they have data to champion the plan — drawing on the success of a handful of existing superblocks, such as one in the Poblenou district — and can point to examples such as a third less NO2 pollution at one of the flipped interchanges and a similar increase in street level commercial activity.

The detail of the new street model has not yet been determined — the city is holding a design competition to choose that next year — but it’s set key parameters such as the need for 80% of the street to be shaded by trees/vegetation in summer, and at least 20% of its surface to be permeable rather than paved.

The city’s vision for the evolution of streets in the Barcelona superblock. Image Credits: Barcelona City Council

“It will be necessary to generate walking spaces, spaces that facilitate spontaneous children’s play and comfortable living spaces,” it writes in a press release [translated from Catalan]. “The design will have to allow for flexible spaces that can accommodate various occasional uses such as fairs, concerts and other acts. All with a feminist vision, prioritizing children and the elderly and promoting services and local trade.”

City authorities describe the aim as “a more sustainable model of public space, healthy and designed for people” — and one which “promotes social relations, which encourages local trade and focuses on the needs of children and seniors.”

They have also committed to maintain access to public transport throughout the superblocks.

Work on converting the first four streets is slated to begin in the first quarter of 2022: In Consell de Cent, Girona, Rocafort and Comte Borrell. City authorities have committed $44.8 million (€37.8 million) to these first transformations — though clearly a lot more public funding will be needed to deliver the full switch.

The coronavirus pandemic has acted as a small-scale opportunity for accelerating pedestrian-focused urban remodeling — enabling city authorities to expand Barcelona’s network of bike lanes during the relative quiet of lockdowns, and install some emergency pedestrian zones to expand outdoor space as an anti-COVID-19 measure.

Some street parking around the city has also been requisitioned and repurposed to make outdoor terrace space for cafés and bars during the pandemic.

But the need to reset an urban infrastructure that’s unhealthily monopolized by motorized traffic is an issue the city has been grappling with for decades — slowly chipping away at the problem with a variety of policies, such as those that allow for temporary road closures for local events and at weekends.

So for many Barcelona residents it’s not controversial to say that creating healthy, commercially active urban spaces means cars giving way to foot traffic. And the 2030 ‘Barcelona superblock’ looks like it will tip the balance for good.

That said, criticism of the project includes that it’s not radical enough — leaving a number of high-speed thoroughfares to keep on slicing right through the heart of the city. So Barcelona’s creep away from cars doesn’t yet look as radical as what’s being planned in Paris.

A Bird e-scooter parked next to a bike lane in Barcelona’s Poblenou district. Image Credits: Natasha Lomas / TechCrunch

London’s Low-Traffic Neighbourhoods

The UK capital has operated congestion charging in central zones of the city since 2003 — charging motorists to drive into the area in a bid to reduce road use during the busiest times. The policy made London a major European pioneer in applying controls on urban car use.

However, a lack of public and political consensus on the issue has restricted policy development for long periods — and even led to a rolling back, at the end of 2010, when then London mayor, Boris Johnson, scrapped a portion of the zone known as the western extension.

London’s huge population and sprawling size — with commercial zones tending to be clustered and concentrated away from large swathes of residential housing (which are often segregated by income) — means the issue of how to get around can be a divisive one, for people and businesses. So, it’s not an obvious candidate for going ‘car free’.

Yet, at the same time, London is extremely well served with public transport (buses, subways, trams and trains) — meaning plenty of journeys can be made without owning or using a private vehicle. There has also been investment in expanding the city’s network of cycle lanes in recent decades. And since 2010 a pay-as-you-go docked bike rental scheme has been in operation — racking up more than 10 million trips in total as of 2017.

Though, again, car-clogged streets and a Northern European climate can put limits on people’s willingness to brave the elements on two wheels.

London’s docked bike hire scheme. Image Credits: Elliott Brown / Flickr under a CC BY-SA 2.0 license

Existing UK regulations have also held back the uptake of modern alternatives like e-scooters — though there are now moves to open up streets to this type of micromobility, with the city’s transport regulator preparing a trial for scooter rental companies.

While a lack of decisive political action to curb car use has undoubtedly contributed to decades of terrible air quality in London — with drastic impacts on public health (one study in 2015 suggested deaths from long term exposed to pollution could be as high as 9,500 annually) — rising awareness of the health risks associated with urban traffic has led city authorities to push policies that aim to deter the most polluting vehicles from driving through the congestion zone by applying a surcharge, Which appears to have led to a decline in peak pollution levels.

London’s ‘ultra-low emission zone’ (Ulez) will also be expanded to cover a larger area of the city next year. So, there’s been a centralized and somewhat sustained push to make urban car use cleaner and less harmful, even though there’s been an inconsistent approach to discouraging car use itself.

But, in a more radical recent development, the shock of the coronavirus has fuelled grassroots campaigns at a borough/neighbourhood level to bar through-traffic in residential neighbourhoods.

This is done by implementing so-called low traffic neighbourhoods (LTNs) which use a variety of interventions to limit traffic — such as strategically placed planters or bollards and/or timed road use restrictions to block rat runs.

Residents in a number of London boroughs who are sick of living alongside the noise and pollution generated by traffic have seized on the opportunity of COVID-19-related mobility restrictions to restrict access to roads in their immediate vicinity to through traffic.

Per Bloomberg, there were 114 plans for LTNs in the works in London as of late July.

There’s push and pull here too, with LTNs generating opposition, including complaints that rat-running cars are simply being displaced to other streets.

There are also important socioeconomic critiques that they disproportionately benefit wealthier areas at the expense of more deprived neighbourhoods.

Such opposition may in part reflect the relative rapidness of implementation since the pandemic — something a more participatory process and well-rounded monitoring and consultation might be able to avoid.

But for those lucky to be living in LTNs the gains look hard to ignore. “Now, instead of speeding cars, the streets carry street chalk, murals, flowers, and signs with children’s illustrations asking people to step out of their car and explore the neighborhood,” Bloomberg reports on the changed character of street life in one LTN.

Image Credits: Richard Baker / In Pictures / Getty Images

In May, London’s mayor, Sadiq Khan — who has pledged to make London carbon neutral by 2030 if he’s reelected next year — announced a ‘Streetspace’ plan: Pushing a range of policies aimed at “rapidly transforming London’s streets to accommodate a possible 10x increase in cycling and 5x increase in walking.”

The plan also explicitly encourages scooting alongside walking and cycling as an urban mobility priority in London.

Part of the motivation for the policy push has been trying to steer Londoners away from a mass regressive switch away from London’s public transport — and into cars — as lockdown restrictions ease yet the risk of COVID-19 infection lingers.

Khan’s Streetspace plan also voices support for LTNs. But, ultimately, the power to restrict London traffic rests with local councils (or central government) — leaving the mayor to “urge” government/borough councils to get on board with measures aimed at persuading Londoners to switch to “cleaner, more sustainable forms of transport”.

The lack of a central London authority with a policy plan for LTNs may limit how far or fast these through-traffic-free neighbourhoods can spread in the UK capital.

Nonetheless it’s an interesting development that shows how much appetite there is among Londoners to reclaim residential streets for neighbourhood life.

Image Credits: Photo by Richard Baker / In Pictures / Getty Images

Milan’s Open Streets

Italy’s industrial north was among the hardest hit regions in Europe during the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic. An extended lockdown was implemented — clearing cars off the streets of cities like Milan for months, as businesses got shuttered and residents were confined indoors — which in turn led to a noticeable improvement in air quality in a region infamous for pollution.

Since then, authorities in Milan have seized on the enforced break with a smog-filled ‘norm’ to push forward with an experimental citywide expansion of cycling lanes and pedestrianized zones — under a mobility plan called Strade Aperte (aka Open Streets) that’s aimed at adapting city infrastructure to find space for social distancing as urban life gets opened back up.

The Open Streets plan includes dropping the speed limit to 30kmph on a majority of Milan’s roads (replacing a 50kmph maximum), via signage and incorporating some structural elements for speed control; and adding 35km to its existing bike network before the end of the year.

The city launched its docked bike rental scheme, BikeMI, in 2008.

Image Credits: Emanuele Cremaschi / Getty Images

“As the Milan 2020 Adaptation Strategy foresees, the current health crisis can be an opportunity to decide to give more space to people and improve the environmental conditions in the city, increasing more sustainable, non-polluting, means of travel and redefining the use of streets and public spaces for commercial, recreational, cultural, and sport purposes, while respecting physical distance requirements,” city authorities write in a memo on the plan.

The overarching policy push is toward the same goal as Paris’ vision: Supporting what’s described as “the neighbourhood dimension” — aka making sure every citizen has access to almost all services within 15 minutes’ walk.

This is a strategic aim while residents are forced to live alongside the virus — and some of the measures are being couched as ‘temporary’.

But while the pandemic is acting as a catalyst/justification for rapid changes, city authorities were already looking for ways to repurpose urban infrastructure to deliver health benefits to citizens, environmental gains and boost local commerce by getting people out of cars and peddling/walking through the neighbourhood.

So, it’s hard to see where the impetus would come from to advocate a reversal back to noisier, more polluted, less playful streets.

In Milan, it’s the same story: The direction of urban travel is about rethinking streets as open public spaces for people and hyper-local micromobility, rather than letting cars colonize the commons and render its roads default highways elsewhere. Addio macchina.

Image Credits: Mairo Cinquetti / NurPhoto / Getty Images

Lime plans for ‘modes’ beyond bikes and scooters in 2021

By Kirsten Korosec

Lime is launching its fourth-generation scooter in Paris this week, an example the company says of its financial turnaround and commitment to growth. But the product rollout isn’t over.

Lime CEO Wayne Ting hinted Thursday during the WSJ Future of Everything event that a “third mode,” beyond bikes and scooters, is also in the works for the first quarter of 2021, as well as the addition of third-party companies to its platform. Earlier this year, Lime started to include on its app Wheels-branded electric bikes in certain cities. Ting said users should expect more partnerships like these.

Ting wouldn’t give specifics on this “third mode” except to explain that it will probably serve a slightly longer distance than its scooters and be better at carrying cargo.

“We want to make sure that it continues to appeal to different demographics that maybe don’t see themselves on a scooter,” Ting added.

For now, Lime is focused on deploying the Gen4, a model that Ting says will surpass the more than two-year lifespan of its previous generation. The Gen4 will roll out across Europe in early 2021. Much of the Gen4 work was done by engineers at Uber’s Jump micromobility unit. Uber offloaded Jump to Lime this spring as part of a complex $170 million fundraising round.

TechCrunch previously viewed photos of Jump’s impending scooter, which never happened. The vast majority of Jump employees were laid off. Lime has said some Jump employees were retained.

Lime gave some credit to the Jump employees in a blog post Thursday and thanked them for their “work in the initial development of this new model.” Lime said its R&D team added to the design to bring it to market and will iterate further on the Gen4 over time. Lime focused on improving the Jump scooter’s durability and swapped out some parts that would allow the company to reuse parts from existing Lime vehicles. 

The Gen4 features swept-back handlebars that are similar to the design of bike handles, which Lime says allows for a more comfortable grip. The new model also sports an enhanced suspension and larger wheels, a dual hand-brake system, a lower baseboard to optimize the center of gravity on the scooter and a new kickstand with two legs.

Perhaps the biggest change is the addition of a swappable battery, which Ting described as a “huge improvement on existing technology.” These swappable batteries will be interchangeable with the Lime bike fleet, further streamlining its operations, the company said Thursday.

Lime Gen4 specs scooter

Image Credits: Lime

Lime said Thursday it was both operating cash flow positive and free cash flow positive in the third quarter — a first — and is on pace to be full-year profitable, excluding certain costs (EBIT), in 2021. That turnaround will allow the company to continue to invest in product development and expand its footprint, according to Ting.

Greece’s Marathon Venture Capital completes first close for Fund II, reaching $47M

By Mike Butcher

Marathon Venture Capital in Athens, Greece has completed the first closing of its second fund, reaching the €40m / $47M mark. Backing the new fund is the European Investment Fund, HDBI, as well as corporates, family offices and HNWIs around the world (plus many Greek founders). It plans to invest in Seed-stage startups from €1m to 1.5m initial tickets for 15-20% of equity.

Team changes include Thaleia Misailidou being promoted to Principal, and Chris Gasteratos is promoted to Associate.

Marathon’s most prominent portfolio company is Netdata, which last year raised a $17 million Series A led by Bain Capital, and later raised another $14m from Bessemer. On the success side, Uber’s pending $1.4B+ acquisition of BMW/Daimler’s mobility group was in part driven by a Marathon-backed startup, Taxibeat, which was earlier acquired by Daimler.

Partners George Tziralis and Panos Papadopoulos tell me the fund is focused generally on enterprise/B2B, plus “Greek founders, anywhere”.

Highlights of Fund One’s investments include:

  • Netdata (leading infra monitoring OSS, backed by Bessemer & Bain)
  • Lenses (leader in DataOps, backed by 83North)
  • Hack The Box (cybersecurity adversarial training labs)
  • Learnworlds (business-in-a-box for course creators)
  • Causaly (cause-and-effect discovery in pharma)
  • Augmenta (autonomous precision agriculture)

Tziralis tells me the majority of its next ten companies have already raised a Series A round.

Tziralis and Papadopoulos have been key players in the Greek startups scene, backing many of the first startups to emerge from the country over 13 years ago. And they were enthusiastic backers of our TechCrunch Athens meetup many years ago.

Three years ago, they launched Marathon Venture Capital to take their efforts to the next level. Fund I invested in 10 companies with the first fund, and most have raised a Series A. The portfolio as a whole has raised 4x their total invested amount and maintains an estimated total enterprise value of $350 million.

They’ve also been running the “Greeks in Tech” meetups all over the world – Berlin to London to New York to San Francisco, and many more locations in between, connecting with Greek founders.

5 key innovations taking e-scooters to a half-billion rides in 2021

By Walter Thompson
Travis VanderZanden Contributor
Travis VanderZanden is the founder and CEO of Bird.

Four years ago, shared e-scooters didn’t exist. Today, they’re on track to surpass half a billion rides globally by 2021, far outpacing early growth in the carbon-heavy ride-hailing industry founded by Uber in 2009.

That’s a dramatic shift in urban transportation by any measure, and it prompts a simple but important question: How did we get here?

Understanding the key developments that helped advance micromobility over the past several years can give us valuable insights not only into where the industry is headed, but about how we can successfully shape it to meet the needs of hundreds of millions of current and future riders around the world.

From vehicle design and data to safety reporting and infrastructure, these five innovative moments have helped fuel the global growth of shared e-scooters and are helping lead cities into a healthier, more sustainable future.

#1: Shared scooters launched (fall 2017)

The very first fleet of Bird e-scooters was launched in Santa Monica, California in September of 2017. Up until this point, the micromobility industry consisted almost entirely of docked and dockless bike sharing systems that were averaging approximately 35 million trips across the United States every year — more than half of them in New York City alone.

After an encouraging start, shared e-scooter riders in the U.S. took nearly 39 million trips in 2018 and another 86 million the following year. A similar trajectory is being seen across the Atlantic, as nations such as Italy, England and the Ukraine join a rapidly expanding list of countries including Germany, France, Israel, Spain, Portugal, Belgium, Denmark, Poland and others who have chosen to supplement their urban transportation networks with modern micromobility alternatives.

Shared scooters can now be found in over 200 cities on almost every continent around the world.

#2: First custom-designed shared scooters released (fall 2018)

The first e-scooter programs taught us two things very quickly: There’s high demand for this type of micromobility offering, and custom-designed vehicles are necessary to successfully meet that demand.

The fact is, shared scooters are ridden more frequently, handle more diverse road surfaces and endure more varied weather conditions than privately owned ones. That’s why Bird’s vehicle team unveiled the industry’s first custom-designed e-scooter, the Bird Zero, in October of 2018. Equipped with more battery life, better lighting, enhanced durability and more advanced GPS technology, this was the first in a series of comprehensive vehicle evolutions intended to increase safety, sustainability and lifespan — and it worked. Tens of thousands of these scooters are still in use today, and every month of continued service reduces their already low per-mile lifetime carbon emissions even further.

Subsequent custom vehicle designs, including the Bird One and Bird Two, have added onto this foundation, introducing industry-first features such as:

  • On-board diagnostic sensors capable of detecting over 200 faults.
  • Vehicle intelligence systems capable of running and reporting millions of autonomous fault checks per day.
  • IP67 or IP68 waterproofing on batteries.
  • 14,000 mile (22,500 km) battery life, resulting in more than 10 years of average everyday use.
  • Mechanical design independently tested to withstand more than 60,000 curbside impacts.

#3: Comprehensive industry safety report released (spring 2019)

Safety has rightly been the most important focus, and the most discussed aspect, of shared micromobility since its inception. It’s why Bird launched the industry’s earliest and most comprehensive free helmets for all riders campaign in January of 2018, along with a host of other safety initiatives.

In April of 2019, these programs culminated in a comprehensive e-scooter safety report. This was the first in-depth look at modern micromobility systems, using accident reports and other data to demonstrate that shared scooters have risks and vulnerabilities similar to bicycles. The report laid the groundwork for cooperative safety measures to be taken by both operators and cities to ensure that not only riders and pedestrians but all road users are protected.

Over the past year and a half, we’ve used the findings contained within the report, along with others that have since echoed its findings, to imagine and develop a series of product innovations that are helping set the standard for e-scooter safety across the industry. These include:

  • Shared micromobility’s first Helmet Selfie feature to promote helmet use.
  • Shared micromobility’s first Warm Up Mode feature to assist new riders.
  • The first and most accurate geofencing for e-scooters to create reduced-speed and no-riding zones.
  • Responsible data-sharing standards and practices to help cities build new infrastructure for bikes and scooters.

#4: Open Mobility Foundation created (summer 2019)

The last bullet above is particularly important. Cities have a crucial role to play in limiting the number of cars on the road and maximizing the amount of infrastructure available for bikes and scooters. It’s a proven strategy to improve the safety of all road users that depends heavily on one critical input: reliable, standardized data.

Since our first launch, Bird has been a strong proponent of responsible data sharing with cities. What was lacking, however, was a unified body to help guide and develop mobility data standards across the micromobility industry.

All of that changed in June of 2019, when cities like Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco came together with companies like Bird and Microsoft and a consortium of nonprofit organizations called OASIS to form the Open Mobility Foundation (OMF). As chairperson and general manager of the LADOT Seleta Reynolds wrote in Forbes, the OMF platform “helps us achieve important city goals like increasing safety, equity, and health outcomes, while lowering emissions, and reducing congestion.”

These collaborative efforts to manage micromobility systems using open-source code and shared data standards might seem wonky, but they’ve had some very tangible real-world effects. In Atlanta, shared e-scooter data has been used to quadruple the city’s protected bike lanes by 2021. Santa Monica recently used scooter data to draft and pass an amendment that will add 19 new miles of separated micromobility infrastructure.

#5: UK, NY e-scooter programs approved (spring 2020)

This year’s decisions by the UK and the state of New York to legalize shared e-scooters and launch respective pilot programs may not be an innovation, but it’s a crucial development that will ensure the industry tops 500 million rides in 2021.

From an environmental and urban mobility perspective, London and New York are two of the most important cities in the world. Combined, they’re home to 17 million people and more than 10 million daily car trips. The introduction of e-scooters into these two densely packed and highly mobile cities will have a dramatic impact on daily commuter habits, particularly at a time when public transit ridership is still suffering due to COVID-19. That’s good news for cities, citizens and the environment.

The data that will be gained from such a high volume of micromobility rides won’t just help inform infrastructure improvements in New York and London. It will be added to a growing body of research that’s rapidly influencing micromobility technology and accelerating its adoption around the world.

Looking forward

So what can we learn from all of this? What will the first four years and 500 million rides of the shared e-scooter industry tell us about the future of micromobility?

First, we should expect its growth to continue. Adaptable, environmentally friendly solutions to car congestion and urban pollution were in high demand even before the global spread of the coronavirus in 2020. Now they’re proving themselves to be a necessity. Look for the relationships between cities and operators to strengthen and become more cooperative as scooters transition from a perceived recreational vehicle to an essential part of the urban transportation grid. This will include dramatic, data-informed improvements in protected infrastructure for both cyclists and scooter riders.

Second, we should anticipate that e-scooter technology will continue to develop around two key pillars: safety and sustainability. This applies as much to the form and functionality of the vehicles themselves as it does to the daily operations that manage them. Longer lifespan, improved battery performance, increased durability and enhanced diagnostics will be the benchmarks by which we measure this progress.

Finally, we should anticipate that, as the data from hundreds of millions of annual rides continues to accumulate, our understanding of urban mobility needs will become much clearer and more nuanced. Urban planning decisions will be able to be made based on street and hour-specific needs, identifying potentially dangerous areas and taking low-cost, high-impact actions to remedy them.

If current trends continue, and there’s every reason to believe that they will, the time it takes to add another half-billion e-scooter rides to the global total will very soon shrink from four years to less than one.

E-scooter startup Tier raises $250 million round led by SoftBank Vision Fund 2

By Romain Dillet

Berlin-based micro-mobility startup Tier has raised a significant Series C round of $250 million. SoftBank Vision Fund 2 is leading the round, which proves that the Vision Fund team is still focused on high-risk, high-potential bets.

As a reminder, SoftBank has invested in many late-stage funding rounds through its Vision Fund team. Portfolio companies include Nuro, Getaround, GetYourGuide, DoorDash, Grab and WeWork. But this is the first time the company is investing in a scooter-sharing startup.

Tier’s existing investors Mubadala Capital, Northzone, Goodwater Capital, White Star Capital, Novator and RTP Global are also participating in today’s funding round. According to the Financial Times, the company is now valued just below $1 billion.

While Tier isn’t a well-known brand in the U.S., the company has been expanding rapidly across Europe. It now operates in 80 cities across ten countries. There are 60,000 electric scooters available in the app.

Like other e-scooter rentals startups, such as Lime, Bird and Dott, Tier lets you unlock a scooter using an app and lock it somewhere else. You get billed by the minute.

With the new influx of cash, the company plans to expand to more cities, deploy more vehicles and launch new products. The startup is also in the process of securing an important credit line to finance more vehicles.

Tier is also trying to differentiate itself from competitors. For instance, the company has been working on the fourth generation of its scooter with user-swappable batteries.

Image Credits: Tier

Most scooter startups already feature swappable batteries integrated in the deck. Micro-mobility companies roam around cities to replace those batteries. But Tier wants to expose those batteries so that users can swap those batteries themselves.

That’s why Tier wants to build energy networks in European cities. Small shops can choose to partner with Tier so that they can offer battery docks with four slots. Users can take a minute at the end of their ride to swap the battery and earn free credit. That battery network is reminiscent of Gogoro’s network of charging stations in Taiwan.

Tier, like Dott, sees itself as a logistics company, not a sharing-economy company. Instead of bringing costs down by relying on underpaid freelancing partners, the company tries to optimize its processes and relies on a centralized system.

As for other differentiating factors, Tier is starting to attach a box below the handlebar to store a foldable helmet for its users. When old scooter models are phased out, Tier sells refurbished scooters to German consumers on myTIER. The company also acquired electric mopeds in Berlin.

According to Business Insider, Tier has been profitable on an EBITDA basis for the third quarter of 2020. But the company reported some losses during the first half of the year. There is some seasonality with scooter rides as people are more likely to ride a scooter during the summer season.

It’s also hard to predict how the market will evolve due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. But Tier now has enough cash to stick around for a while.

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