Wheels and Its Push to Be the Next Generation for Micro-Mobility

Wheels app co-founders Jon and Josh Viner tell Playboy about their move into the crowded space

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2019 may be a make-or-break year for micro-mobility companies. Whether or not you’re a customer yourself—or even familiar with the term at all—if you live in any kind of urban environment, it’s more than likely you’ll find yourself impacted by what they’re doing across the U.S. and beyond.

In its purest sense, “micro-mobility” simply means the usage of vehicles that carry at most two passengers at any given time. Certain smart cars count as micro-mobile, as does the Segway—remember the Segway?—and both bicycles and scooters, which is where our story really begins. Citizens of cities like San Francisco, D.C. and Los Angeles will have noticed a peculiar phenomenon over the past year or so: a lot of scooters. Everywhere. Just waiting to be picked up and used by anyone with a credit card and the right app on their phone.

The current landscape of micro-mobility is one dominated by companies with names like Bird, Lime and Skip, although ride-hailing companies like Lyft and Uber have been trying to muscle into the space as well. It’s easy to see why—more than $5.7 billion has been invested in micro-mobility companies since 2015, and although the vast majority of that figure has happened with companies targeting China where the trend got started, U.S. companies have also seen staggering growth. Bird, which launched in September 2017, became the fastest startup to reach a valuation of a billion dollars back in June last year; a month later, that amount had doubled. After its last round of VC investment, Lime was valued at $2.4 billion.
What’s behind the investor excitement? A confluence of factors. It’s an emerging market, for one thing; while cab rides, rental cars and public transportation have long addressed the need for long-haul personal transportation, solutions to what’s called the “last mile” problem—which is to say, how does someone get from their train station or bus stop to their final destination, a journey of a mile or less—are a fairly recent development, in terms of customer service.

It’s also a green solution, which helps sell the idea, especially in urban environments, where these businesses thrive. Electric scooters and bikes have around one to two percent of the carbon emissions of a car, and the Environmental Protection Agency is on record as suggesting that, if drivers decided to walk or bike instead of drive for all car trips less than a mile, more than two million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions per year would be averted. As climate change continues to become more and more of a primary topic of discussion, these are numbers that make a lot of sense to a lot of people.

For those who prefer less fuzzy metrics, there’s the fact that there is clearly a customer base hungry for the product. In a little over a year of operation in just 100 cities, Bird logged more than 10 million rides. In cities where micro-mobility companies operate, Uber saw a drop in business. (It compensated by buying its own micro-mobility startup, Jump.) A comparison of customer growth between Lime and Lyft showed that the micro-mobility company hit 1 million rides in half the amount of time it took the car-ride company—31 weeks versus 61, if you’re curious. There’s a market out there, and it’s one ready to switch over from other modes of transport, literally.
So far, so good, right? Well, perhaps not. Beyond a surprisingly high accident rate for scooters, the market hasn’t gotten bigger in the manner the companies might have expected, and both Bird and Lyft’s micro-mobility divisions have been forced to make significant layoffs in the last month. If micro-mobility genuinely is the future of personal transportation, it might not arrive in the shape these companies expected.

Which brings us to Wheels, a new micro-mobility startup that aims to learn from the example—and the mistakes—of its predecessors.

Founded in January 2019 by Jonathan and Joshua Viner—the brothers behind dog-walking app Wag, which scaled to 100 cities before their departure—Wheels has just launched in Los Angeles, the largest dockless mobility market in the U.S., after its hugely successful launch in San Diego. (We’ll get to how successful soon enough.) The secret ingredient that gives Wheels a solid claim to being the next generation in micro-mobility? A next-generation vehicle.

“We were investors in Lime and got really excited about the space,” Jonathan, who serves as Wheels president, explains to Playboy. “We noticed that there is a huge opportunity to create the next-generation product for micro-mobility, really centered around having much bigger wheels and seat, so people could have a much smoother ride with a lower center of gravity. I love the fun of the scooters, but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve fallen off of those things. I’ve had a bunch of minor injuries. I just wanted to create a product that I felt comfortable on, and I felt comfortable having other people I care about ride.”
I love the fun of the scooters, but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve fallen off of those things. I just wanted to create a product that I felt comfortable on.
The result is more than just a simple redesign, and the Wheels bike is purposefully not a scooter. “Scooters were a great way to enter a market—really, to create a market—but we didn’t see those as utility vehicles that will be around for the next 10 to 20 years as cities evolve,” Viner says. The bike doesn’t just have 14-inch wheels or a comfortable foam seat—it also has phone-charging capabilities and built-in bluetooth speakers, allowing users to do more than just get to work on time.

Reenvisioning the existing micro-mobility model goes further than simply redesigning the vehicle, according to Jonathan’s brother and Wheels CEO, Joshua. “We need to have a differentiated operations model to solve a lot of problems in the existing space,” he says. “That’s why we went with a much different, much more sophisticated model, which has a real-time, dynamic maintenance platform, with swappable parts—which leads to much higher up-time and significantly longer lifespan of the devices, making the overall economics much more attractive.”

The note about a longer lifespan is a worthwhile one. Some estimates suggest that the average lifespan of a scooter can be as short as just four months, thanks to damage or misuse by customers. That’s a lot of broken scooters lying around somewhere in a very short period. By comparison, Joshua argues, the Wheels bike “truly is a green product, not only because it doesn’t use gasoline. If you end up with thousands of devices in a landfill, that’s not particularly green, either. We’re approaching the subject holistically.”
If you end up with thousands of devices in a landfill, that’s not particularly green.
These changes, and others—for example, Wheels has removable electric batteries, avoiding the need for the bikes to be recharged in the homes of contractors who collect them from the streets—have, so far, been eagerly accepted by those inside the industry and beyond. The company recently brought on former Lyft executive Ben Shanken as chief product officer, plus Bird’s former director of operators Marco McCottry as chief operating officer. According to Jonathan, “They’ve seen what we are doing, and they’re very excited.” And as for end users, the company’s San Diego experience suggests that they’re on board as well.

“We did this study in San Diego, over 300 research hours over eight locations—we compared the use of our devices against Jump, Lyft, Lime [and] Bird, and some other companies as well,” Joshua says. “We discovered that we were making up about 40 percent of the core ride, and the second highest was Lime, making up about 26 percent of the ride. We’ve proven, through data, that even though other companies have been in the space a lot longer and raised more money, we’re leading the way towards change, and people are gravitating towards us.”

And as to where the change is headed, the Viners are thinking big. “You have the scooter, which is tackling the last mile, and then you have Wheels, and we’re tackling the last under-three-miles,” Joshua explains. “Who we’re competing against isn’t just Lyme and Bird, but UberX or driving yourself. Our real mission is to get cars off the road. If you look at the size of the whole transportation market—even just the market of Uber—the space is just so, so large. We’re really just scratching the surface.”

“We’ve kind of done everything very differently from everyone else, and that’s where we see the opportunity to take this industry to the next level,” Jonathan adds. “That’s why we built the company.”

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