Last month, Helbiz announced that it had officially acquired Wheels, the West Hollywood-based startup founded by Joshua and Jonathan Viner, co-founders of Wag. But in Los Angeles, there were already signs that things were in flux.
In early August, Culver City announced that Wheels would no longer be operating within its boundaries. Then in September, Wheels also ceased operations in West Hollywood, pending adoption of sidewalk detection technology.
In the past, Wheels has prided itself on being the only shared e-scooter or e-bike operator to serve riders across the greater L.A. metro area — including the city of L.A., Santa Monica, Culver City and West Hollywood. There are 88 municipalities in L.A. County and each one controls its own shared micromobility program with different rules, regulations and fees. Beverly Hills does not allow scooters to operate or park within its boundaries, while the city of L.A. has six different operators competing for space in lucrative zones like Downtown and Venice (Lyft is out as of mid-November).
In a September city council meeting, West Hollywood announced a new sidewalk detection requirement for its three operators, Bird, Lime and Wheels. While all three have geofencing technology, sidewalk detection is more precise and meant to deter riders from riding on the sidewalk.
“[Wheels] didn't want to roll it out if it was going to be off by a couple of feet,” said Coby Wagman, parking operations supervisor for West Hollywood. “That could be the difference between someone on the street, a bike lane or a sidewalk.”
Once Wheels can demonstrate to the city that they have the technology, the company will be allowed to rejoin the Dockless Mobility Pilot Program.
But in Culver City, things are less certain.
According to Ryan Hund, a transportation planner for the Culver City Transportation Department, the city is currently evaluating their shared micromobility program to determine whether they will accept new applications.
“In order to operate in Culver City,” he said via email, “Wheels would have to go through the same RFQ [request for qualification] process as any other potential operators.”
Currently, Bird is the only operator in Culver City’s shared micromobility program.
In an emailed statement to dot.LA, Wheels CEO Marco McCottry said that Wheels is planning to return to both cities eventually.
"We’ve had to make tough decisions in our business and operating in Culver City doesn’t make sense for us at this time. We hope to work with [the] city to relaunch in the future. We look forward to returning to West Hollywood as they recently added a sidewalk detection requirement for operators which we will be demoing soon."
These strategic moves come at a rocky moment for shared micromobility. Bird just announced that it overstated revenue for the last two years, causing its stock to plummet. The company says it might not have enough cash to continue operations. Earlier this month, Lyft laid off 13% of its employees and last week it pulled all e-bikes and e-scooters from Santa Monica and L.A.
In an email, Juan Matute, deputy director of the UCLA Institute of Transportation Studies, said that Santa Monica’s future shared micromobility program is the one to watch as companies start to drop out of the market.
“Investors subsidized scooter operations for years,” he said. “Though some of this investment went into technology, most went into unprofitable competition because the company wanted to [be] the last standing.”
Santa Monica will begin recruiting two operators for a three-to-five year term in January 2023.
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