🚲 How Bikes and Scooters Help People Navigate Cities

Podcast: Conversation with Katie Stevens, Lime's Global Head of Policy

Happy Urban Tech Thursday! Welcome back to the best newsletter and podcast for people interested in cities and tech.

This week’s edition features my recent conversation with Lime’s Global Head of Policy, Katie Stevens.

Where to listen

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Katie is a policy and transportation expert. As the Global Head of Policy, she oversees Lime's policy planning and leads a team of experts working on the diverse set of issues that support shared mobility goals. 

Joining Lime in 2018 as senior director for government relations in the western U.S., Katie previously led state and local government relations for eBay, and has worked at all levels of government in policy development—largely around transportation, renewable energy, and innovation.

Katie provided me with a ton of context for thinking about how all tech companies more effectively work with governments to solve urban problems. You're going to learn a ton.

A couple of notes before diving in:

This weekend we'll be publishing another podcast episode to the feed. I spoke with Carl Vernersson, the chief commercial officer of Voi. Voi is a Swedish micromobility company looking to break into the U.S., starting with New York City, which is finally allowing scooter operators to come in later this Spring.

While I typically cover American companies, Carl explained what it's like trying to break into the competitive American market as a European-based operator. The abridged transcript will run as part of Monday's news edition.

Next Thursday, we have a conversation that I know you're going to enjoy. Yesterday, I recorded a podcast with Political Strategist and Venture Capitalist Bradley Tusk.

Many Urban Tech readers are likely familiar with Bradley’s work, but here’s his background if you aren’t familiar:

He is the CEO and co-founder of Tusk Ventures, the world’s first venture capital fund that invests solely in early stage startups in highly regulated industries, the founder and CEO of political consulting firm Tusk Strategies, and the co-founder and Chairman of the Ivory Gaming Acquisition Corp, a publicly traded company on the NASDAQ. Bradley’s family foundation is funding and leading the national campaign to bring mobile voting to all U.S. elections.

Previously, Bradley served as campaign manager for Mike Bloomberg’s 2009 mayoral race, as Deputy Governor of Illinois, overseeing the state’s budget, operations, legislation, policy and communications, as communications director for US Senator Chuck Schumer, and as Uber’s first political advisor.

We covered a lot of ground in the conversation. Here are a few of the things we discussed:

  • Bradley explained his thoughts on the growth of new tech hubs, like Austin and Miami.

  • He shared the qualities that he thinks are essential for mayors and urban leaders to lead cities into the future.

  • We talked about how tech is changing the political landscape for leaders in both parties across local, state, and federal levels.

Okay, let’s get to my conversation with Katie.

JT: Katie, thank you for taking the time. I know you're super busy right now. It's been a crazy week. Lime is a company that I hear from Urban Tech readers that they're always following. Micromobility is a sector that I've covered some of before. Right now, what are you spending your days on; what's taking up a lot of your time in the crazy world of COVID?

KS: First of all, John, thank you for having me. I think at this point in the COVID reality that we're in; I would like to have thought that we would have been in recovery by now.

Come February, March when Covid hit and the industry was questioning will people ride scooters or bikes? Are we getting COVID from rides? How are people contracting it?

But what does this mean long-term for mobility? Shortly after that, we determined scooters and bikes are some of the safest ways to get around. It's open air.

People picking Covid up from a surface is unlikely, but we sanitize scooters on every touch anyway. When you're in a much more confined area, ridehailing, or even your personal car, those isolated areas are where you can more easily pick it up.

What we are now focused on is this continued pervasiveness of COVID. An example would be early on where we continued to provide service to South Korea -- even during COVID because they had such a strong reaction. Cases were very minimal. We have fantastic services in South Korea, and so we maintained, and it was very successful. Now, South Korea is struggling as well, with cases across the world.  

We slowly came back to offer essential workers, because we have a Limeade program. We started to ramp back up into cities, offering to help essential workers get to work by providing them free rides. 

A number of cities deemed us essential transportation. If you would've asked me three years ago when pedal bikes were showing up on city sidewalks, and cities were very unhappy, that someday cities would consider scooters an essential part of their transportation network in a crisis, I would've said you're crazy. 

But, we are not surprised by it. We know people ride scooters. They ride them a lot, and they love them and they love their e-bikes. They serve different use cases. And when cities like LA and Austin came to us and said, "we actually think you're an essential part of our transportation network. We want you to continue to operate, and we'd love for you to stay here." 

And we've continued in those cities. Now we've ramped up again, and now we're looking at cities that are beginning to shut down again with cases spiking. We're continuing to grapple with providing the essential services, really, then focusing on not just what we're doing today, but how do we let cities recover? How do we support cities and small businesses? Some things we're doing revolve around helping public transit come back at the end of the day

We have such a strong nexus between ridership and serving that first-mile and last-mile for commuters and, certainly to and from public transit, even when people aren't commuting.

Secondly, as we're looking towards the post-COVID world, our goal is supporting cities in making those difficult, bold long-term infrastructure changes that we're starting to see. We saw cities move towards slow streets, especially in the U.S. Many of them adopted this change to slower car speeds on streets. This is great; we should definitely retain them. 

Many cities are, and we're providing them with support from our advocacy team. We're doing whatever we can to give city support for those types of things. What's been interesting is you've seen places like London, Paris, and Berlin put in new cycling. They've taken this opportunity to make significant infrastructure changes. 

This idea around if you build it, they will ride is essential to this all. We're looking at really supporting cities with significant infrastructure changes they need to move people away from cars and achieve that shift in transportation they're looking for. 

JT: I want to touch on some of that more ambitious post-COVID stuff. But I'd love to understand what the recovery looks like and what the change in ridership and usage has looked like?

Then, maybe talk a bit about who on the government side your team is working with. Are you working with mayors' offices, city councils, transportation departments? What stakeholders in cities are you working with to make these policy goals happen?

I think it sometimes can be a little bit overly simplified in conversations about this space to think you're just working with a Mayor's office. I know there are many parties involved in these processes typically.

KS: Oh yeah. We can chat about that for a while.

It does vary. To your point about numbers, I can't share specific numbers, but I can tell you that obviously, the first drop hit around February, March, as I mentioned, especially in the U.S. People were scared, period.

They were scared. Since that point in time, we've seen variations in how people were using scooters. People started using them more and more. It was a significant drop, and then people started using them for things like just getting out in the open air and enjoying themselves, taking them for short-term trips like going to the pharmacy. People were really hungry for a way to get out and to travel in an isolated way by themselves without having to jump in a car. They wanted fresh air.

They wanted to experience the city; they wanted to go around, maybe see things, but not interact with them in a way that would expose them as heavily. We certainly saw more people taking those rides just for enjoyment. 

We also saw people riding more in their neighborhoods, as you might imagine, right? There aren't as many people in downtown areas, because people are working remotely, and we're starting to see people ride a little farther out around their neighborhoods, which is an exciting thing. 

People are also just riding longer. And that's been a very exciting thing. We did see rides increase over time. Again, these new COVID numbers impact people merely getting out of their house at all.

The numbers show people continue to be interested in safe, socially distant ways to get around our cities, which micromobility can provide.

To answer your second question about who we work with, it's a widespread list of stakeholders. In my world, coming from a city government background, if you would have asked me how this industry would be regulated or we operated, I wouldn't have conceived that we would reach operating agreements with each city we entered and we're at over 130 cities. 

We have operating agreements in most of those cities now. Either through RFPs through tenders, in some cases, they're MOUs (Memorandum of Understanding). Our first MOU agreement with a city was in South Bend with Mayor Pete Buttigieg.

JT: Wow. I'd love to talk a little about Mayor Pete in a bit. I know you have some thoughts on what it means for a mayor to be named Secretary of Transportation. Can you tell me a bit more about what it's like working with local communities? How does Lime become a part of the community?

KS: Yeah, Mayor Pete said something along the lines of, "gosh, darn" when he saw the scooter unlocked. It made that do-to-do sound, and everything was so novel and new. It was impressive. 

To that end, we worked with the mayor's offices and council, of course, the transportation staff. City staff is extraordinarily critical.

In some cases, they have transportation subcommittees or mobility subcommittees, which are community members who volunteer their time to help drive transportation vision—the city's vision towards car alternatives.

If we're doing it right, we're engaging the community before we come into a city. Certainly, when we're operating in a city, we have a local workforce and a local warehouse. We're deeply ingrained in the community. We're reaching out to the local community organizations and advocacy groups. We are doing more and more these days.

We also do some workforce programs where we are hiring people who traditionally have hard to hire backgrounds. It's a diverse set of people that we're reaching out to and driving support for these programs across the cities we operate.

JT: I love that because I think anything transportation-wise has to deal with a wide set of stakeholders. Often, when I see coverage or conversations about micromobility and on the policy side, it's super easy to forget just how complicated, especially at the local level, these topics get with how many different people, groups, and stakeholders there are in big metros.

It seems to me, the complexity of government and tech policy at the federal government is easier for people to accept. Still, there is so much complexity on the local level that people forget about or ignore. I love calling attention to it with Urban Tech when I can. 

KS: Yeah. And I would say, it's been interesting too, as part of this process is in many cases, cities are pushing us. San Jose always comes to mind in this regard. Early on, they said, we would like you to have sidewalk detection technology.

We all looked around and were asking ourselves, geez, how are we going to do this? How will we develop tech that would detect when somebody's riding on a sidewalk and work to prevent that? Although, It makes perfect sense. 

I couldn't tell you then how difficult that would be. We eventually became the first company to launch with the city of San Jose on that technology. That was a city that pushed us there. A number of cities push us through requirements, RFPs, and regulations around things like safety innovations.

Because it is such a competitive landscape, we are quickly innovating because of those competitive processes to enter cities. There is so much on the line in many of these markets. 

 JT: Something that I love, particularly about micromobility, the piece on how the government, through the RFP process and different policy mechanisms are pushing operators to consider innovations that are going to make the products that much better and safer. Things like sidewalk detection.

What did you do before Lime?

KS: I worked for my Congressman from Fresno, former Congressman Cal Dooley, a long time Congressman who was a leader in the House, particularly around agriculture and trade. Then, I moved over to work for Congressman Brian Baird, and that's where I got involved in transportation infrastructure.

I staffed his subcommittee focused on transportation infrastructure, I also worked on a science committee. In the House, it was a tremendous time to have spent four or five years there better understanding the landscape: federal programs, how appropriations are dealt with, which we had a different appropriations process still where they were granting money to projects for each district.

After the federal work, I came home to California to go work for the mayor and the governor's regional partnership to bring resources and help impact my hometown. Frankly, as beautiful and as wonderful as Fresno is, it has some of the most intense economic and environmental challenges.

The experience hammered home the importance of one goal that we often looked at: how do we connect regions in California?

You had the Northern California region with the tech boom. That was people who were extraordinarily wealthy. There's a lot of money. People are making investments there. Foundations are making investments there. Here we are in the Central Valley, and we have people who are struggling to get by with food and shelter.

We weren't getting a lot of attention. The question we faced: how do we get resources to the Valley where we need them? This time in California was when you saw these big thoughtful projects like high-speed rail begin to become a reality, which my fairly conservative boss was one of the only conservative voices to come out in support of high-speed rail. We needed a deeper and faster connection to the other wealthy regions of the state.

We need people in Fresno to be able to work in other parts of the state and those people to work in Fresno. We need them to invest in our communities, build houses, and create new startups here. We wanted to bring innovation back and forth and do something about the terrible pollution that vehicles are causing in our communities. Which, by the way, emissions obviously impact our communities of color worse than other demographics within the city. It's huge. 

JT: Everyone working in this space seems to feel so personally passionate about transportation and increasing access to it, and I love it

I know you mentioned it a little bit before about Pete Buttigieg likely becoming Secretary of Transportation. What were your reactions seeing that he was the pick for Secretary of Transportation?

KS: Oh, I love it. I love that a former mayor would be the Secretary of Transportation.

I loved Ray LaHood. Having a mayor in this role is so critical to success. Having Mayor Pete in this role, having been very supportive of micromobility from the early days, is obviously very exciting. As he said, he has a lot to learn now before he starts the job.

He's a very receptive person though. He has the city, urban background needed for the role. I remember what it was like during the Obama administration. They had such a deep urban agenda. And when I say urban, I'm talking about places like Fresno. I'm not just talking about Chicago or New York.

They reached out to other cities, especially those struggling and asked, what if we poured resources together and got the brightest minds from our agencies from EPA, HUD, DOT, and concentrated them on cities like Fresno and Detroit? What could we make? Could we move the needle there? Could we make some significant impact? 

If we use those tools, bring the private sector and foundations to the table to work together. Let me tell you that has spun off into what I consider a much stronger foundation and better programs and projects to places like the Central Valley.

Having those partnerships with cities would be another wonderful thing to happen in the Biden administration. With Pete Buttigieg, I think there are things around micromobility that would be tremendously helpful.

We need to get people out of cars for so many reasons. I don't need to tell you. But for air quality emissions, environmental climate, but it's also safety, right? I think what has been interesting during this COVID period is the reality, having come across studies at NYU, which suggested that even though there were significantly fewer cars on the road, we saw deaths and collisions increase on a percentage basis. It's not only a matter of the number of vehicles being on the road that create an unsafe environment.

It's also around the infrastructure that needs to change to accommodate other modes. It needs to change to accommodate pedestrians. It needs to change to accommodate and prioritize other modes like bikes and scooters so that people feel safe to get around in other ways. 

Providing cities with those infrastructure funds helps public transit come back through additional funding. They need to bridge the gap between the budget deficit they're seeing now, and when people begin to commute again.

Beginning to incentivize people through commuter benefit subsidies really focuses on non-car forms of transportation, which is how we get people using bikes and scooters — emission-free modes.

Most people concede this all the time, but our cars are very expensive. And they're costly certainly for low-income families, who usually buy older cars that need a lot of upkeep. They're one incident away from losing the little savings they have.

Plus, cars sit idle 90% of the time. We really need to right-size the vehicles we choose in our everyday lives because we often don't need something as big as a car.

JT: Many of those points are why I particularly have an affection for the micromobility world. Most people in the space and how it's approached are people like you looking for better ways to solve real problems impacting real people.

There was a lot of criticism for micromobility when it first started rolling out in cities, and when the VC money began to come in. I don't want to go too much into that, because it's been covered before, but everyone I talk to is always very thoughtful in figuring out these issues.

I live in downtown LA, and I don't have a car. So I'm super passionate about those areas and any initiatives that are doing that for other people. Plus, I love my scooter. I grew up in Houston, and truly, you have to have a car to live there.

Is there any advice you have to offer for Urban Tech's readers/listeners who thinking about solving urban issues through technology?

KS: Yeah, I spoke a little bit about high-speed rail earlier. There are points when we have a tendency, and we should do some of these things, but you have a tendency to move incrementally to address low-hanging fruit issues. Of course, we should always do that, but we can't get in our own way of not looking at the big picture, inexpensive and expensive options.

Thinking big is essential because let's be honest, the climate crisis is real. We're just not paying enough attention to it. It doesn't feel urgent to many people, but it needs a sense of urgency. I love this idea about everything on the table. Based on my background in government and micromobility, I'm a big proponent of bringing everyone to the table, even if they have different views and ideologies.

This includes the private sector, nonprofits for revisioning what are the primary mobility problems facing cities. And then, what can each stakeholder, and the collective group of stakeholders, bring to the table to change those things?

There's no really a silver bullet answer to this. It's always difficult. It starts from the point of understanding, like in Fresno. If you don't understand the scale of the environmental or economic challenges we face in the region, you can't begin to change the community.

If you have an in-depth understanding of the challenges, then you can begin to make an impact. That's where it starts. I know that's maybe a roundabout answer again, and it's not a silver bullet.

JT: There are no silver bullets for any of this stuff. I agree it's all super complex. It's always more of an issue of trade offs, rather than just picking the best answer.

Is there anything I should've asked you that I didn't or anything that came to mind during the conversation? 

KS: Yeah, you asked me initially what we're focused on. I spoke a lot about COVID and where we're hoping to go now in this post-COVID world. I don't know if there's a post-COVID world but, as people start getting vaccines and cities begin to reopen what Lime is focused on is really multi-modality and connecting people across multiple modes of transportation. We had the acquisition of Jump bikes to our platform.

We have very excellent e-bikes in over 20 markets alongside our scooters. We've seen the changes, the shift in ridership that's occurring because we have those modes on a Lime platform with exclusive Uber and Google maps integrations. 

Seattle is a good example. We had the first-generation of Lime e-bikes, which were great at the time, but then newer products like Jump came along and it's obvious there were excellent alternatives to an original Lime bike. So we introduced scooters. 

And how does it change that pattern? We find now 30% of people are multi-modal users in Seattle. That means that those riders that were initially riding bikes have now found an interest in scooters.

We are serving multiple trip purposes under five miles, whether it's scooters or bikes. When we look towards the future, Lime really is a platform for all rides under five miles. Our goal is to essentially convert 50% of all car trips in this category to non-car alternatives so that we can really make a dent in these big climate challenges.

As our President, Joe Kraus, says in a joyful way, "riding a Lime scooter feels like a magic carpet ride." I don't know, John, do you feel that way when you're in LA?

JT: Oh, I do. There's a lot of shade thrown at the people who like riding scooters, and you do look a little ridiculous sometimes — but I love it. It's one of my favorite things to do to get around and to get out for fun. I have no shame in my scooter love.

KS: Yes, the things we can do to drive people and nudge people to use bikes or scooters are big. Nudges like on Uber's platform. You can find Lime bikes in Uber.

That's essentially nudging people to take a bike or scooter where they would otherwise take ridesharing in a car. Maybe a $10 trip can now be taken for $3-4. It can actually get you there faster too.

It's a game-changer. 

JT: Last question. Where can people follow you and keep up on your work?

KS: Yeah. By work, if you mean my work at home, then you can come over and check out what it's like to be with a five-month-old and four-year-old. I feel like I do a lot of work with them. 

But for my actual policy work, you can find it on our Lime blog. We are doing webinars from time to time too. If anyone wants to share some big thoughts and collaboration, we're very open to it. You can hunt me down, and I'd love to have those conversations.

JT: Awesome. Thanks so much, Katie, for the time. I loved hearing about what you work on day to day.

I hope you enjoyed my conversation with Katie! She’s a rockstar, and I loved the thoughtfulness she brought to the podcast.

Remember to subscribe to the podcast feed and share Urban Tech with your networks.

Talk soon,