Daniel Bornstein says his “aha moment” came last summer, when he was sitting on an LA beach and saw a group of five people unlocking a bunch of bikes. The bikes were part of a rental fleet owned by the company Wheels, where Bornstein is Head of Business Development and Global Partnerships. The riders were in their mid-40s to early 50s, he recalls.
“What was novel about that moment was that it kind of dispelled the prevailing consumer wisdom that it’s a young male adventure-seeking demographic that rides the devices,” he says.
You’ve probably seen the Wheels bikes hanging out around town: squat little e-bikes with cute small wheels and a caboose for a helmet that is sometimes there and sometimes missing. When the company entered the Seattle market a few months ago, I was skeptical that anyone would be interested in them — the idea of re-usable helmets seemed particularly unappealing — but they’ve sweetened the deal thanks to a partnership with Lime. As of now, you can access both Lime and Wheels devices through the Lime platform.
But there's one detail that's a little ... odd.
The integration doesn’t go the other way. You can use Lime to book Wheels or Lime devices, but you can’t use the Wheels app to book Lime devices. On top of that, if you have a Lime subscription (like I do; it's definitely worth it for the 15-or-so trips that I make per month), the Lime discount won't carry over to Wheels devices. So why use Wheels at all? That’s a tough one for me to answer, though Bornstein says they still expect people to use their app.
“It’s based on the convenience and the preference of the user,” he says, suggesting that a Lime user might “like to mix it up,” or that a Wheels user might “have a preference for Wheels.”
Either way, he says, “for both companies, there’s a win there.” That sounds true — Lime is extremely well-funded, has a very large user base (150,000 people in 2017, the most recent year for which I could find figures), and operates in over 100 cities around the world. Last year they hit 150 million rides.
“We think they’re doing things very well,” says Bornstein, and adds, “they recognize in Wheels that we have a unique and proprietary form factor.”
You can say that again. The bikes are a curious shape — they look kind of like a strange ergonomic chair, and have always reminded me of a piece of background furniture on Star Trek. The kind of thing that suggests the future in a way that will probably look very dated in the actual future.
And I don’t think I’ll ever become comfortable with the helmets, even though they come with a removable sanitary liner; I’m okay with putting my hands on the handlebars, but placing a piece of the device on my head makes me shudder. On the other hand, Wheels offers a 20% discount if you unlock the helmet, which certainly appeals to me, a cheapskate.
The company launched with helmets on only certain devices; they’re currently working on scaling up to be 100% helmeted soon. Also in the works: The next generation of Wheels devices, which will be able to detect sidewalk-riding. The new Spin scooters boast a similar feature — I reviewed Spin’s sidewalk-detection here and found it to be only kinda reliable, and quite loud.
It’s worth noting that Wheels devices are generally classified as “class 2” bicycles in the U.S. (which means their top speeds are limited). It’s legal for class 2 bikes to operate on the sidewalk in Seattle, but Wheels advises users, “don’t ride on sidewalks.”
So is sidewalk-riding a real problem or just a perceived problem?
“I dunno … I don’t think it’s as big of an issue as it’s purported to be,” Bornstein says, but adds, “I think perception is reality.” In other words, if people think it’s a problem, then it is a problem, if for no other reason than it provides ammunition for those who want to ban micro-mobility options.
At any rate, Wheels plans to continue expanding into more cities — “We believe very firmly that we have a superior form factor, and we’re doubling down on this form factor,” Bornstein says.
He views their new partnership with Lime as one measure of success for the company — and for Seattle. “Winning cities and getting more market share” is the goal, he says, with terminology that sounds a bit like someone conquering territory in a game of Risk. “We recently won the City of West Hollywood, the City of Santa Monica.”
But when it comes to what success looks like for residents, he takes a more emotional tone. “It’s just general scale,” Bornstein says, “and consumer love.”