Come dinner time, San Francisco’s hottest restaurant streets become nearly impassable with double-parked DoorDashers and Uber Eats couriers. One person’s urgent need for a Souvla wrap delivered straight to their door makes life miserable for just about everyone else traveling down streets like Valencia, Divisadero and Polk.
Zoomo, an Australian electric bike rental company that has been operating in San Francisco since mid 2019, thinks it has the solution. The company is on a mission to provide “the right tool for the job” for the booming food and grocery delivery business, said Joey Skavroneck, Zoomo’s San Francisco-based U.S. director.
“A bike is obviously much cheaper than having a 4,000 pound car deliver a one-pound burrito,” said Skavroneck. “A lot of the externalities and costs that are usually associated with cars, whether it be double parking, whether it be idling in congestion, whether it be ticketing, you don’t see that with e-bikes.”
Zoomo’s e-bikes represent a promising frontier in San Francisco’s otherwise quixotic quest to get people out of their cars. Delivering food on electrically boosted two-wheelers is simply easier, faster and — especially with gas prices what they are — cheaper than using a car.
“Our delivery times are way down now,” said Shane Curran, manager of the restaurant L’Costa in Union Square, which works with Butler Hospitality to deliver room service meals to nearby hotels. His business began renting two bikes from Zoomo about a month ago. “We can take on way more orders.”
E-bikes on a budget
Zoomo’s North Beach storefront and repair shop was abuzz with activity on a recent weekday afternoon. Tourists wandered in, looking for daily bike rentals, but left disappointed. Most of Zoomo’s customers are delivery workers who rent by the week.
The company declined to specify how many bikes are in its San Francisco fleet, but it currently offers three custom-built bike varieties: two pedal assist e-bikes with a max speed of 25 miles per hour and one throttle-powered e-bike with a max speed of 18 miles per hour. All bikes are designed with delivery in mind, including rear racks for storage, strong U-locks, phone holders and built-in lights.
Basic rental plans cost $25 to $61 per week in San Francisco, before insurance, fees and extras like swappable batteries and delivery bags. Some riders said they spent as much as $90 per week. The company sells new bikes starting at $2,700, and used ones for around $1,000. It also offers a rent-to-own program for as little as $200 down.
Reviews on the bikes’ performance were mixed. Two renters complained about delays accessing maintenance, but others praised Zoomo’s customer service and the quality of the bikes. Another two riders reported having issues with their brakes.
Danny Sauter, leader of a group called North Beach Delivers that did a food delivery program during the depths of the pandemic, convinced Zoomo to provide five or six bikes for free one night each week. After praising the company’s generosity, Sauter said the bikes were “all over the place” in terms of quality. “It seems like this tech is changing so rapidly, every time we’d go get a bike there’d be a new model.”
Whatever the drawbacks of Zoomo’s approach, there are definite advantages.
“There is some risk associated with (e-bikes) if people don’t know what they’re doing,” said Melinda Hanson, head of Electric Avenue, a micromobility consulting group. “If they’re tinkering with mostly lithium ion, and in some cases lead batteries, that can create real challenges.”
Zoomo renters are responsible for charging and storage, but Zoomo takes care of maintenance. Zoomo’s bikes also have anti-theft tracking technology and insurance deductibles that lessen riders’ risk if bikes are stolen or damaged.
“It’s affordable for folks who are on a transit-sized budget,” Hanson said of Zoomo’s rental bikes. That sets it apart from other green transportation options, Hanson said, noting that nearly 80% of electric car subsidies go to households making over $100,000 per year.
Governments are just starting to provide subsidies for e-bikes: The Bay Area Air Quality Management District has helped fund the purchase of 15 e-bikes through a first-in-the-state program begun in 2021, the agency said. The same program has helped fund the purchase of more than 2,200 electric cars. Despite the mismatch in subsidies, Americans bought more electric bikes in 2020 and 2021 than electric cars, according to the Light Electric Vehicle Association.
In a low-wage field like delivery work, e-bikes still represent a major investment for workers. A 2021 report from the Worker’s Justice Project on New York City delivery workers, the majority of whom get around on e-bikes, found the average monthly e-bike payment was $368 and average maintenance costs were $139. The report highlights other precarious conditions for delivery workers, including low pay, lack of health care and high risk of crime and traffic accidents.
Zoomo can’t fix all of the problems with delivery work, but it can help expand access to the tool that allows workers to do their job with a lighter impact on the environment — and their own pocket books. “Every dollar counts” for delivery workers, Hanson said. “An e-bike is a much more affordable mode that helps them make deliveries quickly and efficiently while keeping as much of their money as possible.”
Zoomo sees things the same way. “We’re democratizing this new technology to folks who don’t have as much discretionary income,” Skavroneck said. “It’s the opposite of what you’ve seen around Tesla’s solar panels and a lot of these nascent green technologies.”
From burritos to boxes
Zoomo’s growing fast, with operations in Australia, Europe and North America, and a goal of 30,000 bikes on the road by the end of this year. The company has raised over $100 million in venture capital since its founding in 2017, and recently poached Jules Flynn, formerly head of bikes and scooters at Lyft, and Alan Wells, an alumnus of Uber and Cruise, for its executive team.
The company’s U.S. business is approximately half individual renters and half enterprise customers, like Uber Eats, DoorDash, Domino’s, Deliveroo and DHL. Food Rocket, a Bay Area-based grocery delivery startup, rents bikes directly from Zoomo for use by its delivery drivers.
“For a lot of our customers, for deliveries that are about 5 miles and less, e-bikes are actually not only the cheapest option in their fleet, but they’re the fastest and most efficient,” Skavroneck said.
The company is in the early phases of experimenting with parcel delivery using e-bike trailers with 1,000 pounds of carrying capacity, Skravoneck said. That means these bikes could someday replace FedEx and Amazon delivery trucks — not just gig workers’ Honda Civics.
Parcel delivery by cargo bike is already common in Europe, and as one of America’s most European cities, San Francisco could be a good candidate to follow suit. “San Francisco is a really unique city in that we’re pretty small in terms of miles,” said Nesrine Majzoub, communications director for the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition. “If there’s an incentive for folks to switch from car delivery to e-bike… I think that is a great opportunity.”
But to get there, San Francisco will have to rethink how it allocates its street space. “A lot of cities still have a long way to go to provide the type of infrastructure that’s really going to contribute to safety for working cyclists, commuters and anyone who’s using two wheels to get around,” Hanson said. “Car-free Market Street, car-free JFK — those are huge accomplishments that should be carried over across The City.”