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Lyft launches a scooter service. Uber is close behind

Lyft launched a fleet of electric scooters in Denver on Thursday, stepping squarely into the rapidly growing scooter-sharing market so far dominated by the likes of Bird and Lime.

Uber is expected to deploy its own scooters in rival Bird's hometown of Santa Monica, California within a few weeks, according to a company spokesperson.

Although the two companies are synonymous with ridesharing, they see tremendous potential in electric scooters and bicycles. The devices, which are popular with commuters, help reduce congestion and complement public transit. That could help offset mounting criticism -- backed by several studies -- that show ridesharing leads to more traffic as people shift from mass transit to cars.

"Scooters are a way to make daily trips more fun and encourage multimodal commuting," Caroline Samponaro, who leads bike and scooter policy at Lyft, told CNN Money.

Eager to further facilitate the switch to scooters, Lyft will soon offer anyone riding its scooters a discount if they start or end their ride near public transit. Scooters can be found through Lyft's app, and prices mirror industry standards of $1 to unlock a scooter and 15 cents a minute. The company is also adding a feature in its app to let commuters know when they're near public transit stops.

Uber, which acquired bikesharing startup Jump in April, has seen riders in San Francisco shifting from cars to electric bikes, suggesting the ridesharing giants must expand beyond cars if they don't want to see upstarts siphon away business.

Samponaro said Lyft has received a ton of demand from cities interested in scooters. Lyft will launch scooters in Santa Monica Sept. 17. It's interested in expanding to other cities, but will take its cue on when to launch from city governments, according to Samponaro.

Lyft's approach differs from that of Bird and Lime, which launched in Denver and many other cities earlier this year without municipal approval. The approach rankled some cities, but helped the companies grow quickly and win over customers. Bird and Lime have raised money from investors at a faster pace than Uber and Lyft did.

Such aggressive tactics are a throwback to the early days of ridesharing, and in fact, Bird is led by CEO Travis VanderZanden, a veteran of both Uber and Lyft. Uber and Lyft are being more measured in dealing with local governments today.

Lyft's fleet uses scooters much like those everyone else uses, but the company is offering some novel features. Riders can pay an added fee of 15 cents a minute to reserve a scooter through the app, for example. And the company will rely upon full-time employees to charge and maintain its fleet rather than using contract employees. It expects this will lead to better care of its scooters, so users can feel more confident they aren't about to ride on a broken or dangerous scooter.

"We think it's important that as the bike and scooter industry grows that there are good job opportunities paralleling that," Samponaro said.

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