Micromobility: small wheels, big future

Micromobility will profoundly change urban landscapes. Let’s make sure it’s for the better

April 2020

Words by George Buxton, Hamza Harrami, Todd Nguyen, Nikos Papakatsikas, Nick Roberts and Shifani Sood

“Micromobility can connect communities isolated by distance or poverty … In Paris, residents beyond the ring road can more easily access the metro stations on the other side”

They’re fast, they’re quiet, and if you’re not looking out for them, it’s very easy to be taken by surprise. As electric bikes and scooters proliferate around the world, that’s becoming a common experience for city dwellers. But it’s no less a challenge for municipalities, caught unawares by the explosion of small, single-person vehicles flooding their streets, and faced with managing the wide-ranging implications for transit networks, streetscapes, social justice and human behaviour.

Micromobility — encompassing bikes, scooters and mopeds, electric or manual, docked or dockless — holds the potential to radically transform urban landscapes, in the way that the motor car and the railways did before. Brands such as Lime, Bird and Mobike have seen rapid growth, with the potential for much more to come: a study of 35 cities in the US, UK and Germany by INRIX found that at least 50% of short-distance vehicle trips could be replaced by shared bikes or scooters, and as many as 70% in the UK. Car travel in cities is already shifting from ownership towards shared ride-hailing and carpooling services, with the aim of cutting congestion and pollution. Widespread use of smartphones has enabled new kinds of flexible, digital service without reliance on physical infrastructure. Meanwhile, changing lifestyles, working patterns and social habits among millennials increase demand for short trips in city centres. With all of this, the stage was set for micromobility to emerge.

To see how this was playing out in cities around the world, our global, multidisciplinary team examined emerging models of operation and regulation, as well as the interrelationships between shared micromobility operators, municipalities and users. To date, operators have often taken a move-first-ask-later approach. They tend to appear without notice in a new city, and rely on lobbying to retain their right to operate, supported by an eager consumer base and a wider argument favouring green, active travel. Initial growth is very fast — indeed, even quicker than that experienced by ride-hailing services such as Uber — thanks to high demand, low fixed costs and easy access to capital. They can quickly build up a strong and enthusiastic customer base, which makes it very hard for city authorities to push back, even as the negative impacts of ad-hoc implementation become apparent.

“A study found that at least 50% of short-distance vehicle trips could be replaced by shared bikes or scooters”

It’s easy to understand why operators feel this is the best tactic. If they take a softly-softly approach and request permission to operate, they fear being pushed back by city planning departments nervous of an unfamiliar technology and the potential risks it brings. From a city’s point of view, it’s also easy to see why the sudden appearance of hundreds of fast-moving vehicles is a cause for concern. There are well-documented issues around traffic safety, anti-social parking and littering, while the vehicles’ zero-emission credentials are seriously undermined by their apparently short lifespans.

But being too risk-averse means cities miss out. Managed and regulated well, micromobility can address existing gaps in city transport networks — for example, the London borough of Ealing has welcomed dockless cycle operator Mobike as a way to link the transport hubs at its edges to the less well-served middle. Micromobility can give residents more choice and connect communities isolated by distance or poverty, as in Paris where shared moped operator Cityscoot has extended its operating area beyond the ring road which forms a concrete cordon between the city and the surrounding districts, allowing residents to more easily access the metro stations on the other side. Cities can also benefit from the competition that drives innovation in this sector, the synergies with established companies and their wider economic benefits.

"San Francisco was one of the first cities in the US to develop a permit system for dockless bike share providers, but it was unprepared when e-scooter operators Lime, Bird and Spin unleashed hundreds of devices in a matter of weeks"

The most successful implementations have resulted from a proactive approach, where cities, local regulators and operators collaborate to develop appropriate policy and regulation before services are introduced. A gradual, planned roll-out is most likely to yield the greatest benefits while avoiding unintended consequences. When e-scooters first arrived in Auckland in 2018, the city administration set an initial cap at 600 vehicles and limited them to downtown. This revealed a number of safety concerns, not least random braking events when a technical glitch caused the wheels to lock during use. Building on this, a second pilot phase in 2019 introduced a 15km/h speed limit, geofencing to identify parking outside designated areas, and an 18-year minimum age for riders, who must also hold a valid driving licence.

San Francisco was one of the first cities in the US to develop a permit system for dockless bike share providers, but it was unprepared when e-scooter operators Lime, Bird and Spin unleashed hundreds of devices in a matter of weeks in early 2018. This rapid, unregulated roll-out polarized residents, leading to reactive regulation and eventually a temporary ban in June 2018. San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency has since introduced an application process that scores operators on 12 criteria, including community engagement, equitable access and employment practices. It has also sought to make the roll-out cost-neutral for taxpayers by charging companies application and permit fees and an endowment to cover costs.

The sustainability of fleets remains a crucial question. The growing supply of e-scooters is supporting governments to meet targets on zero-emission vehicles, but greater transparency is needed from operators about the life cycle of devices. It would also be valuable for cities to understand which trips are being replaced, and how to target schemes to replace those trips that generate higher greenhouse gas emissions. Greater data-sharing is required: currently policymakers are often acting blind, without the information to make well-founded decisions. Greater openness by operators would help them to understand the true impact and potential of micromobility services, and to make decisions to optimize transit networks based on empirical data.

illustration of a man on a scooter - micromobility

The missing piece of the puzzle, and arguably the most important, is the users. The success of any urban initiative hinges on whether people embrace it and how well they use it. Operators need to make a profit or they will move on, as Mobike demonstrated by its retreat from Manchester, UK in 2018 after suffering “unsustainable” losses due to theft and vandalism. Users also have a part to play in maximizing efficiency: if they park dockless bikes and e-scooters considerately, the operator can keep costs lower by not having to send staff to move them. Users are ambassadors for micromobility: by riding in a safe manner, they can promote a positive image to the public at large.

Municipalities and operators can try to create the best conditions with careful planning and policymaking, but they need to address behaviour and attitudes too. The familiarity heuristic leads public opinion to view new forms of transportation more negatively than existing ones — so a micromobility-related accident is perceived as worse than a car accident, regardless of the relative impact. Micromobility increases the use of infrastructure traditionally assigned to pedestrians or cyclists: new investment in shared lanes and parking, as well as regulations and etiquette around their use, will be needed. Given the minimal regulation and barriers to access that govern micromobility use, will different ideas of “acceptable” practices emerge in different settings, and to what effect? Could municipalities and operators incentivize, or “nudge”, users to adopt considerate behaviours rather than imposing rules? How might the design of streetscapes help?

One area where operators are already influencing behaviour is by using cost models that incentivize of hire motivates people to reach their destination as quickly as possible. Building in some consideration of the relationship between distance and time could encourage safer, more considerate travelling behaviour. Operators already levy a fine on users who park in prohibited areas, but they could also offer a discount for riders who move a vehicle from an inconvenient location to somewhere with greater demand.

“For all micromobility’s potential, there is a risk that it could create or exacerbate inequalities. One faultline is age”

For all micromobility’s potential, there is a risk that it could create or exacerbate inequalities. One faultline is age: younger groups are more likely users, while older people are more likely to state they will never use it due to a greater ambivalence towards new technology. As e-bikes and scooters become more popular, they could negatively impact the economic viability of other modes of transport, potentially leading to greater gaps in provision for groups who are less able or willing to use them, such as people with reduced mobility and parents with young children. Policymakers can mitigate against this by regulating services to ensure they meet the needs of users in economically deprived areas, and that they are accessible to people who do not own a smartphone or a credit card. Operator Bird offers discounts for those on low incomes, text message services and cash payment options, while in San Francisco, Jump has significantly reduced prices for people enrolled on several low-income schemes.

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More positively, micromobility could help to reduce social and geographical isolation as an additional first/last mile mode — anecdotal evidence suggests that when people are riding devices in mixed-use areas they experience a greater degree of interaction with other users, driven in part by safety concerns, but also because people enjoy using them. After all, zipping through car traffic on an e-bike or e-scooter is not only easy, convenient and practical, it’s fun too.

The authors are transport planners, strategy consultants and data analysts at WSP, based in Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Sweden, the UK and the US

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