Micromobility: Has it come to change the way we move?
In micromobility, urbanites have seem to found what could be one of the biggest solutions of the century for urban mobility. With industry-breaking sales and growth records, the potential for micromobility solutions seems limitless. However, while significant advances have occurred in the industry, micromobility is still not an option for the urban poor around the world. It will take active governance and responsive regulation to align micromobility with the UN’s mandate in SDG 11.
If you are a frequent cyclist in your city, you may have been passed more than once by an e-scooter or e-bike user. Or you may have been surprised by users riding - or balancing on - futuristic electric unicycles. If you still haven’t, there are big chances you will in the near future. And you are not the only one. In addition to the growth in bicycle use, major cities around the world are witnessing a tremendous shift in the ways people are moving. There’s no denying that the car still holds its privilege as the ‘king’ of the streets, but in the face of growing interest in finding more sustainable modes of transportation or escaping from endless traffic jams, people of all ages are starting to use more frequently alternative small mechanic or electric-powered vehicles to reach their destinations.
Bike lanes, sidewalks and roads are now home to an increasing number of personal devices that are changing the way people move from place A to B. This kind of transportation is known as micromobility and, even though its rise seems sudden, we have been preparing for its emergence for almost two centuries. From the first-known invention of the bicycle in 1817 to the appearance of the first scooters around the 1990s, to more recently the incursion of electric skateboards, hoverboards or scooters, urbanites seem to have found in these devices what could be one of the biggest solutions of the century for urban mobility.
BEYOND E-BIKES AND SCOOTERS
Lately, micromobility has been highly associated with shared (either docked or dockless) bikes and scooters. The truth is that micromobility is much more than that. Various definitions coincide on linking micromobility with the vehicles capable of covering more efficiently the first and last mile gap of any trip. However, as defined by Deloitte, “micromobility constitutes forms of transport that can occupy space alongside bicycles”. Both definitions encompass a wide spectrum of vehicles, including bikes and walking - as the most ancient form of transportation-, while adding the infrastructure component to the equation.
Within this spectrum of vehicles, the industry has been stormed by incredible amounts of creativity. The online platform Have A Go, which has set the goal of helping people to “move away from archaic cars, towards nimble, green, and fun little electric vehicles”, has put together a ‘catalog’ of vehicles that fit into the definition of micromobility. E-skateboards, e-unicycles, human or electric-powered scooters, folding, compact and electric bikes, human pods and even a category for ‘busters’ - like the Rocketskates, Hovershoes or the Yikebikes-, are just examples of what can be found in the market. These vehicles range in cost significantly, with price tags anywhere from a few hundred to thousands of dollars.
IS MICROMOBILITY A REAL CHANGE-MAKER?
According to McKinsey & Company, “Micromobility could encompass all passenger trips of less than 8 kilometers (5 miles), which account for as much as 50 to 60 percent of today's total passenger miles traveled in China, the European Union, and the United States”. These figures are striking. They mean that almost 60 percent of the trips in these regions can be covered, theoretically, by micromobility solutions, helping to drastically cut down GHG (greenhouse gas) emissions. In addition, micromobility could cover almost 20 percent of public-transport trips - without counting the potential to cover the first and last mile of all trips. This could drastically change the panorama of mobility in the biggest car-producing-and-dependent societies by doing those trips with micromobility solutions.
As exciting as this may sound, theoretical figures need to be put into context before jumping to conclusions. For example, some of the constraints for reaching these numbers can go from security and limited space for activities, like shopping or taking kids to school, to weather variations, users’ physical condition or lower coverage in less-dense, low or middle-income neighborhoods and rural areas.
However, the reality is that sales of micromobility vehicles have skyrocketed in the last few years and are rapidly shifting the panorama of the urban mobility industry, with many former and recent unicorn companies like Lyft, Lime or Bird (all from the U.S.) leading the way. Bird, less than 14 months after its launch, reached an annual revenue run rate - an indicator of financial performance - of more than $100 million, becoming perhaps the fastest growing company ever. Bird rose to unicorn status faster than any other startup in history, reaching a $2 billion valuation in less than a year; Airbnb and Uber took three and four years respectively. Outside of the U.S., Yellow and Grin, originally from Brazil and Mexico respectively, have joined forces to compete against the tremendous power of Lime and Bird. Under the umbrella of Grow Mobility, these two Latin American companies will jointly own a fleet of 100,000 scooters and 25,000 bicycles spread over six countries of the continent, becoming the third biggest presence of scooters worldwide, after Bird and Lime. In short, this is a fight of giants with the power to transform - positively or negatively - the panorama of mobility in the continent.
While these trends can elicit optimism for the future of mobility, complications still exist. Micromobility is still a nascent area and has to adapt to different contexts and regulations - which in many cases hinder the implementation of these mobility alternatives. But more importantly, micromobility has not yet achieved its most noble purpose, which is to provide equitable access to those for whom the daily commute is still a pain, physically and economically. For example in Bogotá, a city of 8 million with one of the worst traffic congestion rates in Latin America, people spend an average of 96 minutes every day in public transport and at least two hours a day to reach their destinations. Service providers in Bogotá have focused on a segment of the population living in very privileged areas with high incomes - being the only ones with the economic power to pay such expensive services - leaving behind a large majority that live in the outskirts and poor areas of the city.
If looked at integrally and as a long-term process, cities have the chance to use these new micromobility services as a way to interact with their citizens and be more responsive through data collection and analysis. The more data cities gather, the more they can better design for equity. Regina Clewlow, CEO & Co-Founder of Populus, has said that “with the access to real-time data for new mobility services (today primarily dockless shared bikes and scooters), cities are entering a new era of active mobility management”. We must develop better capacities for data sharing to further develop micromobility solutions and better interact with users to understand their major needs.
In all, it is clear that we are scratching the surface of what is possible to achieve through micromobility. There is still a long way to go before we adequately exploit the vast potential to foster equality and equitable access for disadvantaged communities offered by these new mobility services.
While significant advances have occurred in the industry, micromobility is still not an option for the urban poor around the world, endlessly affected by the lack of adequate transportation infrastructure. Whilst providing an innovative and efficient service, concerns about high fees and coverage for low-income and disadvantaged communities are increasing fears about starting to see micromobility solutions as luxury services, made for ‘cool’ people in ‘cool’ areas. It will take active governance and responsive regulation to persuade private companies to align with the UN’s mandate in SDG 11 to “...provide access to safe, affordable, accessible and sustainable transport systems for all, [...] with special attention to the needs of those in vulnerable situations...”. While cities continue to look for more flexible and innovative ways of transportation worldwide, only time will tell if micromobility will be a sustainable and inclusive alternative to change the way we all move.
For more insights about micromobility around the world, see the following articles:
Micromobility’s 15,000-mile checkup - McKinsey & Company
Small is beautiful- Deloitte
Shared Micromobility Playbook - Transportation for America T4A
Invasion of the electric scooter: can our cities cope? - The Guardian
Juan Sebastián Benítez B. holds a MSc in Integrated Urbanism and Sustainable Design from the University of Stuttgart, Germany. He is also a Civil Engineer from Los Andes University, Colombia. Through his academic and professional career, he has channeled his efforts and capabilities towards more just and livable cities.