Micro-mobility is a solution to the last-mile problem, which is the space in between the station and work, or the transfer in between buses or any distance that is too close to drive, but too far to walk. This typically encompasses all passenger trips of less than 8 kilometres, which accounts for up to 50 to 60 percent of passenger trips in urban spaces, although these distances are often closer to the 3 kilometre range. These car trips, short public transport stretches and first and last-mile gaps can be replaced with bikes, electric scooters, mopeds and other micro-mobility solutions.
Shared micro-mobility has been around, in one shape or another, for the last decade or so. It began with bike sharing, which eventually became dockless and then paved the way for e-bikes and other modes of transport, ranging from moped-sharing services, motorised skateboards and “hoverboards”. But the business that grew exponentially in the shortest amount of time, amassing billions in revenue, belongs to the e-scooter revolution.
Urban challenges require urban solutions
As people increasingly move towards urban environments, traffic congestion has reached unprecedented levels. With the average commuter spending roughly 41 hours a year stuck in traffic, people are looking for a better way to get around; and as urban environments become more crowded and polluted, there is a clear trend towards zero-emission travel.
Governments worldwide are pushing for walking and cycling as the ideal option for short urban journeys and e-scooters are now opening up new opportunities. Electric scooters experienced a monumental rise in popularity in 2018, primarily in the US, but also in major cities across Europe, Latin America and Asia.
Compact, practical, agile, electric and city-friendly, the benefits are immediately apparent. E-scooters are offered at low prices and are available on-demand, providing a compelling alternative to traditional means of transport. Additionally, being able to bypass traffic, means that they are often faster than driving.
Technology has created a market for new mobility solutions
Several factors dictate why micro-mobility has experienced such paramount success in the last year. The urban population has increased from 3.4 billion to 4.2 billion since 2008 and so has mobile phone ownership, growing from 1 in 100 people to 1 in 5 in the same time period. This means that all riders have a smartphone to locate, unlock and pay for the e-scooter directly within the app.
Parallel to this, battery prices dropped by 86 percent between 2010 and 2016, making electric mobility solutions more affordable. Moreover, significant improvements to range mean that e-scooters can cover a distance of 30 to 50 kilometres, and can often be used for an entire day before needing to be recharged.
Eco-friendly in theory and in practice?
There is no conclusive information on the durability of e-scooters, partly due to the novelty of them and partly because companies do not wish to disclose figures that may lose them investors. However, in previous interviews, company spokespersons from Bird and Lime, two of the largest e-scooter companies, have stated that the average lifespan of their e-scooters is roughly one to two months. This begs the question of how green micro-mobility actually is.
The rapid depreciation of assets creates a whole new source of waste that previously did not exist. Looking at China for reference, one of the first countries to adopt shared bicycles in the largest scale to date, we see the ugly side of used bikes that end up in landfills so large, it’s unfathomable.
Regulations need to catch up
Furthermore, several cities – particularly in the US – have seen serious backlash towards e-scooters in the form of vandalism and theft. San Francisco is often in the news for the destruction of e-scooters that have plagued the city due to the lack of regulations. With no micro-mobility laws in place, companies can place their dockless e-scooters anywhere, taking up valuable space on sidewalks and infuriating pedestrians.
Additionally, governmental legislation needs to tackle safety concerns associated with e-scooters. Given that they resemble toys, a lot of people don’t see the potential dangers of riding e-scooters around urban environments. And because it’s a relatively new mode of transport that isn’t regulated in most cities, there are no given rules for how and where to ride e-scooters, with certain cities banning them from sidewalks and others only permitting them on sidewalks. This has resulted in multiple accidents – some tragically fatal – due to collisions.
Just a trend or here to stay?
In principle, e-scooters should be the ideal solution to congested, polluted cities. However, in practice, there is no concrete evidence that the rise of e-scooters has meant a decline in car ownership or emissions. Until regulations are put in place and micro-mobility establishes itself as a capable solution, people are unlikely to forgo their cars.
Despite the imminent challenges that have risen from a business that has grown too large in such a short space of time, one thing is certain: there is an undeniable demand for last-mile mobility solutions. Whether e-scooters will stand the test of time still remains to be seen.
However, what we can learn from micro-mobility and the e-scooter revolution in particular, is that citizens are putting the pressure on cities to improve transportation planning. Urban population is predicted to grow to 68 percent by 2050 and tackling urban mobility is a top-priority. Changes in street design, such as expanding bike lanes and creating spaces for other forms of mobility are necessary to ensure that e-scooters and other micro-mobility alternatives thrive.