In 2018 micro-mobility takes place on Limes, Bonzos, and Birds.
In 2000 people travelled on Xebras, Kewet Buddies, and G-Wiz. The Human Transporter, otherwise known as the Segway, came to market in 2001 and the Velib, the first generation of French bike-share, launched in 2007.
So, while micro-mobility is being reinvented in 2018, it retains a penchant for short perky brand names. And, that reinvention takes place in the shadow of previous start-ups.
This blog is informed by attendance at two Fall 2018 events: a micro-mobility street fair at Kendall Square in Cambridge, Mass. followed by a sit-down conference with vendors, government officials, and academics. I have worked on micro-mobility for over ten years in Los Angeles and based on that experience and the recent conference, make a few observations. It is noteworthy that Kendall Square, the location for these demos, was also the launching pad for a successful transportation technology, the ZipCar, launched in the year 2000.
Specifically, what has changed since 2000, and will today’s crop of micro-mobility players achieve wider success? Were the initial failures a function of the technology, the marketplace, regulations, or some combination of these factors? Will these factors repeat, or have there been significant changes in the transportation arena?
First, we present the issues favoring new growth, and then, the counter arguments. Note, we do not delve into the business practices or failures of individual companies, for example, Sidecar, which arguably preceded Uber but folded.
An Argument for Micro-Mobilty: What Has Changed in Two Decades
1. RIDESHARE: The most significant advancement for micro-mobility has taken place within conventional automotives. Uber and Lyft have changed the dynamics of first and last mile travel, and uprooted taxi providers. They have also made it clear that private industry, not public agencies, stand at the forefront of leading change in the transportation field.
Although they only account for two percent of total trip taking today, Uber and Lyft have changed, practically overnight, the perception that it is OK to not have a personal vehicle and rely on your own car for every trip. Per conference speaker Assaf Biderman, a researcher and founder of Superpedestrian, rideshare has set an important precedent for micro-mobility because 50 percent of trips are 5 miles or less.
2. NEW MARKET: GROWTH of the CHINESE/ INTERNATIONAL VEHICLE:
Tiny cars, like Bonzo, used to be called neighborhood electric vehicles, and have reached only niche markets in the U.S.. That has not been the case overseas. Sales of low-speed small electric cars experienced considerable growth in China due to their affordability and flexibility. In 2016, China sold over 700,000 units in just ten months. In China these vehicles can be driven without a driver’s license. Demand for tiny electric cars incentivizes better battery technology and recharge options, but also spurs the need to reduce the width of residential zoned traffic lanes- a key issue for safe micro-mobility.
3. ZIPCAR & APPS: While not a micro-transit service, per se, ZipCar was launched in 2000 and has arguably been the foundation for transportation ventures like rideshare. It has also helped legitimize spin-offs for short-term, on-demand car hire services. Most critically, ZipCar laid the groundwork for smartphone based, app-driven mobile services. There is currently no comprehensive Mobility As a Service (MaaS) App in the U.S. that integrates the time and location of micro-mobility vehicles with traditional modes but it is under development. MaaS software will help micro-mobility reach new users and become more mainstream with door-to-door trip planning.
4. AUTONOMOUS/ELECTRIC: There has been growing recognition that rideshare was the first wave of disruption in the transportation industry, and the second wave will be even more extreme as autonomous vehicles enter the vehicle mix. Meanwhile, advancements in electric batteries are making it more likely that the autonomous fleets will be electric, and an electric infrastructure benefits both bikes and scooters.
An Argument Against Micro-Mobility: What has Not Changed Over Two Decades
1. CAR CULTURE: At the Cambridge conference, Josh Westerhold from Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi made a compelling case that personal transportation (i.e. car ownership) is not driven by efficiency. Meanwhile, automotive marketing is the largest category of advertising and topped $47 billion worldwide in 2015. For the near future, the automobile industry will continue to promote the desirability of single vehicle ownership, and there will continue to be high levels of vehicle ownership, on the order of 8 cars for every 10 Americans.
2. REGULATION/RULE MAKING: Although Uber and Lyft have been disruptive to the taxi industry, state and local governments have been slow to react and resolve entirely new issues like curb space, driver screening, and sidewalk sharing. Curb space and public safety are also vital issues for micro mobility. At the Cambridge conference, Joseph Barr, the Cambridge Director of Traffic, Parking and Transportation, observed that cities will need to rebalance their budgets as micro mobility reduces revenue from traditional sources like road taxes and parking.
3. WEATHER: While climate change has often been a rallying cry for micro mobility, more immediate climate issues have not been fully factored. While small cars, like Bonzo, offer some protection from inclement weather, it is not clear that they will operate on ice or snow. We do not know if regular commuters will rethink taking a scooter or bicycle when the weather turns inclement or cold.
4. DELIVERIES: Although cars sit idle 95% of day, vehicle owners rationalize the need for one because they are a necessity for moving packages, groceries, and shuttling children around. To reduce the need for cars and trip generation, alternative means for package delivery and family space need to spring up.
5. DEMOGRAPHICS: Finally, the audience at the Cambridge conference seemed to rally around a particular problem: today’s micro-mobility options favor younger people, and particularly those who are single and without families. The emphasis on electric scooters, dock-less bicycles, and repurposing sidewalks does not serve other age groups, and in particular the elderly.
Save Our Sidewalks” or SOS as the Bird speaker, Hannah Smith quipped, requires the company to place ‘bird watchers’ in the field and work with municipalities to achieve better, safe, shared streets. The promise of micro mobility is not so new, but the problems (and potential) it brings are not necessarily ones that were anticipated by existing, on-the-shelf, transportation master plans.