Trial and error in American cities
Last week the District Department of Transportation (DDOT) announced the extension of its electric moped pilot program in Washington DC. This extension will allow electric mopeds to remain in the city’s dockless vehicle program. The program is part of the city’s efforts to foster shared mobility transportation and reduce single-occupancy vehicles. The pilot program also includes other forms of shared vehicles, including electric bicycles and scooters. DDOT also extended permits for several e-scooter operators. DDOT’s decision to extend both pilot programs reflects the city’s attempt to embrace innovative transportation options. In this sense, DC has become a kind of testing ground for micromobility.
Other cities are taking the opposite approach. In New York, a city that many might think would be perfect for micromobility due to its population numbers and traffic congestion, companies face strict regulatory restrictions. E-scooters and e-bikes are banned from Manhattan and many of the outer boroughs and they will most likely continue to be banned in the near future. Just last month, Governor Cuomo vetoed a bill that would have legalized shared electric bikes and scooters in the city due to safety concerns.
With micromobility expected to rise in 2020, cities will face the challenge of how to regulate them. Given this challenge, what can we expect the next year to look like and how should cities respond?
Micromobility in 2019
Micromobility has many benefits for urban dwellers. Compared to other transportation solutions, it offers low operation costs, fast commuting times, and low emissions. It also comes in various shapes and sizes, allowing every person to pick the transportation system that fits them best, whether that means an electric bicycle, a scooter, or even a moped. The bottom line is that it’s changing how we move around cities, and will continue to do so in the future.
In 2019, many cities recognized that they were dealing with mobility problems and transit chaos. Municipalities and public officials, in turn, began to try to solve these problems to improve our quality of life. This led many cities to try out shared micromobility options, such as bicycles, e-bikes, and e-scooters.
Many of the headlines last year focused on e-scooters, expanding not only in the US but in cities all over the world. In 2018, Lyft and Bird dominated the e-scooter markets, but last year we saw new competitors enter the market. Companies are also raising a significant amount of funds. The industry is expected to be worth between $200 and $300 billion by 2030 in the US alone.
Most importantly, last year, e-scooters also reduced the use of cars. According to one finding, one-third of all scooter trips would have otherwise been made by cars. A recent report by the scooter company Bird shows how its e-scooters replaced more than 430,000 car trips just in Washington, DC.
Why has micromobility become so successful? Because it presents an alternative solution to transportation problems caused by a growing population in urban centers, increasing traffic congestion, and environmental concerns. According to the United Nations, 55 percent of the world’s population lives in cities. By 2050, this number will increase to 68 percent. In the US, the 25 fastest growing cities grew by anywhere from 60 to over 200 percent between the years 2000 and 2018. Growth means cities will have to deal with traffic congestion, environmental concerns, and how to get people from home to work every day.
Today, most people in the US still use cars to get around. In 2016, only 8.7 percent of households did not own a vehicle. Because of the growing number of people moving to cities and depending on cars, we encounter gridlocked streets and heavy traffic. One study, for example, finds that Americans lose an average of 97 hours, costing each driver an average of $1,348, every year sitting in traffic.
Micromobility may offer a solution to some of the problems that come with rapidly growing urban centers by offering an option for traveling short distances, usually less than 5 miles. A recent report found that 48 percent of trips in large urban areas are actually under 3 miles — around half of those are only 1 mile. This means that solutions like e-scooters and e-bikes could eliminate up to 48 percent of car trips in the top 10 major US cities. This would reduce traffic congestion and commuting times for everyone. These options also allows residents to cover those extra miles where public transit doesn’t reach, without the need of a car.
What’s next for micromobility?
The industry is expected to grow significantly in the next five years as more and more consumers seek micromobility as a daily transportation option. In fact, the industry is expected to grow so much that it is considered to be among the most significant technology trends of 2020.
In 2020 we are likely to see the introduction and growth of new forms of shared personal transport. For one, we can expect to see more electric mopeds, thanks to companies like Revel. Founded in 2018 in Brooklyn, Revel’s mopeds offer a new solution for users who want to travel farther than what is comfortable on an e-scooter, but not far enough to warrant a car. After only one year of operations, Revel can now be found in multiple cities, including Austin, Miami, Washington DC, and Oakland, California. This year, they aim to launch operations in San Francisco and Los Angeles too.
While we may see more companies entering the market, we can also expect to see a consolidation in companies as they strive for profitability. Because the industry is relatively new, micromobility companies are still struggling to become profitable. Take, for example, Lime and Bolt. In recent months they have left several cities where scooters did not catch on. Lime left 12 cities around the world, while Bolt left 6. This doesn’t mean that these companies are doing poorly, but it does signal how young the industry is. Instead of expanding to new markets, companies will be focusing on the markets that are working and becoming sustainable in the long term.
While 2020 sounds like a promising year for micromobility, many of these innovations will not happen without changes in policy. Cities will have to address two main policy questions before the industry can grow: how to provide proper infrastructure to ensure the safety of users and how to encourage cities to experiment.
Many cities lack the proper infrastructure for microtransit to operate effectively. This can lead users to ride on sidewalks, which is a danger to pedestrians, or ride on roads with cars, which is a danger to microtransit users. Sometimes users ride on dedicated bike lanes, but some cities do not have sufficient lanes to ensure mobility around the city, and others do not have protected lanes. Without proper infrastructure, we cannot expect the industry to keep expanding.
Recently, cities are beginning to show more interest in making infrastructure improvements. Proposed changes in infrastructure include adding more dedicated bicycle lanes to create a more interconnected city. Take, for example, Atlanta, where the mayor is planning to build safer streets for all modes of transit. A primary focus of the plan is the addition of protected Light Individual Transportation (LIT) lanes for microtransit. In 2020 we can expect cities to explore and launch similar plans as the number of users grows. More infrastructure will help riders feel safer and encourage others to adopt these new transit options.
Before cities can think about infrastructure, however, they need to adopt the technology. As we have seen with Washington, DC, and New York City, some cities are welcoming this transportation innovation, but others are constraining it or outright banning it. The reasoning differs depending on the city, but one of the main reasons for prohibiting it has been safety issues. Some studies have found that scooter injuries have tripled in the last year, while others claim that only one in 5,000 trips resulted in injuries.
But whatever the justification, strict regulations come with unintended consequences. They can prevent companies from growing and new technologies from being adopted. E-scooters are helping solve transportation issues and helping city dwellers get around. Instead of banning them, policymakers should help find ways for micomobility to thrive. Some cities are doing this by starting pilot programs as an attempt to find the best way to adopt and regulate through trial and error. The results of these pilot programs will help improve public safety and assess the effectiveness of micromobility as a transportation option. Many cities are already experimenting, including DC, Minneapolis, Chicago, Portland, Miami, Tucson, and Baltimore. In 2020, we can expect other cities, like Orlando and Alexandria, to follow suit.
The future of micromobility, like any innovation, will require trial and error. As of now, there are no best practices or regulations set in stone. Cities will need to experiment to find the form of regulation that best fits their concerns without eliminating the possibility of this kind of transportation. If they do, their residents will benefit from new options that allow them to get from A to B the way that works best for them.