If you live in or have visited a large urban center like Los Angeles or New York City in the last few years, you’ve no doubt seen the large swaths of people zipping through traffic on mopeds and scooters. You probably noticed the same small vehicles littering the streets in droves; corners overflowing with electric scooters and racks of bikes lining the streets. This phenomenon is known as micro mobility, and it’s attempting to solve the transportation problems that plague big cities around the world.
Businesses looking to profit from creating a transportation solution based on efficiency are increasingly focused on the sector. The idea is to create said efficiency by changing the mode of travel when it becomes beneficial to do so.
In general, micro mobility aims at creating more efficient travel for short trips. While getting from place to place by car or bus is undoubtedly efficient for long distances, it’s ill-equipped for short-distance travel in congested urban spaces. The final leg of travel, or “the last five miles” as it's commonly referred to in this fast-growing sector, is ripe for disruption.
As a market, it’s nothing to scoff at: In the US alone, micro mobility is expected to grow to $300 billion by 2030. Startups have already injected nearly $6 billion into the industry, and they’re looking to infiltrate cities around the world with this new mode of transportation.
City planners have always had a degree of difficulty in optimizing for the last leg of transportation. There’s long been an ongoing debate on what the best solution is for these short trips. And this isn’t a niche problem: Over half of all trips taken in the US are under the five-mile mark. Micro mobility has emerged as the fastest and most efficient way of taking on this problem.
Micro mobility offers a solution to the last few miles of travel that’s extremely affordable and quick. For the everyman, it only takes a few dollars and a few seconds to rent a scooter or e-bike that can get them to where they’re going. They simply unlock and activate the device with a mobile app and they’re off. Instead of hailing a cab so they can sit in congested traffic, they’re zigging and zagging through cars that are doing more waiting than going.
Better still, there are no special licensing requirements for using a micro mobility device. If you know how to ride a bicycle, you meet all the requirements necessary to utilize any number of micro mobility devices. The barrier to use is as low as it gets.
Of course, one of the biggest appeals of micro mobility is its environmental impact or lack thereof. Mopeds, scooters, and e-bikes are completely electric, so they aren’t burning any fossil fuels to get people to where they need to go. As more people become more environmentally conscious, micro mobility becomes the preferred means of transport.
City planners that see these clear benefits are beginning to integrate these ideas into their urban designs which further increases the growth and popularity of micro mobility.
Not Without Challenges
Despite the clear benefits of micro mobility, it does have its fair share of challenges. For starters, an urban center’s infrastructure has to possess certain features for micro mobility to work well. While scooters and the like are generally be left along sidewalks, e-bikes require areas for storage and charging. This requires space on sidewalks and in streets that aren’t currently being utilized.
In cities that don’t have dedicated walking or biking lanes, traveling on micro mobility devices can be problematic. Incidents of accidents and injuries are more common, leading to slower adoption in cities that don’t have this kind of infrastructure. Because of this, micro mobility has a tougher time taking hold in developing countries where alternative transportation is less common.
Another challenge is perception. In North and South America, most of the population views micro mobility as favorable, which is part of the reason for its rapid growth. But in certain countries in Africa, for example, cycling is seen as a pastime for the elite, so creating a solution for the common traveler is much more difficult. For micro mobility to become a worldwide phenomenon, mindsets and ideas about it need to evolve.
Micro mobility also requires a vast array of technical hardware for it to function—for every e-bike, scooter, or moped that exists, there’s an array of infrastructure required for it to exist. Docking stations, charging facilities, ongoing maintenance, and tracking technology are necessary to ensure its ongoing function. Figuring out the logistic of this is still proving challenging to companies; it’s not uncommon for someone to test multiple bikes or scooters before finding one with a charge, for example.
And the model isn’t without its setbacks in terms of vandalism and theft. Managing a fleet of mopeds or e-bikes floating freely around a city poses its own set of challenges. A French bike-sharing service, Gobee. bike, had to close its doors after a large percentage of its fleet was stolen and vandalized. The technology aims to solve this problem with tracking mechanisms, but it’s not a perfect solution. (Read the 7 tips to make a Profitable Sharing Business)
Another challenge lies in regulation. Because of its emergent but rapid growth, micro mobility still doesn’t have much regulation in large urban centers, and the regulation that does exist can be crippling. It’s difficult for regulators to see the clear benefits of micro mobility when there are thousands of bikes and scooters littering the sidewalks and impeding foot traffic in their cities. In the US, many cities have implemented regulations to control the growth of the market, requiring companies to obtain permits to operate. Because of this, a lot of businesses are working with governments to make micro mobility easy and accessible to everyone without the obvious side effects.
Lastly, micro mobility has problems when it comes to weather and climate. In cities that experience higher amounts of rain, snow and cold weather, adoption and growth are slower. People are, of course, less apt to operate an open-air mode of transportation if the weather isn’t ideal. Moreover, riding a bike or scooter in ice or snow can be downright dangerous. That said, companies are attempting to meet this challenge in innovative ways. For example, a startup in Washington DC offers protective gear for cold weather during the winter months.
The Benefits of Micro Mobility
Despite the challenges, micro mobility offers a host of clear benefits that make the phenomenon a viable option for getting around in congested urban centers.
For starters, micro mobility is ridiculously efficient when it comes to energy consumption. For example, a gas-powered car requires one-kilowatt hour of energy to travel a mile. In contrast, that same amount of energy allows an e-bike or scooter to travel up to 80 miles. That bests even a Tesla in terms of operational efficiency.
In terms of cost, even with all of the associated hardware required to manage a fleet of micro mobility devices, it’s still far more affordable to produce compared to traditional transportation. For the cost of a single sedan, you can purchase up to 100 electric scooters. Mopeds and e-bikes cost even less.
And while electric mobility devices still require charging, there are no fuel costs, resulting in enormous savings. Compared to a car that gets 30 miles to the gallon, the cost to travel the same distance on a micro mobility device equates to about one percent. Even with the cost of maintenance, companies are able to pass tremendous savings on to the consumer.
And speaking of fuel, the clearest benefit is, of course, the undeniable positive impact on the environment. For taking on the problem of greenhouse gas emissions, micro mobility is a game-changer. This alone has been enough to induce urban planners to encourage the adoption of the technology necessary to make micro mobility a mainstay in cities across the globe.
The Future and Beyond
Right now, more than half of the world’s population lives in an urban area. By the middle of this century, that number is projected to increase to nearly two-thirds. And as most cities have already been designed and built for the increasingly antiquated travel method of automobiles, micro mobility is going to increasingly become a preferred method of transportation.
Micro mobility can go a long way in easing the stress that existing transportation puts on cities and travelers alike. Moreover, as more regulations are created for fossil fuels and the businesses adapt and evolve to these regulations, the clear environmental benefits of micro mobility will push it forward and create, not only a viable alternative but a preferred method of travel now and in the coming decades.