Micromobility Will Change Your Commute - Here's How
As people return to the office, will they adopt micromobility?
This is the first part of a three-part analysis on micromobility. The first part aims to explain why micromobility is so appealing as an alternative to public transportation. The second part of the analysis will focus on how COVID has affected the industry. Lastly, the third and final part of the analysis will focus on the future of the industry.
City residents have by now undoubtedly observed the explosion of e-bikes, e-scooters and electric mopeds that have taken over bike lanes. In New York City alone, I've seen everything from generic electric Citibikes to custom-made, light-up and music-blasting electric mopeds ride down the bike lane outside my apartment.
As cities become more congested, the pre-existing, car-focused infrastructure has struggled to keep up. A Texas A&M Transportation Institute study found that commuters wasted an average of 54hrs in traffic every year (pre-pandemic). In New York/Newark, that number nearly doubles to 92hrs/year.
Yet, a study by the Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy found that nearly 60% of all vehicle trips were less than six miles.
This presents an interesting paradox: commuters are wasting a lot of time commuting and yet, most trips are less than 6 miles in distance. What can be done about this?
What is micromobility? Micromobility refers to short-distance transport, usually less than 6-miles, and has become synonymous with the growing crop of shared bikes and scooters, both human-powered and electric, docked and dockless, that have begun to remake the urban landscape.
As with many industries, COVID-19 has been an accelerant of long-term trends, and micromobility is no exception. As the pandemic wrecked public-transit ridership, people have looked for single-seater, open-air alternatives to public transit, which they've been able to enjoy with bike-sharing and scooter-rental companies. At the beginning of the pandemic, bike sales were up 120% and bike shortages are expected all the way through to 2022.
As consumers begin to hop on the micromobility trend, the market opportunity is poised to expand. A study by McKinsey's Center for Future Mobility estimates that in the US alone, the micromobility market is predicted to be worth between $200B - $300B by 2030. Worldwide, investors have already poured more than $5.7B into micromobility startups since 2015.
While there are still hurdles for micromobility startups to overcome, from legal issues to theft, micromobility seems positioned to change the way people get around.
In the first-part of this three-part analysis on micromobility, we analyze the appeal of the industry in order to understand why it's taking over cities.
The Appeal of Micromobility
Cities are facing rapid population growth and record-levels of congestion. Over half of the world lives in urban areas, a ratio which is expected to increase to two-thirds by 2050 (UN). The number of people living in urban areas is showing no signs of slowing down and consequently, the need for cities to move populations through existing transportation networks is increasingly pressing.
While mass-transit remains the most efficient method of moving large numbers of people over long distances, the problem is in covering large distances. Rather, getting people to and from transit remains the biggest challenge: the so-called first/last mile problem.
Connecting Individuals to Public Infrastructure
The first appealing component of micromobility platforms is in connecting individuals to public infrastructure, i.e. solving the first/last mile problem.
Junfeng Jiao, director of the Urban Information Lab at the University of Texas-Austin, identified "transit deserts" (areas where people do not or cannot afford cars and lack convenient access to other major forms forms of transportation) in 52 U.S. cities and metro areas, including New York City. Transit deserts can also be considered as areas with an exasperated first/last mile problem.
In the U.S., the first/last mile problem has devastating impact: not having access to public transit means individuals forgo job opportunities, access to healthy foods, preventative medical care and more. In a 2013 review of 25 separate studies, researches found that 10-51% of healthcare patients reported that transportation was a barrier to healthcare access.
Not having access to public transit infrastructure is a serious problem in the United States, to which micromobility is an appealing solution. By giving individuals an easy way to cover short/medium distances, it's providing transportation where public services don't.
Alleviating City Congestion
On top of connecting people to pre-existing infrastructure, micromobility also serves as a credible solution to the environmental and congestion challenges cities face today.
Prior to the pandemic, 55% of major U.S. metropolitan areas measured by the TomTom Traffic Index saw increased congestion. Only 5 of 80 measured areas saw their congestion levels decrease. Since nearly 60% of all vehicle trips in the U.S. cover 6mi or less (precisely the range at which micromobility excels), these short-trips are prone to be replaced by shared e-bikes and/or scooters.
Micromobility is appealing because not only do bikes, e-bikes and e-scooters produce less noise, they also take up less space. It is estimated that 10+ bikes can fit in a single parking space, a number which is likely to increase when trying to fit scooters. For reference, replacing just 1% of NYC's free, on-street parking spots to bike parking would add 400,000 bike parking spots across the city. While this is by no means a perfect solution, it is representative of the small, non-invasive changes that can be made alongside micromobility services to help city congestion.
The aforementioned benefits cities get from these services has already caught their interest: Atlanta, Dallas and Washington D.C. all introduced shared micromobility platforms in 2019. Similarly, adoption amongst city residents is catching on: 2019 saw a 60% YOY growth in shared micromobility ridership, primarily driven by the increased adoption of scooter share. Total station-based bike share ridership increased 10% in that same period, even though the number of systems decreased by 4%. Residents are clearly adopting these services as a new method of getting around.
Gaining traction with city residents, shared micromobility platforms are an increasingly-appealing solution to a city's environmental and congestion challenges which will only get worse as populations grow.
Beyond alleviating city congestion, micromobility is also appealing because of its energy-efficiency. Let us focus on the energy-efficiency of e-scooters as an example. E-Scooters are so efficient that a human walking some arbitrary distance would burn about 9x as much energy walking and 4x as much energy bicycling as an e-scooter would covering that same distance. Even compared to electric vehicles, e-scooters are 19x more efficient.
As the climate crisis continues, energy efficiency will become an increasingly important topic for cities. It is estimated that improving energy efficiency could provide more than 40% of the reductions in carbon pollution pledged in the Paris Climate Accord. As such, creating an energy-efficient, short-distance transportation network is appealing to the city government as well as its residents.
While energy efficiency often doesn't speak to people, money does. Part of micromobility's strong appeal is its cost effectiveness, especially when compared to pre-existing alternatives. The fueling costs of 5mi a day of daily transportover a year for an e-scooter come out to $2.93 for the year, i.e. the price of one coffee. A conventional vehicle's fueling cost for that same distance would cost $185.10/year, and an electric vehicle's fueling cost would come out to $78.87/year.
That is, riding an e-scooter on your 5mi commute to work comes out to be 63x cheaper than driving your conventional vehicle, and nearly 27x cheaper than driving an electric vehicle. Talk about saving money.
With such impressive cost-efficiency and energy-efficiency, it is no surprise that micromobility platforms have become increasingly appealing to both urban dwellers and city governments. There are however, a number of hurdles and challenges the industry will have to face, which we will cover in the third installment of this three-part analysis on micromobility.
Cities are increasingly congested, individuals lose days in traffic every year and yet most car trips are less than 6mi in distance. With such a paradox, shared micromobility services are an appealing solution. These services offer a cost-effective (see: cheaper), energy-efficient and environmentally-friendly alternative to traditional transportation. Not only can these services be used to reduce the number of cars on the road, but they can also be used to connect individuals in transit deserts to pre-existing infrastructure and in turn, help communities be healthier and gain access to better economic opportunities.
Unfortunately however, the pandemic put a pause on the micromobility boom. As we will see in the second installment of this analysis, COVID seriously dampened the micromobility industry. However, it also created opportunities for the industry to consolidate and prepare itself for a post-COVID boom.