What You Need to Know About Micromobility

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This blog was excerpted from NLC’s recent report, Micromobility in Cities.

Shared electric scooters have taken cities by storm, and by now, everyone has either seen or heard about this new way to get around. This old mode of transportation — the kick scooter — has been made new with an electric motor and the ability to be imminently shareable through app-based technology.

While scooters are the newest hot topic in micromobility, they are by no means the only form, with shared bicycle usage still the most common way to get around. First in docked form and now increasingly dockless, shared bicycles have truly taken off, reflected in growing usage rates in cities nationwide.

The term “micromobility” has become a catch-all term for several modes of transportation, namely docked and dockless bikeshare systems, electric bikes and electric scooters. Many of these modes share some distinct features. The first commonality is the increased flexibility in routes and access spurred by the advent of connected devices. Many of these transportation services can be accessed and purchased with the use of a smartphone or other connected device. The second factor is scale, as these vehicles serve individual users.

Another key feature of some micromobility systems is a model of shared usage. For example, some bikeshare services use docking stations for drop-off and pickup, while others use smartphone apps to provide a dockless option. In both cases, each individual bike is used by many different riders, multiple times a day.

There are several models for how these systems are managed. The fleet of vehicles might be owned and maintained privately, like the Chinese bikeshare provider Ofo, or owned and maintained publicly, like Capital Bikeshare in Washington, D.C. New York City’s CitiBike is a hybrid model in that it is publicly owned but privately maintained by the company Motivate.

 

The emergence of micromobility, along with shifts in preferences for alternative modes of transportation, and wholesale monumental changes impacting transportation over the last few decades, have pressed us to ask several questions about how and why we design our cities. We need to consider the management of street and curb space, what a complete trip and street look like, and who we are serving when we design our thoroughfares.

The regulatory system in many cities surrounding these new modes is not yet settled. The model of entering a city first and asking forgiveness later is alive and well, as companies seek to create new laws that allow them to operate unhindered. Many places have figured out the interplay between the operators and the regulators, but there are still quite a few cities working through these questions.

Our recommendations to local leaders include:

  • Get out in front of surprise deployments.
  • Utilize pilot programs to consider right of way policy, cost structure, sustainability and opportunities to work with different companies.
  • Consider safety.
  • Develop a plan and agreement for trip data.
  • Reevaluate bike infrastructure.
  • Focus on equity.
  • Be proactive about learning from other cities.

Ultimately, these systems are an increasingly important part of city transit and mobility systems, as they help people move around cities more seamlessly and efficiently. The value is apparent and big questions, if they do arise, center around how these new systems — which are typically run by private operators — interact with existing laws and regulations.

 

About the authors: Nicole DuPuis is the former Manager for Urban Innovation in the Center for City Solutions at the National League of Cities. 

Jason Griess is a former Heinz Urban Innovation Fellow in the Center for City Solutions at the National League of Cities.