By Ashwini Chhabra
From the rise of the micromobility industry in Santa Monica, California in 2017, through its rapid growth and global expansion in 2018, to its global presence in 2019, we have seen a remarkable evolution of this new and popular service and the approach cities are taking to support sustainable mobility for all. Looking back at 2019, here are some of the most impactful trends in micromobility and how we expect them to shape the future of transportation in 2020 and beyond.
As cities grapple with increasing pollution and congestion, micromobility provides a solution that can move more people in a cleaner way and makes efficient use of valuable public road space. Micromobility has also catalyzed an overdue discussion about our road safety crisis, and how cities must redesign streets to help keep all road users safe. As a result, micromobility companies have emerged as allies for cities looking to meet important sustainability goals and fulfill safety commitments like Vision Zero.
Two (or three) wheels good. Four wheels bad.
As scooters have been introduced in cities, the shift away from cars has been remarkable. More than half of all car trips in the U.S. are less than four miles, making micromobility solutions a perfect alternative to driving. In city after city, we’ve found that approximately one-third of all scooter trips would otherwise have been made by car, taxi, or rideshare vehicle. This substitution away from cars can help decrease commute times for everyone, unlocking economic potential while reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
And micromobility isn’t just about scooters anymore. Companies are rapidly developing new vehicle form factors, like the electric mopeds, which can compete with cars for longer trips and welcome in a wider range of riders.
If 2018 was the year of rapid expansion for micromobility, then 2019 was the year of intense focus on profitability. Companies upgraded their off-the-shelf vehicles to bespoke vehicles specifically engineered from the wheels up for shared use. Rugged, proprietary vehicles are not only safer and more comfortable to ride, they also contribute to the overall sustainability and profitability of the industry by staying on the road longer. The pace of vehicle innovation is staggering; Bird, for example, is ending 2019 with a vehicle that is four generations removed from the model it first introduced in 2018.
Beyond their appearance, new models hold a much longer charge, are more dependable in extreme weather conditions, come with anti-tampering measures to prevent compromises, and offer a more streamlined design to minimize the risk of rider injuries. They also feature product enhancements such as self-reporting damage sensors, enhanced geolocation, and anti-tipping hardware that help keep riders and sidewalks safe.
Safer streets = safer rides
Micromobility’s boom has encouraged a groundswell of cities planning for streets that safely accommodate all modes of transportation. Although safety has been a concern for cities dating to the advent of the automobile, traffic fatalities due to cars have recently become an epidemic: cars kill 40,000 people in the U.S. every year. Micromobility presents an opportunity to put the principles of Vision Zero to work.
Cities across the country have accelerated investments in separated lanes for bikes, scooters, and other micromobility vehicles. Forward-thinking leaders like Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms are leading the way in recognizing the central role cities play in creating a safe environment for new modes of travel, and committing to building more safe infrastructure—in Atlanta’s case, tripling the number of protected lanes.
This year, safety experts took a closer look at micromobility safety. Seven different cities published major scooter safety studies, most of them reporting injury rates and challenges similar to bicycling, and all of them characterizing injuries as preventable with the right infrastructure. In response, leading micromobility companies have invested more heavily in safe vehicle design and introduced new features to better educate riders, preserve sidewalks, and incentivize helmet use.
Cities have also been modernizing rules to adapt to new technologies because laws on the books can often date back several decades and need refreshing to apply to new entrants. These new rules often set minimum vehicle longevity standards (to ensure that vehicles last at least a year on the road, for example), safety standards (that require that vehicle batteries be protected by water- and tamper-proof enclosures, for example), performance targets that tie fleet growth to minimum trip thresholds, and requirements that micromobility companies have robust safety track records and meet threshold insurance levels. By offering permits only to those companies committed to providing a safe, sustainable service, cities can further their most important goals while keeping a door open to innovation.
Scooters in 2020
The response to micromobility services from consumers and cities over the course of 2019 shows that these new options are assuming an important—and permanent—place in the mobility landscape. Early adopters like San Francisco and Los Angeles are upgrading pilot programs with more permanent permit programs and expanding fleet sizes. Cities recognize that micromobility services can help them achieve their sustainability goals, and with further investment in safe infrastructure, we can expect to see micromobility solutions arrive in many more cities in 2020.
Ashwini Chhabra is the Senior Director of Public Affairs at Bird, the pioneer in shared micromobility. Prior to his current role, he oversaw policy development at Uber, with a focus on self-driving cars, and previously worked to shape transportation and mobility policy in the administration of New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg. He spends his days thinking about how we can make our streets safer and more hospitable for more people. Ashwini holds a BA from Williams College and a JD from Yale Law School.