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The Future of Micromobility: A Step Towards Sustainable Development

Women wearing trainers on electric scooter

The Future of Micromobility: A Step Towards Sustainable Development

Even though micromobility is a fairly new social phenomenon, it is seen as a potential sustainable answer to transport and congestion issues in cities. Hailed as an alternative to personal car ownership and use, it has a lot to deliver. Is it the sustainable solution cities have been waiting for?

What Does Micromobility Mean?

There is no universally agreed definition of what micromobility is – a clear indication that this rapidly developing industry is still in the early stages. You’ll come across a number of different definitions when you search for ‘micromobility’, and they all vary to some degree. 

While recently the term has become almost synonymous with e-scooters, it is actually much broader than that. It can be used in reference to a type of transport device, a mode of transport or service. Sometimes there is also a differentiation between micromobility and e-micromobility. 

The Oxford English dictionary defines micromobility as ‘transportation using lightweight vehicles such as bicycles or scooters, especially electronic ones that may be borrowed as part of a self-service scheme in which people hire vehicles for short-term use within a town or city’. 

Micromobility vehicles typically operate at speeds below 45km/h (28mph) and weigh no more than 227kg (500lb). They include bicycles, e-bikes, kick-scooters, e-scooters, electric skateboards, electric self-balancing boards and even electric skates. For the most part, the feature of being shared is an important characteristic. 

While bike-sharing schemes have been around for almost 50 years, the recent micromobility boom is largely thanks to electrically powered vehicles, particularly e-scooters.

Orange and grey scooters held in a rack in the middle of a city.

Image by Robert Pastryk from Pixabay

Sustainable Mobility in Cities

As we see all around us, cities are constantly growing. Urban areas are already home to 55% of the world’s population and this figure is estimated to grow to at least 70% by 2050.

As they grow, cities face increasing issues with congestion, pollution and poor air quality, amongst others. That’s why they must strive to become more sustainable, with transportation and mobility central to sustainable development. 

The United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal 11 on Sustainable Cities and Communities calls for access to safe, affordable, accessible and sustainable transport systems for all. Accessible transport can enhance economic growth and social equity but it needs to be sustainable to protect the environment.

Currently, transport is the main cause of air pollution in cities. It accounts for 21% of global CO2 emissions with road transport contributing 74.5% of transport emissions. By comparison, aviation contributes around 12%. When you consider these numbers, the need for sustainable transportation systems is clear. 

Cities need to look for solutions that have a low impact on the environment and balance the current and future needs of their residents. Walking is obviously the most environmentally-friendly choice but it’s not really an option if it means it will take you 3 hours to get to work. Out of all the motorised modes of transport, it’s generally agreed that, within cities, public transport is the best option overall. However, the ‘first and last-mile’ issue is often a barrier to the use of public transport.

When you read about urban mobility, you’ll often come across the notion of ‘intermodality’ or ‘multi-modality’ as key to sustainable mobility. The idea is to create seamless and efficient transport networks utilising different modes of transport. Micromobility is now considered one of the key components in this mix. 

Design of bicycle made out of white slabs on green grass.

Photo by Scott Evans on Unsplash

Is Micromobility the Sustainable Answer?

Micromobility has seen incredible growth in the last few years (before the pandemic put a stop to it for a time). It has largely come from the popularity of electrically powered vehicles, primarily e-scooters. E-scooters are one of the fastest-growing modes of transport in history; they are now present in 350 cities around the world and, before the pandemic hit, the industry was predicted to be worth at least $300 billion by 2030.

There are some clear advantages of e-scooters as a mode of transport. They are smaller than cars so take up less space when used and parked. They are quiet. Sharing schemes mean they are utilised more every day. Their comparatively low cost means better affordability and mobility. They are more efficient on short journeys and can travel quicker by using cycle lanes too.

However, when it comes to the ecological aspects and sustainability of micromobility, there are many factors to consider. Being electrically powered, they have the potential to help improve air quality in cities and help urban areas achieve their carbon emission targets, particularly if they replace short car journeys. That’s an important ‘if’ though because if e-scooters replace walking, cycling and kick-scooter journeys, rather than cars, more energy is consumed and more emissions are produced.

There are also environmental concerns relating to the lifetime cycle impact of e-scooters on the environment, from production to use and recycling. 

Vandalism is another serious issue with vehicles misused, discarded carelessly, destroyed or thrown into canals, often making them a nuisance and a danger to pedestrians, especially those disabled or blind. It also deems them unusable, shortening their lifespan considerably.

The Industry is Maturing

Learning from its chaotic beginnings, the micromobility industry, especially the e-scooter space, is changing and adapting quickly. 

The operators are becoming more professional and committed to improving the sustainability of their fleets. They are investing in technology to increase the lifespan of their vehicles: first generation e-scooters only lasted a few months and now they are achieving lifespans of 24 months on average. Swappable batteries are a hugely important innovation as they remove the need to transport vehicles for charging, reducing the service’s overall energy consumption. To reduce emissions further, electric fleets are being used for daily operations. Plus, technological solutions are being developed to help improve the waste management of vehicles.

These technological developments and further micromobility innovations can help to reduce the environmental footprint and strengthen the industry’s credentials as an alternative for sustainable urban transport. Cities are also doing their part by setting frameworks with strict requirements for the safety and sustainability of micromobility operations. 

Man wearing black hoodie and grey jeans on a scooter, travelling down a grey, urban road.

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

What Does the Future of Micromobility Look Like?

Like many industries, micromobility suffered a steep decline in revenues as a result of COVID-19, but the outlook post-pandemic looks optimistic. In a recent report by McKinsey & Company, the consultancy concluded that the micromobility sector is expected to make a strong recovery. They predict that people will be more willing to use micromobility vehicles more regularly, and for longer trips. Cities are likely to invest more in cycling infrastructure to incentivise higher micromobility use and reduce car journeys. 

Cities are starting to work with micromobility operators to create a seamless multi-modal transportation network for their residents. Earlier this year, a new coalition was formed among some of Europe’s biggest operators to promote micromobility across the continent. Bird, Bolt, Dott, FreeNow, Lime, TIER, Voi and Wind came together to form Micro-mobility for Europe (MMfE), to work with European cities to create a coherent policy framework and support the transition to zero-emission urban mobility.

Cities do need micromobility to succeed as an alternative for sustainable urban transport. To make it happen, they need to work with the operators to ensure:

  • User safety with segregated infrastructure, adequate road surface quality, investment in cycling infrastructure to prevent congestion, and designated parking areas so that bikes and scooters are not discarded carelessly where they can create obstacles for pedestrians.
  • Clear legislation and enforcement of the rules – clear road guidelines, including speed limits and a code of conduct for riders.
  • Links with public transport – integration with existing urban mobility systems, ensuring a fair geographical coverage to include areas outside the city centres. 
  • Affordability – making the services accessible for all income groups.
  • Responsible user behaviour and a culture of shared mobility. 

 

Have micromobility vehicles come to your city? If so, have you tried them yourself? Let us know in the comments below!

 

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Sue Mcnally
Sue Mcnally 17/05/2021

Was almost taken out by one on the pavement yesterday!

Lethal. How are you going to guarantee responsible user behaviour????

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