The future of micromobility: it’s not about the hardware
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E-bikes and e-scooters are transforming towns and cities in every part of the world, providing a sustainable alternative to cars. The benefit to the public is obvious enough, but why are so many massive companies eyeing these little vehicles with interest?
With armies of gaudy, primary-coloured e-bikes and e-scooters, the micromobility industry is conquering our towns and cities. The first docked bike-sharing program was launched in Hangzhou, China, in 2008, and similar programs are operating in every region of the world today. Although the industry took a hit during Covid-19 (with giants like Lime and Bird laying off significant numbers of staff) it has since rebounded. McKinsey predicts it could be worth $300-500bn by the end of the decade.
With the world arguably having passed ‘peak car’, micromobility – and especially powered micromobility – has the potential to become the dominant mode of transport in urban environments. There are many possible benefits: not only reduction of traffic congestion and air pollution, but also of greenhouse gas emissions. The CO2 emissions associated with a mile of travel on an e-scooter are around 5 per cent of those from a mile of travel in an electric car, and the emissions associated with manufacturing represent a similarly tiny fraction.
However, in many places, e-scooters and e-bikes are not living up to their potential; particularly in the UK, where private e-scooters (as well as more faddish forms of powered micromobility like ‘hoverboards’) remain illegal. There are concerns about the vehicles cluttering pavements, being operated irresponsibly, and causing injuries and even fatalities to riders.
Hardware innovation in the powered micromobility sector is largely focused on safety features. Beryl – which operates a sharing scheme for bikes, e-bikes and e-scooters in the UK – is integrating sophisticated features into its vehicles, including precise geofenced speed controls. It powers down its e-scooters when they are detected to be in busy areas, such as on the Bournemouth beachfront during certain hours in summer, or around Christmas markets in the winter. Beryl is also working to incorporate advanced sensors to detect when an e-scooter is being used inappropriately (e.g., on a pavement).
However, CEO and co-founder Phil Ellis argues that the big changes needed to make powered micromobility safer are primarily non-technological: “We’re being asked to solve a policy problem with technology. The policy problem is, in the UK, e-scooters are illegal so people don’t know what to do; they don’t really like them; there’s no training for it; and funding isn’t really geared up to enable people to travel safely in segregated lanes.”
There is strong consensus that by far the most important change needed to make powered micromobility safer in the UK is establishment of segregated lanes on urban roads. Giulio Ferrini, head of design and engineering at Sustrans London, says: “The main thing [that must happen] is reallocating road space away from motor vehicles and towards these more sustainable modes. That is crucial to our transport infrastructure actually developing progressively for the goal of safe and sustainable travel for all. Protected cycle lanes are key here.”
Beth Morley, mobility and human insights specialist at Cenex, a low-emissions transport consultancy, says this is key to cutting transport emissions overall: “In order to reduce carbon emissions, we need to acknowledge the need to have more space allocated to [walking, cycling, and powered micromobility] rather than people arguing over the small amount of pavement that’s left after you’ve built another four-lane road.”
Other measures to encourage micromobility take-up could include teaching safe e-scooter use in schools (similar to cycling proficiency schemes) and the rollout of dedicated parking, potentially near public transport hubs, to facilitate switching between modes of transport. Sofia, Bulgaria, one of the first European cities to regulate e-scooters and a leader in integrating multimodal transport, has dedicated more than 200 free parking bays to micromobility vehicles.
All these measures – segregated lanes, training in schools and dedicated parking – are hardly novel. They are precisely the same measures that encourage traditional bike use; e-scooter pilot reports indicate that users have the same preferences as cyclists. The real innovation is happening elsewhere.
If car ownership is on the descent, something must emerge to replace it. Mobility as a service (MaaS) has been touted as a more sustainable, flexible alternative to private vehicle ownership: an integrated service which enables customers to plan, book and pay for multimodal transport. Journeys could be composed of any combination of public transport, car sharing (from old-fashioned taxis to autonomous vehicles), and micromobility.
For instance, MaaS Global, currently operating in Helsinki and Turku, allows customers to manage journeys via train, bus, taxi, rental car and micromobility on a single app (Whim). It also offers an all-in subscription designed to meet all transport needs within a city for a fixed price. Similar MaaS schemes are being piloted in Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Singapore, Barcelona, Hanover, Vienna, Paris, Eindhoven and other cities.
There is an ongoing rush to secure a slice of the MaaS pie, with micromobility operators being snapped up by other companies in the transportation sector – and beyond – to provide first- and last-mile services. Lyft acquired bike-sharing operator Motivate and launched its own fleet of e-scooters in 2018. Lyft rival Uber purchased Jump Bikes in 2018, although it was later handed over to Lime as part of an investment deal with Uber. Traditional automakers Daimler, BMW and Ford are among those to have entered the micromobility market, while oil giants Shell and BP have also been sniffing at it with interest.
Professor Tim Schwanen, director of the Transport Studies Unit at the University of Oxford, says: “The long-term [future of micromobility] will depend on the extent to which it becomes integrated into broader services. I think the idea that we have an app on our phone for each individual service is not going to have a long shelf life.” The consolidation of multi-sector services into ‘superapps’ in China and south-east Asia could be an indicator of the future of micromobility, and of MaaS more broadly.
Grab, which began life as a taxi-booking app, now describes itself as ‘south-east Asia’s leading superapp’. Its services include mobility, deliveries and banking. Indonesia-based Gojek started as a service for booking motorbike taxis (‘ojeks’) and now allows users to deliver medicines, pay electricity bills and even book massages. China-based DiDi has expanded from taxi booking to encompass food delivery and financial services. Other micromobility apps are being absorbed into large existing companies. Hellobike, DiDi’s main bike-sharing competitor in China, is 36 per cent owned by Ant Group, a subsidiary of the Alibaba digital empire.
Over the coming years, there is likely to be a push towards consolidation in the micromobility market with a few big players emerging as the leading MaaS operators. However, the real value of micromobility services might not be in the vehicles themselves.
Operating a micromobility service can grant a company access to a vast trove of very granular behavioural data. As these services are integrated into larger operations, these data could be used to feed algorithms and learn to predict user behaviour. For instance, Mobike, the world’s largest bike-sharing operator, has been incorporated into the ‘location-based services’ branch of web company Meituan-Dianping, whose business model is based on recommendations in the form of vouchers. The acquisition was interpreted as giving Meituan – which has been accused by users of ‘intensive’ location tracking – access to a valuable trove of data.
It is unsurprising that this is happening first in jurisdictions less “riddled with institutional hurdles” regarding data rights, as Schwanen puts it. “I think, ultimately, what [the micromobility] business model was based on was the data, and being able to use the data to learn much more about consumer behaviour, to be able to really understand and start to predict what people might do, which they might then monetise, for instance, for advertising purposes,” he says. “Some of these companies are really not interested in transport as such; they’re really interested in creating this data and understanding what people do as part of their everyday life. Mobility is sort of the glue that holds everything together.”
Morley echoes this sentiment: “It’s been one of those things not a lot of micromobility operators like to admit, but when you see the massive hedge fund investments in some of these companies, I think they see the value in the data that’s being collected. It could be very likely that you have a shared mobility operator where actually the service is very much a means to an end, because the value they can get from selling that data on is far higher than any money they might make running the service ... this is the world we live in, where data is a commodity.”
The innovation is in cargo
While there is relatively little compelling hardware innovation on the consumer side of powered micromobility, the cargo side of the sector is fizzing with new concepts – from autonomous delivery robots to foldable flatbed trucks – which might displace fossil fuel delivery vehicles. For instance, in its recent action plan for zero-emission powered light vehicles, the ZEMO Partnership reported that there is massive potential for ‘L7’ type cargo vehicles (four wheels, enclosed passenger area, maximum power 15kW) for last-mile deliveries in the UK.
Professor Allan Hutchinson, emeritus professor at Oxford Brookes University’s School of Engineering, Computing, and Mathematics, explains: “Far too many large vehicles go into the city unnecessarily, causing congestion, emissions and pollutions. If we had lots of depots around the ring roads of a city where [for example] a John Lewis truck could disgorge its contents into smaller electric vehicles going into cities, that sort of thing would be a good idea.”
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