Driving change: micromobility and getting around post-COVID-19

The world is likely to look very different post-COVID-19. Public life will have changed dramatically, and how you get around could look very different depending on where you live. What could the mobility landscape look like moving forward?

Micromobility mostly comprises personal e-scooters, electric bikes, and other small-scale, portable modes of transport. The definition of micromobility vehicles has evolved: today, it includes only vehicles that don’t have an internal combustion engine and cannot speed above 45 kilometers per hour. They’re shareable and convenient and benefit from new technological advances.

Micromobility is an unexpected success story in the urban transport sector in recent times, with e-scooters becoming the fastest-growing mode of transport ever. Within a year of their introduction in cities throughout Europe, the U.S., and Asia, e-scooters were available in 626 cities in 53 countries, according to the NUMO mobility alliance. Just two years on from their launch, as many as 300 million trips were made worldwide on e-scooters.

Micromobility solutions became attractive for a few main reasons: one, they’re convenient and offer useful ways to get around a dense, urban environment; two, they have a positive impact on congestion, as you can rent them quickly and easily using an app on your smartphone and typically drop them off at your chosen destination; and three, they have a positive impact on the environment, as they replace internal combustion engine vehicles that pump out harmful gases. If micromobility comprises just 10% to 20% of a city’s transport by replacing four-wheel vehicles on the roads, there can be a measurable impact on traffic flow and air quality.

The impact of COVID-19 on micromobility

Micromobility took a big hit from the pandemic, just as the industry was getting into gear. In 2019, McKinsey predicted that the micromobility industry would be a $300 billion to $500 billion market by 2030, and the future was bright. Orange Silicon Valley recently held a virtual event, Hello Show, designed to provide thought leadership and community connections through innovation, startup demos and partnerships. At the event, Julie Lein, Managing Partner of Urban Innovation Fund, said, “There are a few trends: COVID-19 has made municipal transport have a really bad time. It is hemorrhaging cash, ridership is down, and people are concerned about sharing public transport. This presents an opportunity for micromobility form factors, and new e-bike, e-scooter, e-motorcycle and moped companies all serving slightly different users and use cases.”

That said, COVID-19 lockdowns saw the level of passenger-kilometers traveled fall between 50% and 60% worldwide, causing the use of micromobility solutions to decline dramatically up to July 2020. COVID-19 presented shared micromobility providers with a twofold challenge: not only are they experiencing far less demand, but they are also enduring the impact of increased contamination risks inherent in using shared assets.

However, micromobility can give people a mode of transport that promises a lower risk of infection, for example, and one that ultimately means they don’t have to share large public vehicles with potentially contagious strangers. It’s no surprise that since the pandemic began, bus, train and subway ridership declined in cities in which people were allowed outside to travel.

To help encourage ridership numbers, micromobility providers will need to address the public’s pandemic-driven concern about hygiene. One way to do that is to ensure they are disinfected between riders. E-bike startup in Los Angeles, Wheels, partnered with healthcare company NanoSeptic to cover bike grips and brake levers with a self-cleaning material that could reduce transmission of the COVID-19 virus. Another way ahead could be local authorities implementing new legislation that requires providers to institute these types of sanitation measures.

Driving change

Digital techs enabling micromobility

A further reason that micromobility may get back onto its upward trajectory is the proliferation of digital technologies that facilitate it. Artificial intelligence (AI) can help make micromobility more efficient and more profitable for operators. They can use data and AI to forecast local demand, optimize distribution, schedule maintenance and manage risk, such as theft, better.

The Internet of Things (IoT) can help micromobility operators comply with fast-changing government regulations. It can track vehicle metrics such as speed, time taken to reach a destination, the route being followed, and where it is parked. GPS trackers and IoT sensors can be the enablers here. IoT connectivity also enables data sharing with city traffic authorities, and it can help mitigate theft and vandalism of scooters and bikes.

Cloud is another digital tech that plays a role in micromobility, providing the storage for the large amounts of data generated by bikes, scooters and riders. Edge computing also offers the possibility for the bikes and scooters themselves to monitor data and make decisions locally. It could even allow consumers to use vehicles if connectivity were down.

A micromobile future?

There’s a potentially bright future ahead for micromobility, thanks to its pre-pandemic benefits of convenience, cost and positive environmental impact. Still, it will require consumer habits to keep on changing.

The impact of the pandemic will be a key factor in that change: Michele Kyrouz, writing in the book New Mobility Handbook, said, “Let’s continue to use cars, but change how we use them to make them more effective and to only use them for the trips where they’re really necessary.”

What seems possible is that micromobility becomes a mainstay of the overall mobility mix. Micromobility is suitable for short journeys in busy urban environments, so perhaps it will replace cars and taxis for that purpose. Traditional public transport, buses and trains will continue to be used for longer journeys. Furthermore, it could yet be some time until COVID-19 vaccines have been widely rolled out – which could present an opportunity for micromobility solutions to grow their mobility market share.

There are other issues to consider, for instance, regulatory compliance. In the UK, electric scooters are only allowed on the roads if they are rented, not personally owned. Safety is another key factor: a report by the International Transport Forum proposed some recommendations to make micromobility safer, including allocating protected spaces for micromobility and making training for car, bus and truck drivers to avoid crashes with micro-vehicle riders mandatory. These are the types of challenges micromobility needs to overcome if it is to become the transport option providers want it to.

Jim Adler, Managing Director of Toyota Ventures, talking about micromobility at the Orange Silicon Valley Hello Show virtual event, said, “We envision a world where technology will continue to amplify the human experience. And we think technology will continue to change business models to create a strong emotional connection to people.” According to McKinsey’s global consumer survey, the use of micromobility stands to increase in 2021 – by 9% for private micromobility and by 12% for shared micromobility – compared to pre-pandemic levels. Changing times and changing consumer habits could help give micromobility a kickstart.

For more information, watch Orange Silicon Valley’s webinar on transportation and mobility, and read Jay Onda’s blog on micromobility-as-a-service.