Micromobility and Cities: An Evolution of Cooperation
Micromobility has seen a greater evolution in its short lifespan than perhaps any similar innovation brought to market in recent times. It’s no less than a revolution in urban mobility, one that has completely transformed the way we travel throughout our cities. While this revolution opened new opportunities for freedom and movement, there have been many challenges along the way. Let’s explore the evolution of micromobility in cities, the relationship between the public and private sectors, and the outlook for the increase of multimodality across all modes of transportation.
The disruptive power of new form factors
The relationship between the public and private sector in the realm of micromobility has been bumpy. From the first Bird scooters hitting the boardwalk in Santa Monica, California, to dockless e-bikes and everything in between, the transformation in personal and shared mobility is a phenomenon. The great pace and effort to “launch” in target cities left little time to analyze, strategize, or reflect on the impact on the complex urban fabric. The private sector took the ethos to “move fast and break things” to a whole new level, reaching an apex in 2018.
While this transformation pushed the envelope and disrupted existing markets and behaviors, now it’s time to take stock of where we are at. Up until recently, many major mobility providers either did not communicate directly with cities and public transport agencies, or did so minimally. In 2018, cities started to use the Mobility Data Specification (MDS) developed by Los Angeles for communication with mobility providers. The MDS enables providers to share real-time info on vehicle numbers, locations, physical conditions, and other relevant data.
Europe saw positive trends towards public-private coordination in the mobility ecosystem right before the COVID-19 crisis. Voi proactively reached out to Nordic governments to obtain permission to operate. Tier promoted the use of public transport within its user experience. However, many of the US-based mobility providers took an “ask for forgiveness, not permission” approach. Operators that run roughshod over the public sector this way will likely continue to fail once the economy reopens.
Lessons learned during the early days of micromobility in Europe
Let’s look at the past to learn why close collaboration between private providers and government agencies is key to the success of new mobility. We’ll examine the expansion of shared micromobility primarily from an European perspective, although the boom started in Asia. Chinese providers Ofo and Mobike expanded into European cities after success with stationless bike sharing in their home markets. Their free-floating model promised a new kind of mobility experience, since station-based services were then the norm in Europe.
Nearly overnight, operators made tens of thousands of dockless bikes available in Europe without first informing local authorities. The sudden arrival of unknown service providers and their large fleet sizes posed great challenges to European cities. Regulations didn’t yet exist to address randomly parked bicycles that obstructed other road users and overwhelmed the local infrastructure. Additionally, citizens didn’t receive education about this new type of mobility service due to a lack of pre-launch communication. This sudden introduction of new micromobility offerings prevented rapid customer adoption and created a negative media response with which the industry is still struggling today.
The global rise of shared kick scooters in 2018 caused further tension. Operators pushed to start their services even though kick scooters were not yet mentioned in many road regulations yet. Since then, local authorities have been trying to keep up with the rapid developments in shared mobility to gain control.
Think global, act local!
These early lessons make it clear that while providers operate in a fast-moving and global market, they must work with local authorities to succeed. Local authorities are partners and gatekeepers, as they manage infrastructure and create the framework conditions for private mobility operators.
In addition, operators must keep in mind mobility habits and needs of the local population. Only services that fit the local mobility culture will be successful in the long run. Shared micromobility must be part of a holistic mobility environment that needs to be coordinated to leverage its advantages. Public authorities are increasingly aware of their role and influence on the shared mobility ecosystem. The days when any number of operators could launch their offerings in a single market are over. Even some of the biggest open micromobility hubs like Paris are moving towards more regulation.
Many cities implement pilot programs to evaluate how shared micromobility impacts their local mobility mix. They use pilot programs to learn about the dynamics of shared micromobility and needs for its successful implementation. They also use them to educate citizens and monitor their user behavior. Once cities become convinced of the added value of a sharing service, it is important to establish rules for its operation. It’s now more common for operators to go through a public tender process to obtain a license for a micromobility service. Providers who apply for a license get picked at the end of a comprehensive selection process. The prospect of license renewal then becomes an important incentive for operators to play by the licensor’s rules.
Understand the market and strike a balance
It’s also crucial that providers understand local characteristics and mobility cultures to make a service proposal tailored to the city. The Memorandum of Understanding by the Association of German Cities and German Association of Towns and Municipalities highlights core areas for cooperation between a municipality and provider:
- Determine demand and business area
- Set parking and no-riding zones
- Discuss the relationship with public transport
- Arrange data sharing standards
- Create standards for redistribution, maintenance, and vehicle disposal
- Select contact partners and communication protocols
- Organize channels for citizen communication
Sharing operators started to recognize that working in close partnership with cities is the foundation of their success. They started planning expansions into new cities and countries more carefully and in closer communication with local authorities. In addition, operators can offer additional services to meet their public partners’ interests. For example, they can share access to trip data for traffic insights, or equip their vehicles with air quality sensors. Operators with powerful and flexible tech stacks that let them react to new city needs have a distinct advantage here.
Cities should have a bigger role in shaping the mobility market, without slowing the growth of innovative solutions. Overregulation or even substitution of private players by public mobility services would reduce the diversity of offerings. Sharing operators started forming strategic alliances and interest groups like the Plattform Shared Mobility in Germany to better represent their own ideas and interests to policymakers. Partners at all levels must work together since mobility must be thought of holistically. The wide variety of recent projects is a great example of how joint efforts can boost shared micromobility.
Effective collaboration during the pandemic
The pandemic’s effects on urban mobility uncovered opportunities to address public heath challenges and ensure a more environmentally sustainable future. Cities that are returning to normal levels of activity are implementing urban design to prevent a return to widespread car usage, lure passengers back to public transport, and encourage forms of active transportation (walking, bicycling).
Germany, which began widespread testing and preemptive stay at home orders, is one of the global models for stabilizing the pandemic to ensure a methodical return to normal economic activity. The Kreuzberg district of Berlin introduced pop-up bike lanes to ensure social distancing and prevent an increase in car usage. The change included the temporary widening of two cycle lanes to help cyclists keep the required 1.5-meter distance apart.
We need a more collaborative approach that will benefit all stakeholders to ensure the sustainability of shared mobility options. Strong partnerships between public and private sectors in shared mobility enable everyone to win. We need better analyze the business models of mobility startups to assess their viability in the urban ecosystem. We will see more exits, either through mergers and acquisitions, “market pivots”, or complete business shutdowns if we do not work together.