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Micromobility is the future of urban transportation
Making micromobility work for citizens, cities, and service providers
E-scooters and dockless bicycles appear in cities all over the world suddenly and in great numbers, but so far the boom has skipped the Netherlands. Micromobility has the potential to address the most vexing transportation challenges of urban areas. With data sharing and a new government framework, providers and national and city officials can find mutually beneficial ways ahead.
The potential of micromobility
Only less than two years ago, electric scooters were first launched in Southern California, but the adoption rates since then have been impressive. One provider, Bird, hit 10 million scooter rides within 12 months1 , while Lime users took 34 million trips across the company’s platform of vehicles in its first year alone2. In Europe, the streets of major cities like Paris, Berlin and Barcelona have also been filled with e-scooters and the like.
According to our conversation with industry leaders, we are only scratching the surface with what is possible. Micromobility has the potential to better connect people with public transit, reduce reliance on private cars, and make the most of existing space by “right-sizing” the vehicle, all while reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Demand for urban passenger-miles across all modes is likely to almost double between 2015 and 20503, as over half of the world’s population now lives in urban areas, and that could climb to two-thirds by 20504. All of those people will need to move.
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Despite the rapid worldwide expansion of the micromobility sector, the Netherlands remains a largely unexplored terrain. Even though Dutch cities are famed for their bike-friendliness, e-scooters are largely absent here because of regulation; any provider who wishes to rent or sell e-scooters or other ‘special motorbikes’, should file an extensive application at the Ministry of Infrastructure. The guidelines have recently been updated, but so far no new applications have been filed. Many providers are eager to enter the Dutch market.
One reason why Dutch national and city government are reluctant to welcoming e-scooters is the sometimes rocky relationship with providers. Some city officials regard the e-scooter business as an unwelcome repetition of their experience with ride-hailing services such as Uber and Lime. The industry is still in its infancy and is experiencing growing pains. Vandalism and theft are persistent issues. Retrieving, charging and balancing the fleet each night can be costly and labor-intensive. Some providers choose to simply flood the market and take a “better to beg forgiveness than ask permission”-approach when it comes to dealing with local authorities. Furthermore, e-scooters take up (sometimes already crowded) bicycle lanes, use sidewalks or share the road with heavy motorized vehicles when bike lanes are absent. Safety is a key concern, but objective statistics on injury rates appear to be largely absent.
A possible key to finding a sustainable and mutually beneficial way ahead for micromobility, could lie in the standardization and sharing of data. Having accurate, up-to-date information about how, when and where the vehicles are being used, could help city leaders to ensure these new mobility options serve broader city goals, complement other modes and avoid conflict with various user groups. Cities could use the influx of micromobility as a test case for deploying a new governance framework, but to do so, collaboration that brings all stakeholders into the conversation appears to be the only way ahead.
Regardless of the particular tack taken, both governments and micromobility providers have important roles to play:
- Cities should consider guiding principles for regulating emerging technologies, including adaptive regulation that can be quickly updated as the market evolves, regulatory sandboxes where the effects of micromobility solutions can be tested, and outcome-based and risk-weighted regulation.
- Cities should embrace modal neutrality; if micromobility furthers a city’s goals it should be welcomed—even if such services were introduced without consultation and with minimal direction from city leaders.
- Providers should be proactive in addressing city concerns. This can range from providing helmets and locks to increase safety and reduce vandalism, increasing education of riders, to using technology or more punitive measures to deter undesirable behavior, such as sidewalk riding.
- Providers should work to ensure that their services further city goals and to demonstrate their value to the overall transportation network.
Be better prepared
For national and city officials, finding the right balance between safeguarding today’s public interest and still fostering innovations that can ultimately benefit consumers and the broader transportation system is key. By working through the thorny issues now, learning from new data, and taking to heart key lessons, everyone can be better prepared when the next mobility innovation—such as autonomous vehicles moving people and goods—comes onto the scene.
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1 Will Yakowicz, “14 months, 120 cities, $2 billion: There’s never been a company like bird. Is the world ready?,” INC., December 2018.
2 Toby Sun, “Riding into 2019 with new financing to serve more users around the globe,” Lime, February 6, 2019.
3 OECD, “Transport demand and CO2 emissions to 2050,” ITF Transport Outlook 2017, accessed April 4, 2019.
4 United Nations, World urbanization prospects, 2014 revision, 2015.