Reshaping our cities: Rebuilding with Micromobility
Please note you can also watch the video recording of this interview here.
The rise of micromobility over the past few years has been an unexpected success story with shared bikes and e-scooters growing exponentially in popularity in many cities. Even with the setbacks faced by the industry due to COVID-19 , micromobility can play a major role in building resilient, flexible, inclusive and sustainable cities as we rebuild after this pandemic.
We sat down with Johan Høgåsen-Hallesby, Chief Technology Officer and Co-Founder of Urban Sharing, to talk about potential solutions to the challenges the industry faces and the opportunities that micromobility presents for sustainable urban development, and improving the quality of life for city dwellers.
What is micromobility and where does Urban Sharing come in?
The term micromobility has evolved over the past 3–4 years and has become very useful for understanding small light-weight vehicles (less than 500kg) and what they can do. These small vehicles have ‘superpowers’ as I say, in that they are electric, they have intelligent systems and they are shared. These can be shared bikes, e-scooters, skateboards, any mode of transport that’s small, light-weight and low-speed. We are still trying to figure out the dynamics of these vehicles; should users sit or stand? What is the right balance when it comes to usability, flexibility and safety? A lot of research and development is still taking place.
Urban Sharing provides the software tools known as ‘fleet management systems’ needed to power micromobility. These software tools manage thousands of micromobility vehicles out in the city in terms of tracking. This includes where they are, where they should be, which need to be repaired, customer behaviour etc. These tools were borne out of the system we built for City Bikes in Oslo.
How has COVID-19 affected micromobility?
The response to the pandemic has been very regional and city-specific, with quite varied and conflicting responses. In Oslo, Norway, the city asked that the shared bikes be released earlier in the beginning of spring, whereas in Trondheim, Norway there was a lockdown on the usage of city bikes. The general trend we noticed has been a reduction in use of public transport due to quarantine rules or people being skeptical towards it. For example, in Beijing there has been a 187% increase in the use of micromobility since people are still reluctant to use public transport.
There are other cities that have encouraged increased usage of micromobility. Berlin, Germany increased the size of their bike lanes to facilitate more capacity and space for micromobility. In Bogotá, Colombia they shut down car lanes and allowed people to use them for biking. In Paris, France and other cities they increased the number of e-scooters available for public use.
It is clear that public transport is not going away, it is the backbone of the city. Micromobility can however help with that feeling of getting back to normal as it becomes a more adopted form of transportation.
What type of business models are needed to make this infrastructure sustainable?
A lot of startups within micromobility have been using the ‘Uber’ model, and they can be the first ones to go. When they don’t make money quickly enough, they then have to shut down operations. This can be unsustainable in many ways. For example, in North Carolina the Jump bikes were some of the greatest in the market, but because they weren’t profitable, thousands were thrashed and maybe recycled when they could have been repurposed.
However, public-private partnership models within the industry have been improving. Transport in itself is not a big money maker and a lot of it is subsidized. Cities need to spend money to achieve the socio-political goals they want. Better partnerships between these companies and their cities of operation can help create more sustainable business models. Milan for example, has increased the number of scooters available for public use. This allows companies to make more money but also allows the city to meet its goal of decreasing car usage. We hope to see more cities improving their relationships with private companies when it comes to micromobility.
You’ve talked in the past about the ‘inherent democratization in micromobility’. Can you tell us about this and how micromobility contributes to more inclusive cities?
I have been happy to see micromobility used to help health care workers, first responders, and workers on the front line. A lot of companies have made small vehicles free for their workers, thereby proving that micromobility has the ability to help specific groups and meet transport goals.
We can also ask, can this be a welfare option? Can this be something affordable for those who can’t afford private cars? I met with an insurance company last year looking to launch a mobility insurance product. They did research on what happens when people aren’t able to move around the city, and they found that life quickly falls apart for those people. Mobility should be seen as a basic human right and micromobility can provide this opportunity at a very low cost.
The first wave of micromobility adoption was driven by early-adopters and private companies but in the next phase we need to think of this as public transport. How do we use this to facilitate a higher quality of life and our sustainable city goals?
What’s important going forward?
We are at a point where we have learnt lessons on how we respond to uncertain times. Now we realise we need to build more flexibility and resilience into our structures. A lot of our urban city structures have been very fixed and non-responsive, but we have to respond to real time and adapt quickly as the world changes. Merging these together we can develop a system that is flexible, builds resilience, allows the city to achieve its goals and facilitates a higher quality of life for its residents.
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