A takeaway from the Micromobility Conference

This article was initially published on Urban Mobility Daily, the blog of Paris’ Autonomy show.

The Micromobility Conference, a unique gathering of international micromobility actors, was held on January 31st in Richmond, California. I decided to travel from Paris to California to check it out and to better understand the trends and challenges of the US micromobility market, through both the conference and  interviews of stakeholders. Here are my observations from the trip.

 

First of all, let’s define micromoblity… and it’s not an easy thing to do ! According to Horace Dediu, founder of Asymco and initiator of the Micromobility Conference, it regroups “utility focussed urban transport, sub 500kg vehicles, and predominantly electrically powered”. Some are widening the range to include non-motorised vehicles (bicycles, kick-scooters…), or restrict it to lighter vehicles.

Micromobility is becoming something huge. In numbers, based on the 2017 US National Household Travel Survey, 70% of the car-based trips are under 10 miles. The “market” of micromobility has the potential to represent … 2.1 trillions miles in the US alone! And the mode switch is triggered by technology: besides the inefficiency of moving a car in a city, innovation (electric motorisation improvement, miniaturisation, smartphone use…) helps the development of transit-centric vehicles.

Every major city saw an increase in the number of micromobility devices (and services) in the past couple of years – the global e-micromobility fleet will rise  from 146.9M in 2018 to 1.1B in 2028 (data from Cairn ERA). Gyropod, hoverboard, (e-)kick-scooters, (e-)bikes, e-mopeds etc. are part of our city’s landscape now. One could easily feel the enthusiasm and inventivity behind the « micromobility movement » at the Micromobility conference held in Richmond, California, on January 31st. With an audience of 650 attendees, the Micromobility Conference managed to gather most of the major actors from North America and beyond to define its reason for being, showcase innovations, and address its challenges.

 

Micromobility and cities

Micromobility should by definition serve citizens for a better transit. It is therefore a major priority for cities to integrate and adapt to those new modes. Ahead of the shared e-scooter tsunami, most US cities introduced – or were working on – regulatory frameworks, with the goals of ensuring safety, efficiency and equity. Different  kinds of permits are popping up, all of which consistently include quantity caps, operation KPIs (with fines) and public fees. LA, Portland and Oakland are all working on permits to regulate micromobility services. In Oakland, « fees will cover the cost of hiring a team of 3 to monitor the program » according to M. Ryan Russo, head of Oakland DOT, who is also relying on the ridership increase to create a need for infrastructure.

Safety has recently been pushed into the headlines due to  a report from UCLA that used figures of emergency room visits to argue that scooters are dangerous (a report to be treated cautiously, as it did not correlate these figures with the ridership boom). All city officials now have to integrate the need to improve infrastructure both for safety (the Portland e-scooter pilot review shows that if there is no infrastructure – bike lanes – people ride on the sidewalk, putting pedestrians at risk) by implementing more bike lanes, and for order by working on prefered parking zones to ensure organized  streets – painted parking boxes are implemented in many places.

What is interesting is that there is now a link between the public authorities  and the private operators. Data analysis companies – Ride Report, Remix, Populus…- are surfing on the wave of shared-micromobility to allow a better collaboration, first by advocating for data standardisation, whether  it be MDS (created by the LADOT) or GBFS. Now that permits are forcing operators to share data, data analysis companies are able to provide heatmaps and accidentology data to cities, which help them  to improve the previously cited infrastructure. They also help authorities to monitor the operators with deep analysis of ride data, allowing cities to enforce their permit rules.

 

Vehicles

Well, as you already know, e-scooter sharing was THE trend in 2018, and the Micromobility Conference confirmed that, with a large part of the talks referring to these vehicles: a panel with 4 operators’ CEOs (Grow, Scoot, Skip, and Spin), a presentation from Tony Ho (Segway) and basically all the panels (cities, investors) referring to this very sector.

But new vehicles are appearing. In terms of monowheels, gyropods have been for a while as  personal vehicles, but its steep learning curve makes it incompatible with shared-use. For 2-wheels, sit-scooters, e-bike/e-scooter hybrids, hover-shoes (!!) and other form factors may offer new possibilities to users in the near future. But one of the most interesting projects for 3-wheels, has been presented by Velometro with its Veemo. Using a velomobile, the company launched a 5 vehicles pilot in Vancouver BC this year, and is looking  to a city-wide expansion in 2019. One may argue that the narrow European streets are not welcoming for this vehicle, but the protective body could be a strong argument for safety and all-weather rides. It might open the range of rides ridden with shared-vehicles.

 

Business models

A striking phrase from the conference was the confession of Skip’s CEO Sanjay Dastoor (who has, however, the clearest vision on how to improve), that all companies from the panel agreed with: “We did not find a working business model yet”. However, overall, the question of sustainable business models did not seem to be a hot topic. It was only discussed a few other times, during the presentations from Pony’s CEO Paul-Adrien  Cormerais on his innovative “adoption” plan to decentralise ownership of bikes and e-scooters to users, and from Smide’s COO Corinne Vogel on the use of high-end e-bikes to reduce operation costs (funny, that’s two BIKE-share companies).

Even if the  problem of unprofitability  was not mentioned by city officials or investors, all the participants in the operators’ panel are aware of the need to evolve and are already working on how to improve operation costs. The e-scooter’s durability (which is currently of 1 to 2 months) is a focus point, so expect to see new e-scooter models in 2019 (check out the Lime-S Gen 3, or Segway ModelMax). Battery charging is another focus point, as companies are still looking for the best model, and are moving from contractors picking up vehicles for charging to swappable batteries and a loose network of charging stations (this last option has for exemple been chosen by Jump in San Francisco). Embedded technology for remote maintenance (and  rider safety) is also expected  to lower on-site interventions.

 

A social conclusion

Let’s conclude with the powerful social concept from Alex Roy: Universal Basic Mobility (UBM, inspired by Universal Basic Income). With cities struggling to keep up and adapt to societal changes, more and more people are falling into a “mobility underclass” that limits their working options, their access to basic services and therefore impacts their quality of life. Whatever the form factor, the number of wheels, if it’s autonomous or not, access to transit is one important answer to social challenges.

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