Covid-19 has given us the opportunity to pause and rethink a number of established norms, including how we move. Human-centred cities are now actively being reimagined at an accelerated pace. Think: pop-up bike lanes, pedestrian-only streets, and greener spaces.
This combined with the looming threat of climate change means shared scooter and bike schemes are increasingly taking over public spaces. The pandemic has hastened escooter trials in certain UK cities, and the global escooter market is expected to reach an estimated $16.4bn by 2025. The main drivers of this market shift are increased consumer awareness, stringent environmental regulations, and increased government incentives and subsidies programmes.
Some cities have seen successful adoption of different micromobility schemes, but when it comes to escooters and ebikes, there are still some questions to work out. How can we ensure passenger, and pedestrian, safety? Are ebikes and scooters really that much better for the environment? And with a vaccine rolling out, threatening to restore ingrained mobility habits, how do we know that micromobility is here to stay?
Last week, we gathered a panel of experts for the latest Sifted Talks including Emily Brooke, founder of shared micromobility company Beryl, Fredrik Hjelm, founder of shared escooter company Voi and James Padden, head of future roads technology in the UK’s Department for Transport, to explore the realities of this great green mobility revolution.
Here are some of our key takeaways:
Cities need micromobility operators as much as micromobility operators need cities
The growing accessibility of shared bikes, ebikes and escooters has the potential to help cities improve traffic congestion and air pollution. At the same time, micromobility startups can capitalise on public transport ‘deserts’ by providing first and last mile connectivity. Hjelm says that somewhere between 30% and 40% of rides in Stockholm, where Voi is based, are to and from public transport stations.
“In our trials in the UK, we’re seeing operators thinking about where the local railway station is, the bus stations, and putting in appropriate infrastructure there so we can encourage those types of journeys longer term if we do legalise [escooters],” says Padden.
But it’s not just about integrating with public transport. Beryl works to embed its shared mobility solutions into the city landscape. Designated geofenced parking bays help to ensure dockless vehicles don’t become annoying or take up too much pavement space. Taking it one step further, Beryl has even introduced a number of ‘parklets’ into its schemes, making the geofenced parking bays somewhat of a destination.
“You’ve got wooden seating, some planters, a nice little spot to sit and have a cup of coffee,” says Brooke. “It adds a bit more to the urban landscape than a parking bay and it really just transforms the street to be a much more liveable space for everybody, not just the people using the vehicles.”
Multiple modes of micromobility mean greater accessibility
Shared mobility schemes mean people don’t have to commit to buying a bike or a scooter, so a greater number of users might hop on that wouldn’t otherwise. Brooke says Beryl’s surveys found a large portion of their users are first-timers who hadn’t ridden a bike in five years.
Generally, a customer’s preference for jumping on a good old fashioned bike versus an ebike or an escooter will differ depending on their demographics and their needs. Hjelm added Voi’s escooters are often used for trips up to four kilometres. Beryl has found that among its multimodal fleet, scooters tend to be a gateway to other modes of micromobility.
“A certain proportion of the city loves scooters so that increases the user base,” says Brooke. “We’ve seen people potentially get on a scooter for the first time that wouldn't have considered the bikes, and then they move onto other vehicles in time.”
Brooke also says bikes are still the most accessible because they’re cheaper than escooters, and electric bikes are typically used to serve longer distances or instances in which the rider is carrying something.
People need to see the fleets of scooters and bikes in use before deciding to join in on the fun
Both Brooke and Hjelm say the best way to get more people using shared schemes is to keep them visible and well-maintained. Brooke says over 70% of Beryl customers discover the service from seeing the vehicles around their city, which are generally maintained, serviced, parked responsibly, available and convenient.
As over 30 trials take place across the UK, Padden agreed that seeing is believing. “It’s a large scale trial so the more people who can see the vehicles in operation, have a go on them and form a view, the more we can hopefully encourage people to use them if they’re going to be legalised.”
The micromobility market is consolidating — but there’s room for diversification and collaboration
As with all new industries, major players in escooters and ebikes have begun acquiring smaller companies. Not three years ago, there were perhaps 30 companies that were contenders for global micromobility operators, says Hjelm. Now, he reckons, it’s anywhere from five to 10 companies, and predicts continued consolidation due to a huge influx of capital.
“When the music stops playing, you will be hardily assessed on your metrics, operational excellence, how well you work with cities and whether you can be a business with a long-term free cash flow,” he says. “We will also continue to see a consolidation among operators more vertically, in terms of charging, connectivity and other parts of the mobility tech stack.”
That being said, some companies are taking a more collaborative approach to growth. According to Brooke, Beryl also partners with operators in cities it wouldn’t otherwise have a foothold in. For example, in London, Beryl partners with public transport operator Transport for London to provide all of the IoT and tech for their new bicycles, as well as the software to support those bikes.
When the music stops playing, you will be hardily assessed on your metrics, operational excellence, how well you work with cities and whether you can be a business with a long-term free cash flow.
Viability and safety are still a question mark
It’s not very often countries have to look at new modes of transport and work to legalise them. In order to avoid chaos, governments and operators need to work together to cover their bases. And that means asking some tough, and sometimes tedious, questions.
“Are they safe enough, or can they be made to be safe enough?” asked Padden. “Are they going to encourage the sorts of travel behaviour that we’d like to see? Then there are a bunch of questions about user requirements: Should I have insurance? Should I wear a bike helmet? What are the vehicle standards for rental versus the private market, and what do we do about the hundreds of thousands of vehicles that are out there already if they don’t meet those standards?”
Additionally, cities and countries need to work out a proportionate regulatory regime around different forms of micromobility, as well as dedicated infrastructure, in order to ensure that as many people can take part as safely as possible.
Escooters aren’t as green as public transport yet — but they're on their way
Electric scooters are touted as a viable green alternative to driving, and indeed they are greener than private cars and other gas-guzzling forms of transport, but they’re not quite as clean as public transport yet. Decision makers therefore need to weigh up the cost-benefit analysis around reducing congestion and improving air quality, and operators need to step up their green promises.
“The mark that we’re setting for ourselves is that the carbon footprint per passenger, per kilometre should be lower than public transit in all markets we’re operating in,” says Hjelm.
Better tech and batteries has enabled major improvements in escooters today. Hjelm says Voi’s latest models have a theoretical lifetime of five years, but they actually last much longer now due to refurbishment and resale programmes, which give scooters a second or even third life.
“The latest models have better tech and swappable batteries,” says Hjelm. “The older models had batteries that lasted three to five rides and then we’d have to take them in, charge them in the warehouse, and put them back on the street. Now you can get 15 rides out of a battery and we swap the batteries right on the street.”
When implementing a scheme in a new city, be adaptable, expect it to get messy and don’t let the media scare you
Paris and parts of Sweden took a very hands off approach to initially governing rules around escooters, and what ensued was a bit of chaos. And when Voi came to Coventry, its initial trial ended not 10 days after it began due to safety concerns.
Hjelm says these were good learning experiences that helped drive home the need to urge governments to make more space for pedestrians, bikes and other light vehicles. He adds that operators need to innovate better solutions that fall within the regulatory regime of each city, where “focus should be on order, safety and a good user experience.”
“In a completely new market, you need to reset your thinking of what is ‘normal scale’ and adapt to the market fully,” he says. “We started with what we thought was quite a limited fleet and small operating area, but this was something completely new for Coventry and the UK market. People weren’t used to this and we were simply naive. We learned the hard way that it’s much better to start small with people just seeing the vehicles, and then you can slowly increase until it starts to become a real transportation service.”
Coming from Sweden, Hjelm and his team also had to contend with the British media, which he described as a whole different animal and somewhat more “direct” in its communication. Padden says he’s seen a pattern of negative press accompanying each trial launch, which then fades away as people become accustomed to the new normal.
And things do get better.
“The journey seems to have been: if you can hold your nerves and really want to give this a go, you can weather maybe a few days or a couple of weeks of media, or people parking where they shouldn’t and so on,” says Padden. “And things do get better.”