One reason we know that cannot predict the future is: who no-one predicted an explosion of urban micromobility. This an explainer, to clarify the basics.
The debate on non-motorized personal mobility has been stable for a couple of generations: bicycles are ok if safe, walking otherwise. Everything else is a distraction—skateboards, rollerskates, Segways—transport planning can ignore it. Scooters were children's toys. The only news here in decades was the very slow emergence of electric-assist pedal bikes.
And then: boom! Suddenly personal mobility has been replaced by micromobility as a category. The following micromobility form factors:
- e-bikes and pedal-assist bikes
- electric scooters
- low-power electric mopeds
- powered skateboards and other exotic types
are all popping up, and dropping, over the city. Their emergence has huge prospects and implications for business (both as fleets and users of vehicles), transit planning and public budgets, public space and spatial design, health and safety, and lifestyles.
Formally, micromobility is becoming as defined as any vehicle for urban environments that goes slower than about 25 km/h, and can carry usually one person and some personal baggage, used for journies less than five miles.
But the definition and regulatory classification is extending into a new breed of micromobility vehicles that extend the capacities of classic personal mobility in a variety of directions: logistics bikes, child-carrying bikes, two-person scooters, and more.
Things are changing too fast to define micromobility much more than that. But it's possible to look at why micromobility suddenly emerged out of nowhere to become a huge opportunity and issue in urban mobility. These are some of the main reasons:
- Technology Development: As so often happens with technology, changes happens gradually, even imperceptibly … then suddenly, apparently all at once. In the case of micromobility, two kinds of technology have been evolving: mobility engineering, in particular batteries and electric drivetrains; and digital technology, in particular all the technologies associated with mobile devices including localization, payments, user interfaces. Past a certain point, they just permit very different opportunities: such as scooters and e-bikes with meaningful range, without bulk batteries; and shared vehicles that don't need specific docking stations to be found, returned or monitored.
- Latent Demand: People didn't know they wanted—needed laptops and mobile phones—until good ones were on offer. Even if you had asked them if they wanted such things, they wouldn't know what to do with them before they could see them in use. So, a lot of apparently stable situations, such as the legacy personal mobility environment, sit on huge latent demand. Once the opportunity has arrived, the growth in demand can see shocking: but it was there all along.
- System Effects: A driver of massive change around micromobility is not just incremental tech change reaching a threshold, but a combination of factors that leads to a change in overall system state and opportunity, which cannot be predicted from any one feature. Neither batteries, nor mobile tech alone, nor latent demand, nor change in lifestyles explains the micromobility boom: but together as a system around the vehicles, these and other causes start to add up and make sense.
To engage with micromobility, it's helpful to keep these three causal characteristics in mind, since while the details are moving fast, they will continue to drive the overall trend now unfolding.
A fourth condition of micromobility, which has been influential through its absence is regulation: micromobility has grown so far, regulation of any sort in most cities has not yet caught up. But that is about to change: spatial, safety, competition and other considerations are about to be applied.
If we try to follow the throughline of these four framing conditions, can we detect the outlines of what's next for micromobility? If we take for granted increasing use for general personal mobility, here's some aspects of likely progress:
- Logistics: The massive growth in last mile logistics, in urban environments that cannot support much or any growth in large vehicle traffic and informal parking, leads directly to innovation in micromobility logistics. Even if autonomous logistics arrives sooner rather than later, which is not a given, the next step, already underway, is a massive increasing cycles, scooters, and other form factors used for fine-grain logistics.
- Public Transit: Public transit authorities have always struggled to triangulate between limited budgets and growing needs to serve citizens where they live and work. Micromobility creates a whole new dimension of public transit opportunity, extending mainline transit options in a much more cost-effective and detailed way. Micromobility infrastructure can even be applied in principle to user classes with special needs, whether disabled or elderly.
- New Use Cases: As micromobility tech, form factors and infrastructure improves, the use cases will likely evolve beyond informal personal mobility to more structured life choices. Currently, very few people use micromobility for shopping: because the vehicle form factors and distribution networks don't support it. But soon enough, bikes and scooters optimized for shopping will emerge. Likewise, for commuting: as options increase, and you can get to your place of work in a fit state to work, micromobility commuting will become more common.
- Spatial Planning: The open secret about car parking in cities is not just the amount of space given over to unused vehicles (on top of the active roadspace)—it's the regulatory requirements for cars that is so surprising. This is about to change, and one of the beneficiaries will be micromobility, which for personal, business, and logistics uses, will increasingly be planned into private architectural and public urban spaces.
Important remember that micromobility is not destiny: society can and needs to choose what problems and potentials it wants micromobility to address. The lack of fixed details around micromobility actually opens up opportunity for just that.
Some technical fads come and go. When the Segway was launched in 2001, it was described as 'reinventing the wheel' and 'maybe bigger than the internet'. It just shut down production for ever.
But it seems likely that the new wave of micromobility is here to stay.