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Micromobility Q&A: Are we on the road to a future of connected, Complete Streets?

June 21, 2021

Transportation experts discuss how we can ride the micromobility wave to a better mobility future

In its simplest definition, a Complete Street incorporates and accommodates all modes of transportation—walking, biking, skating, scooting, driving. New mobility technologies like micromobility and automated vehicles are also advancing quickly and are reshaping and expanding the idea of the Complete Street.

Micromobility—small, often electrified vehicles like e-bikes and e-scooters—saw explosive growth before the pandemic. They appear likely to enjoy even stronger demand as cities expand Complete Streets programs and make it safer and more comfortable for people to travel on two wheels.

More than just providing a new way to get around, micromobility is a gateway—to a connected mobility network, to smarter Complete Streets, and to autonomous vehicles (AV).

Micromobilty is well suited to be integrated into transit hubs and the larger transportation system.

We spoke to four experts on the pulse of what’s changing in our thinking around Complete Streets, how micromobility has evolved, and how it is enabling AV adoption.

Colin Roche is the cofounder and CEO of Swiftmile, a pioneer in “Mobility Hubs” that charge and organize micromobility vehicles and incorporate AV and connected vehicle technologies.

Dan Hemme is a transportation planner focused on mobility and Complete Streets plans, and bicycle and pedestrian studies.

Suddenly it seems like micromobility is everywhere. That didn’t happen overnight. What can you say about that evolution?

Colin: I see a good analogy in the year 1915, when the Model T went from a touring car used by wealthy individuals to a mode of transportation accessible to the middle class. That’s when Ford really honed the assembly line, and you start to see this dramatic curve in the usage of the vehicle.

I think that’s what 2018 was. The scooter was a form factor that many people already knew, but the shared e-scooters that emerged around that time combined that familiarity with the ability to access them very conveniently. You just open an app, scan it, and go. And the world went, “Wow, these things are a game-changer!”

These transformations are happening quickly. It’s no longer just scooters. It’s e-bikes, it’s e-mopeds, it’s self-driving e-scooters that you can reserve and have show up at your front door. It opens same-day delivery in big cities, too—hit a button and have something delivered in 30 minutes. I can’t wait to see what’s in store for urban mobility over the next 10 years.

The pandemic was an accelerant for bringing that future about. The electric bike market is off the charts; some of these bike companies are backed up six months. Plus, I think people are still a bit nervous to get into a confined space, like a tram, subway, train, or bus. That’s also helped fuel the micromobility movement.

The addition of e-scooter, e-bike, and shared-bike services has been a mobility game-changer in many cities. (Source: Swiftmile)

Dan: Colin, I think you hit the nail on the head. Coming back to 2019, there were 136 million trips taken on micromobility vehicles in the United States. We think, wow, that’s a huge number. But 50% of all trips are under three miles, and 136 million represents less than 1% of those trips, where micromobility can really be a better alternative to the personal automobile.

Ultimately, the question comes down to, are we going to build for it? We have a built environment where it’s very convenient to use a car. I can walk 10 feet to my car, drive down a road, and arrive 10 feet from my destination. It’s incredibly convenient because we’ve built for it. Even with this incredible demand for micromobility, our built environment still doesn’t support micromobility use by a large part of the public. Building for it can help to realize the tremendous potential that’s already there.

Micromobility has exploded in popularity because it’s convenient, affordable, and there’s a low barrier to entry.

When we talk about introducing micromobility, or AVs, into an existing transportation network, we’re talking about a new technology that is still being understood and accepted by the public. People need to see the benefit and then understand how to achieve that benefit. Where are some of the biggest challenges that these emerging technologies can impact?

Dan: When we talk to a city or a municipal planning office, they're trying to make their streets safer for every user, as well as more convenient, more accessible, and more equitable. We’re looking for solutions that can help achieve the shift in not just thinking about moving cars but thinking more broadly about a transportation network and about moving people. It’s about making a system that achieves a community’s goals and asking, “what do you need for a street to be attractive, convenient, and safe?”

And it’s not just about moving these e-scooters, e-bikes, or e-mopeds. It’s also about having convenient parking for them. The biggest percentage of complaints for micromobility programs across the country are about parking and sidewalk riding. Being able to provide a simple, effective, fast, and free solution to a city to solve its biggest problem around micromobility—parking—is tremendous. It’s a rare opportunity for cities to provide the infrastructure they need at the pace that can match the adoption that we’re seeing right now.

Colin: I agree with Dan—cities are widely supportive of micromobility, but they’re looking for solutions to address its growing pains. Across e-scooter operators, they’re seeing the same problems crop up. How are we going to provide a consistent, convenient, known location for these vehicles? How are we going to clear the right of way, both for micromobility parking and for pedestrians who don't want to be stepping over vehicles parked on the sidewalk? That’s especially important for pedestrians who are blind or low-sight and wheelchair users.

Swiftmile is addressing that by creating “Mobility Hubs”—not just to organize and charge e-scooters, but to bring them together with other city-friendly modes like public transit. We want our Hubs to be common, public infrastructure for shared public and private vehicles. This is really 21st Century infrastructure that can be implemented today for pennies compared to expanding a major roadway, for instance. Making micromobility programs more convenient, safe, accessible, and organized clears the way for cities to commit to larger vehicle fleets, which leads to more adoption and more mode shift away from driving.

Technology-agnostic hubs like those from Swiftmile allow different kinds of electric light vehicles to use docking stations, maximizing flexibility. (Source: Swiftmile)

One of the challenges would be the interaction of different modes and how to minimize their conflict. People need to trust the mode of transportation they are using from scooters to AVs. Personally, I would like a downtown area where there aren’t many cars, and I can simply use the scooter and go wherever I want. I can see an AV—or any car, not specifically AV—dropping me off close to downtown, and then after that, I can use a micromobility solution. With “carless” zones in downtown area it’s a more pleasant place to be but still easily accessible.

Let’s talk a little more about building the infrastructure we need to take advantage of connected vehicle technology. What’s involved?

In that regard, it all comes back to ITS, which is basically any technology that makes transportation safer, more reliable, and more mobile. Some basic examples are cameras that let us monitor traffic or dynamic message signs with real-time arrivals at a bus stop. They can be much more complex in the case of connected autonomous vehicles (CAVs) and the artificial intelligence that drives them.

The next generation of ITS technology (referred to as Next Gen ITS) is already underway. It has been made possible through advances in sensing and communication technologies, cloud-based data processing, AI algorithms and the evolution in the effective integration of networked information systems, decision making, and physical infrastructure. The infrastructure layer includes the network edge nodes such as roadside units, routers, and the data and cloud computing centers. Next Gen ITS will benefit from 5G communications. 5G is specifically revolutionizing CAV technology operations via high throughput sensor and trajectory sharing as well as high-definition map provisions.

Dan: We also have to discuss the fact that these vehicles are shared, they communicate with each other, and they communicate with their systems. There needs to be wireless communications infrastructure in place to support these systems’ responding and communicating with each other—so people can feel certain that a vehicle is where it says it is.

Micromobility is a potential a game-changer for filling the first-mile/last-mile gap. The same has been said about AVs. How do you see these modes of transportation working together?

Colin: The data show that electrified micromobility vehicles are great replacements for cars on short trips, and we’re just in the beginning stages. Last-mile car alternatives are becoming more important, especially as cities grow. By 2050, two-thirds of the world’s population will live in cities. We need to create mobility hubs that connect between macro and micro modes, that give these vehicles a place to charge and park, and that create a sense of place. These will be a community resource for emission-free transportation.

I think that we can decarbonize urban transportation and get these emerging modes like micromobility and AVs working together, and this infrastructure piece is going to be a big part of it. I’m a total optimist. It’s doable.

I think that in 10 years, maybe sooner, as you walk on the street, the sensors around you will scan your credentials. And you’ll go to the e-scooter station and you’ll just grab the scooter and go. Amazon has stores built on this model—just pick up what you need, walk out the door, and you don’t need to do anything else. And I think airborne drones will be delivering packages. Every day I see something new. It makes me think that AV level 5 will be here in 10 years.

Micromobility has gained popularity because it is convenient and affordable, with a low barrier to entry.

What can cities do right now to start planning?

Being on the top of research trends is very important. Making informed decisions regarding the implementation of any ITS system is the key to success. Developing road maps for ITS implementations based on the best practices is what cities can do now to prepare for the future. The road map would identify the short-term, mid-term, and long-term technology implementations and budget/resources needed for their implementation.  

Colin: The “future” is rarely as far away as we imagine it. And in this last year, cities learned the hard way just how quickly life can flip on its head. That’s why action must be taken now—today—to implement resilience in our transportation systems. Local governments can no longer let fear of failure block them from the innovation necessary to future-proof our streets, whether it’s through electrification or new mobility solutions that reduce car dependency. And, as you’re seeing all around the world, micromobility is the perfect place to begin.

  • Dan Hemme

    Dan is a transportation planner focused on mobility and complete streets plans, bicycle and pedestrian studies, as well as long-range transportation plans for a variety of clients.

    Contact Dan
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