Editorial: Micromobility and Urban Space
Micromobility is gaining momentum in cities around the world. The benefits of increased, flexible, affordable, fun, space-efficient, and emission-free mobility and access are immediately apparent. Numbers of privately-owned as well as shared electric scooters (e-scooters) have grown from almost zero in 2017 to completely dominate urban scenes across the developed world a few years later. In parallel, concerns with, inter alia, accident risk, littering and cluttering, undesirable use of public space, and conflicts with other modes of transport and other uses of public space have grown at the same pace (Fearnley, 2020; Stratford, 2002). Indeed, debates on the use of public space, for what and by whom are accentuated with the advent and surge of micromobility.
Micromobility takes many forms (ITF, 2020a). This special issue on micromobility and urban space accepts a broad definition, which includes shared and privately-owned, docked and dockless, as well as motorized (electric) and non-motorized mobility devices intended for single-person transport. With the current state of play, this includes (but is not limited to) kick-bikes, kick-scooters, e-scooters, bicycles, e-bikes, skateboards, hoverboards, segways, electric wheelchairs/rollators, and electric unicycles.
Shared as well as privately-owned micromobility offers promise to help solve a range of policy goals – including flexible, affordable, inclusive, and accessible mobility; local and greenhouse gas emission reductions; congestion relief including on-board crowding relief for public transport; complementation of public transport services to increase their catchment area; health benefits; cost efficiency; and space efficiency (Ydersbond et al., 2020; Voi, 2021; Reardon, 2020; Ziedan et al., 2021; Luo et al., 2021; Fyhri et al., 2017; Yan et al., 2021; ITF, 2020b). As this special issue substantiates, and in line with some of the references cited, the achievement of such potential advantages cannot be taken for granted. Market forces will not, by themselves, necessarily work in positive directions. Various forms of regulation of shared micromobility are essential (Fearnley, 2020).
Micromobility vehicles have traditionally been in private ownership. Recent innovations, including GPS technology, smartphone apps, 4G and 5G telecommunication, mobile payment solutions, and improvements in battery technology, have brought the sharing economy into the micromobility domain. No authoritative sources have attempted to quantify the relative sizes of shared versus privately-owned micromobility. However, a clear pattern can be found in most countries: apart from e-scooters, private ownership of micromobility devices still dominates. A probable exception are cities with low bicycle use that have become victims of the shared dockless bike tsunami since the mid-2010s, of which the Chinese experience is vividly illustrated by Taylor (2018).
When it comes to the impact of micromobility on the use of urban space and on transportation systems, the distinction between privately-owned vehicles and shared ones is not limited to differences in their contribution to parking and cluttering: Karlsen and Fyhri (2021) document other ways in which they differ. Privately-owned e-scooters replace car trips to a larger extent than shared ones – although both predominantly replace walking. They are also used for longer trips than their shared counterpart. Shared e-scooters, on the other hand, are used in first/last mile combinations with public transport to a larger degree than privately-owned e-scooters (see also Fearnley et al., 2020a). Also, shared micromobility still tends to attract the typical early adopter: young, educated, male, and high income.
The market for shared micromobility is characterized by a few factors which contribute to some of the main challenges associated with shared free-floating micromobility. On the demand side, there are economies of scale, similar to network effects in public transport (Mohring, 1972), and economies of density as demonstrated by Arnott (1996) for the taxi market. The more vehicles a shared micromobility operator supplies in an area, the more attractive (available and accessible) are their products to consumers. For this reason, unregulated markets easily become a scene where operators, often armed with considerable venture capital, battle for market shares and future earnings potential, resulting in their vehicles flooding cities. We have seen this unfold in cities including Paris, Oslo, and Stockholm in the case of shared e-scooters, and in several Chinese cities for shared dockless bikes. On the supply side, the cost profile of shared micromobility is unusual in the realm of transportation. Relatively speaking, investment costs are moderate to low, and entry and exit costs appear low. Fluctuo (https://fluctuo.com/), a European shared micromobility monitoring service, offers weekly updates of launches and exits across Europe. Their reports are indicative of an industry with extremely mobile fleets which can be located and relocated globally to wherever they generate the most revenue. Inevitably, this exacerbates the unregulated market’s tendency to flood cities – sometimes overnight.
The sheer number of vehicles in poorly regulated markets has posed a major challenge for cities and their land-use authorities. Although increased micromobility – notably cycling – is usually an urban transport policy goal (see, for example, Hagen and Rynning, 2021; Pucher et al., 2021), it turns out that many cities are not prepared for the large influx of bikes and e-scooters that we have witnessed in recent years. The provision of parking facilities and bike lanes – also appropriate for e-scooters – has, in most cases, proved inadequate. As a result, we see a tendency for increased conflicts between pedestrians, cyclists, e-scooter users, and other users of increasingly scarce urban space. E-scooter users may, for example, take to the sidewalks for reasons of traffic safety and accessibility. In this way, shared micromobility has contributed to putting the need for more, and better protected, cycling infrastructure on the political agenda.
Shared micromobility schemes can be docked (station-based), or dockless (free-floating), or a combination of these. Whether a system is docked or dockless has profoundly different impacts on cities, the use of public space, and the need for local government intervention. Regular docked citybike schemes are easily managed by local authorities. Trips must start and end at designated racks whose location is defined by local authorities. The schemes’ opening hours and other codes of behaviour, including pricing policy, are largely determined by a local government. Dockless schemes, on the other hand, are quite the opposite. Trips can start wherever a vehicle can be found and end wherever users desire, as long as it is within the operator’s geographical operating area. Thus, dockless systems meet the needs and preferences of their users to a much greater extent than those that are station-based as US statistics confirm. While the growth in station-based bike schemes tends to flatten out, free-floating systems of shared micromobility appear to increase exponentially (NACTO, 2020). Also, in Norway, more than one in three e-scooter users state that they use the traditional, docked citybike scheme less due to the availability of shared dockless e-scooters (Fearnley et al., 2020b). However, there is wide evidence that unregulated dockless micromobility schemes can create some very particular problems regarding use of public space (Fearnley, 2020). Notable examples include cluttering caused by large numbers of parked e-scooters in central places, on pavements and in front of building entrances, and thrown into fountains, rivers, parks, or ditches. While such visual intrusion is in itself problematic, it threatens the safety and accessibility of others – especially those with mobility and sight impairments. On the positive side, dockless schemes tend to serve challenged and low-income communities better than their docked counterparts and thereby improve equity (Meng and Brown, 2021; Yan et al., 2021).
Motorized, or electric motor-assisted micromobility modes tend to attract slightly different demographies from non-motorized micromobility modes. E-bikes have, for example, proved relatively more popular with the elderly and women than traditional bikes (Fyhri et al., 2017; Fyhri and Fearnley, 2015, and they are also chosen for their higher speeds (Flügel et al., 2019).
In several countries, the legal status of micromobility – including helmet requirement, minimum age, access to pavement riding or, as in the UK, an outright ban – depends on whether the micromobility vehicle is motorized. The organization of shared micromobility schemes is also affected by whether vehicles are motorized. While non-motorized vehicles are typically used for downhill trips and must be rebalanced regularly, shared fleets of motorized and motor-assisted micromobility vehicles require much less balancing.
This special issue of Built Environment investigates how new forms of micromobility impact the city, its land-use and transport system, the occupation of space, users and non-users, and the environment. The perspective is international. The contributions cover a full continuum from the early accounts of conflicts and controversies caused by the introduction of new forms of personal mobility devices, to more mature micromobility markets where micromobility, given the right set of policy tools and corporate governance practices, offer solutions to many of the dilemmas associated with urban mobility, social inclusion, public space, and climate change – to name a few.
We start in Ghana, where traditional bicycles are common, but recent micromobility inventions like the (shared) e-scooter do not yet dominate Ghanaian cities or streets. Regina Amoako-Sakyi et al.’s 2021 study predicts that e-scooters and other micromobility modes will have a rough time expanding into Ghana’s urban streetscape and transport systems. Their study documents low acceptability of – and even aggression towards – micromobility from local drivers, in a country where traffic accidents are already alarmingly high (Global Road Safety Facility, 2021). Add to that the fact that e-scooters’ accident risk is already very high compared with cycling (Fearnley, 2020), the recipe for disaster can only be avoided by means of broad awareness-building, careful regulation, and enforcement.
Lorne Platt (2021) offers a fascinating account of how skateboarders find new uses for, and interactions with, existing urban furniture, spaces, and built environment, often to the annoyance of their fellow residents. Just as cycling and micromobility are considered illegitimate in Ghana by many drivers (Amoako-Sakyi et al., 2021), so skateboarding continues to create conflict over the use of urban space several decades after it first appeared. Platt suggests many ways in which the consideration of skateboarders’ needs and preferences can create more interesting urban spaces for all.
The next contribution takes us to the UK and two case studies of the introduction of docked and dockless bicycle hire, respectively. While presented by shared bicycle companies as solutions to achieve transport policy goals at no cost to the public purse, they created a whole new set of challenges to urban local authorities (Dudley et al., 2021). The rise and fall of these services, initially showing great promise but subsequently unable to deliver either financially or transport-wise, with littering and vandalism as end results in the dockless case, echo the experiences of so many cities worldwide where dockless bikeshare schemes in particular fall between legislative stools and render local authority governance void. When contested, voluntary agreements between bikeshare companies and local authorities are, unfortunately, barely worth the paper they’re written on.
Although they acknowledge concerns and limitations regarding shared and privately-owned micromobility, the next three contributions are forward looking: they point to ways in which micromobility can be part of the solution to urban transport and contribute to urban strategies and goals (Shaheen et al., 2021; Uteng and Uteng, 2021; Sundqvist-Andberg et al., 2021). Susan Shaheen et al.’s paper reviews the history micromobility in the US before taking a forward look at dilemmas and, more prominently, opportunities for the future of shared micromobility, which depend heavily on soundly based regulatory and policy actions. Tanu Uteng and Andre Uteng’s paper combines land-use analysis with the potential accessibility gains of e-bikes. With two Norwegian case studies, they show how e-bikes can increase accessibility to jobs, especially in areas that surround city centres. This effect can be amplified with supporting transport and land-use measures, for example cycle lanes, speed limits, and densification and transformation of such areas. Henna Sundqvist-Andberg et al.’s paper analyses, in combination, the sustainability performance of the urban transport system and the sustainability of Finnish e-scooter service providers’ business models. The emphasis is on the latter, that is the degree to which sustainability is an integral part e-scooter companies’ business model. Although Finnish cities’ legal toolbox is limited, the authors find that e-scooter companies have incorporated several elements of sustainability into their business models, although their perspective rarely encompasses the entire urban transport system. As several contributors to this issue highlight, the importance of (co-)regulation in order to stimulate benefits and innovation, while at the same time attending to other societal goals, is emphasized. Where a city’s legal powers to regulate the market for shared micromobility are weak (or lacking), much can be achieved with active, two-way dialogues between city authorities and shared micromobility providers.
Micromobility offers many potential benefits but also some pitfalls. Outcomes depend crucially on how local and national governments find the means to regulate so as to mitigate problematic side-effects and to facilitate the realization of the benefits. Land use and transport are deeply intertwined policy areas. For urban micromobility, this is even more so.
The future of micromobility is uncertain. Bicycles, skateboards, and e-scooters are undoubtedly here to stay. But new technologies, vehicles, and business models will inevitably emerge and disrupt urban mobility into the future. It is therefore essential that governments at all levels are proactive, flexible, and facilitative in order to achieve wider goals for transport, society and climate. The role of micromobility in a multimodal transport future must be maintained and promoted.
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