Micromobility has been hailed as “the future of urban transportation” and a solution to “multiple problems in congested cities.” The term has certainly enjoyed soaring prominence in recent years, moving beyond niche circles of the mobility industry to penetrate popular consciousness. Yet, at the same time, even some transportation industry veterans do not have a complete grasp of what its full transformative potential.
Chances are good that micromobility will continue to make inroads in cities around the world as the 2020s progress. Given its rising profile and promising future, we’ve put together this introduction to micromobility, the solutions it offers, and the challenges that still lie ahead.
As an urban transportation concept, micromobility refers to small, lightweight vehicles available for short-term, individual use. There is no universally agreed-upon standard for weight and performance specifications, but one common benchmark sets weight limits at 350 kilograms (771 pounds) and top speeds at 25-45 kilometers per hour (15-28 miles per hour).
Technicalities aside, micromobility usually includes:
- Bikeshare systems (including both conventional pedal bikes and power-assisted e-bikes)
- Electric scooters
- Other small personal electric vehicles like Segways, electric skateboards, hoverboards, and even electric water bikes
Some classifications also include compact electric cars with capacity for one to two passengers.
How micromobility systems work
Commuters and city-dwellers can purchase their own micromobility vehicles for their personal use, but prevailing models mainly focus on short-term rentals. These can be paid on a per-use or subscription-based system, with travelers usually accessing vehicles using their smartphones. Payment structures typically follow a flat-rate system, in which travelers pay a fixed price to access to the vehicle for a set number of minutes. Some localities use distance-based fee structures, or hybrid systems that account for both time and distance.
Passengers find shared vehicles in one of two ways: through docking stations, or dynamically. Docking stations were the universal standard when micromobility was first introduced, and they remain popular. This model sees vehicle fleets placed in strategic locations in densely populated urban centers, often near major transit hubs. Travelers use digital credentials to unlock a vehicle, which they then ride and leave at the docking station nearest their destination.
As 5G networks have rolled out, micromobility solutions have also adopted dynamic models. These allow passengers to source the nearest available vehicle through a smartphone app. Passengers then reserve the vehicle, unlock it with digital credentials upon reaching it, then ride it to their destination. The major advantage of this model is that travelers do not need to deal with docking stations: they instead use the vehicle for point-to-point travel, locking the vehicle at their destination for the next customer to use. Some systems incentivize riders to end their rides near certain in-demand locations.
Advantages, limitations, challenges, and potential solutions
The key advantage of micromobility is that it offers a feasible, convenient solution to the common “first mile/last mile” dilemma. Research shows that people in the United States are comfortable walking about a quarter of a mile to access public transit, but tend to seek other solutions if the nearest transit station or stop is further away. Micromobility can bridge those distance gaps, thus putting public transit within reach of a wider base of potential passengers.
This key advantage ties in with many other micromobility benefits:
- It offers time- and energy-efficient solutions for short-distance smart commuting
- Micromobility vehicles are inexpensive to operate and do not generate emissions
- E-bikes and e-scooters are far cheaper to produce and purchase than road vehicles
- It is inexpensive to use, thus offering strong benefits to lower-income individuals
At the same time, micromobility presents new challenges. These include:
- Vehicle access is becoming increasingly dependent upon smartphones and internet access, presenting challenges for people who cannot afford or choose not to use these technologies
- Micromobility vehicles can potentially lead to safety hazards for pedestrians and riders when used unsafely or on sidewalks
- Many municipalities have yet to formally integrate them into their traffic codes
- Some travelers abandon bikes or scooters in inopportune places, creating obstacles to foot traffic and other vehicle users
A number of experts have also expressed concerns about micromobility getting too big, too quickly: vehicle quality may suffer, creating potential pitfalls for users. And, there are important questions about the overall environmental impact shared-use vehicles have when balancing the potential to reduce emissions from transportation with their short lifespans leading to waste .
However, with more research, the emerging narrative is that micromobility’s advantages outweight its known and potential drawbacks, leading cities to embrace it with increasing enthusiasm – and more thoughtful regulation.
Integrating micromobility into your commuter toolbox
Micromobility is filling gaps in urban and suburban transportation ecosystems, and forward-thinking employers are already integrate it into their programs to support commuters. RideAmigos can help you integrate public and private transportation options into a single hub to provide comprehensive commuter support. Get started today with a friendly analysis of your programs and a demo of the future of the commute.