Annie Chang
Jun 20 · 5 min read

Tens of thousands of tiny vehicles have flooded our streets. The sudden emergence of these vehicles have sparked regulatory dialogue for cities, curiosity in researchers, massive media coverage, and polarized public sentiment. The micromobility dialogue doesn’t appear to be dwindling down anytime soon.

A common vocabulary is the foundation of effective communication. As a researcher working in the standards world, I have been frustrated by the lack of a common vocabulary in the micromobility space. In fact, I recently started writing my PhD thesis on micromobility and found myself stuck on the first paragraph. What do I call this class of tiny vehicles? What do I call travelers using these tiny vehicles? Does the term “micromobility” refer to the travel mode, vehicle class, or just shared e-scooters? After some thought, I am proposing a glossary to remedy this.

WARNING: Readers may find that I am splitting hairs. My intention is to provide a speck of clarity in the mountainous vocabulary fog. Many of these terms are in flux and the glossary below should be understood as my personal thoughts at the time of writing.

Critical Terms

At the most aggregate level, urban passenger transport is divided into non-motorized (or active) and motorized transport. The differentiating factor is whether a conventional motor vehicle is used to execute the trip. Micromobility challenges this black-and-white division. Though micromobility involves vehicles that are fully vehicle-propelled or have propulsion assistance, these vehicles are smaller and lighter and are equipped with less power, resulting in lower maximum top speeds than conventional motor vehicles. So, micromobility is neither fully “active” nor “motorized” in the conventional sense. New terms are needed to fill the grey area of micromobility. Here is a map of how I see my proposed terminology fits in the context of “conventional” passenger transport terms.

Map of terminology in passenger transport

Microvehicle

The US Code of Federal Regulations defines a motor vehicle as “a vehicle which is self-propelled and capable of transporting a person or persons.” It notes that a vehicle that cannot exceed a maximum speed of 40 kmh (25 mph) shall be deemed not a motor vehicle. Whereas in the Motor Vehicle Safety Act of Canada, a motor vehicle is defined as “any vehicle that is capable of being driven or drawn on roads by any means other than muscular power exclusively, but does not include any vehicle designed to run exclusively on rails.” Per these regulations, many of the vehicles in the micromobility sphere cannot be deemed as motor vehicles in the US and Canada for two main reasons: (1) some of these vehicles (i.e., e-scooters and e-skateboards) can be powered solely by human muscular power; and (2) some of these vehicles have top speeds of less than 40 kmh. Thus, there is a need for a new term for the class of these vehicles.

I introduce the term, “microvehicle,” to provide a name for this class of vehicles, which sits between the classes of solely human-powered vehicles and conventional motor vehicles. I add the prefix, “micro” to “vehicle” to imply vehicles that are smaller or lower in size, power, and top speed, relative to conventional motor vehicles. It also serves as a shortened version of “micromobility vehicle.”

[micro] + [vehicle] = [small] + [thing used to transport people or goods]

It is important to note that there is an industry-wide standardization initiative by SAE International¹ to develop consensus definitions and classification for vehicles used in micromobility. Given the ongoing standardization effort, I neither attempt to propose a set of attributes that define what a microvehicle is, nor propose terminology for microvehicle types.

Micromobility

Though relatively new, the term, “micromobility,” has gained traction since the e-scooter boom in 2018. “Micromobility” is often used as a one-size-fits-all term. The loose definition and contextual use of the term creates some serious confusion. Thus, I limit the scope of the term, “micromobility,” and propose that it is used only when referring to the category of transport associated with the use of microvehicles.

Dediu explains that he arrived at “micromobility” by combining “micro,” which implies “minimal, if not small” and “mobility,” which implies “the ability to move or be moved freely and easily,” to support the definition of “the ability of movement through minimalistic means.” I partially adopt this approach.

I do not arrive at “micromobility” from combining the prefix, “micro” and “mobility.” Rather, I apply back-clipping to “microvehicle” to achieve “micro” and combine it with “mobility” to assemble the compound noun, “micromobility.” The resulting term, “micromobility,” therefore implies mobility using microvehicles. The counterparts of “micromobility” would be “non-motorized (or active) transport” and “motorized transport.”

[microvehicle] + [mobility] = [small vehicle] + [ability to move]

Micromotorist

I propose the term, “micromotorist” as the umbrella term for travelers using microvehicles, such as e-bicyclists and e-skateboarders. I combine “micro” (shortened for “microvehicle”) and “motorist” to imply the definition of a motorist that uses a microvehicle (and not a tiny motorist).

[microvehicle] + [motorist] = [small vehicle] + [motorized traveler]

Microvehicle Sharing

Of the shared travel mode terms presented in SAE J3163, the most relevant are carsharing, bikesharing, and scooter sharing. I apply the same naming convention of [vehicle type] + [sharing] formation, to achieve “microvehicle sharing” to imply sharing of microvehicles.

[microvehicle] + [sharing] = [small vehicle] + [short-term access to shared fleet]

To Be Continued

The glossary that I propose is indeed very micro. It needs work. It is my bandaid solution to the vocabulary issue. The micromobility industry needs to build consensus around terminology and definitions. My glossary revolves around the vehicle class, which I refer to as “microvehicle.” SAE J3194¹, a recommended practice on this class of vehicles, is well on its way to publishing in the coming months. It should address many of the open questions on the criteria of microvehicles and how to classify them. Stay tuned.

¹The SAE Micromobility Vehicles Committee is developing SAE J3194, a recommended practice for taxonomy and classification of micromobility vehicles.

DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely mine and do not reflect those of any organizations that I have been or am currently affiliated with.

Annie Chang

Written by

engineer + planner + transport nerd

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