One of the things I love most about the tech industry is the energy and world-changing buzz you feel when people working on the next wave get together early on and share what they’re working toward. Last week’s Micromobility conference was a buzzing hive of excited energy, people whizzing around geeking out trying new models of scooters and e-bikes. Some guy was also piloting an autonomous desk (?) around the obstacle course they had set up.
Held at the beautiful Craneway Pavilion in the East Bay of San Francisco (why are pre-HVAC industrial facilities so beautiful, and why can’t we make any more of them?), nearly 700 people and numerous exhibitors were on hand to explore the state of a fast-growing industry.
My interest in the industry is a little complex; I’m a lover of great cities and walking, a long time bike commuter, motorcyclist and car enthusiast. I love cars but strongly dislike their effect on cities. I hate sitting in traffic, and think cars are a horrible way for most people to get around most cities, mostly because of the huge unintended costs they push onto other people: parking minimums that make housing less affordable, the amount of street space devoted to people and pedestrians, climate change, and the asymmetric consequences of a collision between a car and a pedestrian or cyclist, among many others.
At the same time, as most societies have become more affluent, the car has proven hard to resist; and only a few cities like amsterdam, new york, tokyo and paris have managed to turn the tide the other way.
Urbanites — especially the less affluent — have long known that cars aren’t the most effective way to get around dense cities. For years, that’s been the bicycle. But so far, most people just don’t want to use a bike as the primary way to get around. Too hot/too cold/too wet/too exposed. Plus I have to get my kids home. And they’re unsafe. Etc.
Therefore, “micromobility” — an explosion of new, powered smaller-than car transportation devices driven by the convergence of improved battery capacity, low-cost mobile connectivity and larger-scale social trends toward urbanism and (perhaps) climate consciousness. In his opening convocation, Horace Dediu — as the “high priest of micromobility” — pointed to the explosive growth of scooter services and the fact that cars are mostly used for very short trips as evidence that the jobs-to-be-done represented by the automobile today could be disrupted — mostly unbundled and replaced with a plethora of smaller transportation devices.
However there’s still a lot to figure out, which was the topic of most of the rest of the talks and panels. Interestingly, most of the hardest challenges facing the industry don’t really have much to do with the devices themselves, which mostly repackage known, existing technologies. The companies involved generally hew to the standard silicon valley startup blitzscaling/MVP/unit economics orthodoxy. I find it more interesting to focus instead on the more unique issues around form factors, safety equity and politics/culture.
I left the conference with a strong feeling that we haven’t yet landed on the form factor for smaller than car transportation. Bikes probably aren’t it; they’re designed around an assumption of physical exertion that most people don’t want most of the time. Scooters will probably still exist, but when you add the things you need to bring with you (say, a laptop or a shopping bag) become precarious. There was an interesting attempt at a shorter, folding e-bike placing the rider’s feet and pedals on the front axle that seemed to be heading the right direction.
Since the launch of electric scooter services there’s been a lot of attention to safety — specifically, whether there’s been a rise in emergency room visits from people injured while riding scooters. And turns out there has been. The Segway scooters that served as the launch vehicle for most scooter services have very small wheels that don’t tolerate poor surfaces well and a very high center of gravity that limits how aggressively they can brake without throwing the rider off the scooter.
In his great talk on “Safety and Micromobility”, Steve Anderson went right at the biggest problem: cars. Every year, car drivers kill people walking and biking at a rate equivalent of 42 planeloads of Boeing 737 passengers per year in the US alone. That we consider this an acceptable state of affairs is shocking.
In practice, scooter riders stay away from cars and focus on softer targets. In Austin, where I had my first experience with scooter services, riding the scooter on the sidewalk is illegal. When you sign up, each person renting a scooter explicitly promises not to do so — and then promptly ignores it and rides on the sidewalk anyway. Why? Road conditions are poor, and riding a scooter on the road in downtown Austin is moderately terrifying. This coming from someone who has commuted on my bike in Seattle for ten years.
When scooters are on the sidewalk, the experience for pedestrians is seriously degraded. Pedestrians aren’t signaling whether they’re going to turn right or left, or stop to tie their shoes, and at 15mph, scooters violate the expectation of sidewalk speed.
The conversation around safety leads naturally to the question of how and whether cities adapt to micromobility. Street space is a zero sum game — and safety requires dedicated street space protected from cars, giving it to one mode means taking it away from another. And unlike most silicon valley blitzscaling/unicorn stories, street space isn’t allocated individual by individual, it’s allocated by governments as part of a political process, and the chicken-and-egg battle becomes very real, nasty and political. I’ve seen this play out in one wealthy, lower-density neighborhood in northeast Seattle, where opponents to a long-planned bike lane rose up in opposition and pulled out every arrow from the liberal social activist quiver — racism, gentrification, ableism and more — all in the name of fighting the bike lane and preserving a few parking spots. They even went as far as planting fireworks on construction equipment.
There’s tremendous fear of losing a lifestyle they enjoy, and a real sense that people interested in bike lanes are just looking for a government-funded subsidy for their “hobby.”
The conference organizers were well aware of this, and included an excellent panel with city government employees from places like Claremont, Portland, Oakland who spoke compellingly and with real experience about the political battles they fought (and sometimes lost), to carve out some street space for bikes and smaller-than-cars transportation. The potential is there; it’s a question of political will.
Though the city planners I described above were very concerned with questions of equity, the conference headline address on the topic came from none other than Alex Roy, the same guy who famously drove his BMW M5 from New York to Los Angeles in just over 31 hours, averaging over 90mph including stops and using spotter planes to avoid speed traps. He gave a talk on mobility as a fundamental right — Universal Basic Mobility — obviously riffing off universal basic income experiments.
This topic is hard, complicated and touches on questions of image, zoning, affordable housing and land use. So I’ll make a couple points:
- It’s hard to separate “mobility equity” from “housing equity.”
As long as center-city real estate remains prohibitively expensive, people who are less well off will have to commute longer distances to get to work, which will make them less likely to use smaller vehicles as a way to get there. Affordable housing and zoning are enormously contentious political issues, which for me are hard to separate from mobility as a basic right.
- People have a poor image of cyclists and bike lanes.
In most peoples’ view, people advocating for bikes and bike lanes are an elite, wealthy “them,” while car drivers are “us.” Even though the [https://www.seattle.gov/Documents/Departments/SDOT/BikeProgram/2017BikeShareEvaluationReport.pdf] don’t support the idea that people cycling for transportation are elite, the image persists.
Great conference — I’m really excited about what the next few years will hold!