Can Micromobility Make Us Better Citizens?
Hey, it’s been a while! Frankly, I stopped writing these podcast summaries when I got busier, plus I wasn’t sure how much value it was providing. But I recently heard from a new listener that they really appreciated the barebones structure of focusing only on the key insights and future-facing questions of each episode. So we’re going to revive this! Without further ado…
This post is part of a Climate Now podcast series on the intersection of transportation and energy. I encourage you to listen to the full episodes yourself, as well as Climate Now’s other content. It’s chock full of science and data and nitty gritty stuff that often gets glossed over.
Is micromobility the future of urban transportation?
TRANSCRIPT In other episodes, we've discussed how we can decarbonize cars, but what we didn't look at was how we can…
Thus far in the podcast, we’ve focused mostly on automotive vehicles — cars and trucks that leverage batteries, hydrogen, or carbon capture. But anyone who’s visited a major city recently knows there’s a whole other set of vehicles in the bikes, scooters, and other micromobility devices that really took off during COVID. In this episode, we spoke with Dr. Meredith Glaser and Dr. Kevin Krizek, two researchers and professors who shared some fascinating insights into how cities can lean into these trends and how we as consumers should think about what we really want out of transportation.
First of all, some basics. Transportation is the predominant source of emissions in the United States, and even though EVs are dramatically cleaner over their lifetime they still generate significant emissions in the manufacturing process. Furthermore, the shift to EVs is increasing the weight of the already large trucks and SUVs popular with Americans. I’ll admit that I also love the idea of driving a Rivian or Ford F-150 Lightning, but this translates to a lot of additional kinetic energy. Recent research has shown that while safety is increasing for people inside vehicles, it’s actually decreasing for people outside!
American cities are incredibly car-centric. This is because when most of our cities were built in the early twentieth century, our urban planners were fascinated by the innovation of the day — the automobile. In contrast, if you take a look at some of the most bike-friendly regions in the world, you’ll notice that these cities tend to be “hyperlocal”. For example, Paris revolves around neighborhood commercial nodes. In the Netherlands, you’re expected to register your kids to a school and visit a doctor within a few miles of your home.
For better or worse, we aren’t French or Dutch, so what can we do here to enable lighter-touch transportation? Kevin proposed one straightforward option of shrinking the size of our automobiles so we could continue leveraging our road networks. Whether Americans would really accept this is unclear. But Meredith thinks you can significantly replace our car-centric transportation if you combine public transit with micromobility at both ends.
The key issue is that such a network requires reliability and redundancy — as a Citibike veteran, I know that there’s not many things as frustrating as showing up to a dock only to find out that there are either no bikes or the few remaining are out of service. Research has also shown that when people are waiting (say for a bus or train), time feels twice as long — one minute feels like two — and if they don’t know when the bus or train is arriving, time feels almost three times as slow!
We also need to fundamentally rethink what our metrics of success for transportation is. When you’re stuck in a traffic jam, it’s easy to fixate on the metric of average speed. But high speed doesn’t help if your destinations are far apart. You might actually get more done if you are moving slower (say biking) but have every core need within a few miles of each other. In this case, what matters is the density of services.
This means that micromobility and public transit is intimately tied to land use. Meredith and Kevin found that out of all the street-related experiments cities implemented during COVID, the most effective ones involved reimagining streets as public spaces. Cities could incentivize businesses to provide more core services like grocery stores, doctors offices, and daycares at key nodes of public transit. And despite massive disillusionment with politics, we’ve seen this sort of effective governance can be done! In Austin, for example, residents voted to increase taxes to the tune of several billion dollars to fund public transit, micromobility, and improved sidewalks. The lever here here was cross-departmental collaboration, and a Department of Transportation that put in the effort to engage the public to generate buy-in for these changes.
Speaking of which, I realized during our conversation the importance of personal experiences rather than raw data to get people engaged and enthusiastic. To be honest, my eyes glaze over whenever I read stats about scooters. But when Meredith mentioned the goal of “meaningful journeys”, she spoke about how biking made it easier to recognize and chat with friends (as opposed to siloing oneself in a car). I’ve often wondered why New York City seems to have such a deep-rooted sense of community, and I suspect that it’s because nearly everyone shares common experiences like riding the subway (at least pre-pandemic) and walking the streets. This sort of openness to new and unexpected experiences might just help bridge some of the societal divides that we bemoan today.