The Revolution will be Micro

It goes without saying that the automobile has led to profound changes to everyday life. The car made it possible for ordinary people to make longer journeys whilst giving them more flexibility over where they live and work. The modern car is valued not only for its utility but the luxury, comfort and status that it brings. However, the car is no longer suitable for the majority of journeys. As we continue to urbanize, large and expensive cars are no longer an appropriate form of mobility for shorter trips. The multiple lanes and wide roads in our cities are testament to the car’s role as the undisputed king of mobility over the past decades. However, more efficient modes of micromobility are bringing the idea of utility back into urban transport, proving that smaller is sometimes better.

Unbundling

Today’s car is feature-heavy. Manufacturers boast power and infotainment software features, obsessing over providing comfort in every area possible. The internal combustion engine itself has around 2,500 parts as opposed to an electric one (around 250). This makes cars expensive to build. The industry analyst Horace Dediu makes a number of calculations based on journey length, weight of vehicle and speed requirements, to determine that micromobility (defined as weighing less than 500kg) should be able to cover more than 90% of current car journeys. This means that cars are currently being used for journeys in which their large sizes and high speeds are unnecessary. No one needs a car with a 1000km range for a 5km trip to the shops.

Car Trip Distance Distribution in the US via Micromobility

Despite this, car manufacturers aren’t seeking to make their vehicles smaller and more efficient, but rather the opposite. Instead they are focusing on consolidating the market for longer journeys where higher speeds and stability are more desirable. With more efficient micromobility options that can be easily parked and charged, the benefits of using the car for more and more journey lengths is diminishing drastically. This leaves a gap wide open for micromobility providers to exploit.

What is even more interesting is that the majority of journeys are in fact less than 15 kilometres — a market that the car manufacturers are neglecting. Furthermore, evidence suggests that there is actually more value in these initial kilometres than the ones that follow. This is because the first miles of a trip are relatively more expensive. This becomes clear when you take a taxi or rent a scooter, with the initial mile being significantly more expensive than the others. With three times more time spent on trips that are 15 kilometres or less, the potential for disruption is therefore rife. With many features and high costs, car manufacturers and their five year cycles are simply too slow to adapt. The simplicity of micromobility hardware and respective low costs, allows them to adapt quickly and to focus on optimizing their services.

The micromobility expansion

The rapid growth in the micromobility market is astonishing and unprecedented in its growth. If you live in a large city, electric scooters have now become simply part of the landscape. For comparison, it took the electric scooter operator Lime, just 31 weeks to reach one million rides as opposed to 61 weeks for the ride-sharing operator, Lyft. Newer electric scooter providers outside of the U.S. like Tier, based in Berlin, is expanding into new cities every week.

This will have a major impact on our cities. The first and most obvious impact of replacing a 1600kg compact car or 2000kg SUV, with a 10–12kg scooter, is the space that can be freed up. Both stationary and in the traffic lane, much smaller scooters will help to ease congestion. Parked cars take up a large amount of space which could be used elsewhere. If this space can be recaptured, it can be used to alleviate housing shortages or for more economic purposes. The growth of micromobility has the potential to put utility back in the heart of urban travel. Whereas, private ownership of the car has become somewhat of a status symbol: shared micromobility is defined by efficiency.

One of the more troubling and often overlooked aspects of the increase in car mass over time, is the danger they pose to other road users. Their large mass and protective features that help to keep drivers safe, are also making collisions more fatal for other road users. As the majority of urban travel doesn’t require such a large vehicle, an uptake in micromobility can therefore save lives.

In addition to this is the environmental benefit. Requiring less energy than cars, micromobility can help to reduce urban pollution levels whilst helping to reduce emissions on a wider scale. For example, one kilowatt hour of energy can take a gasoline engine car a little less than a mile, while more efficient cars like the Tesla Model 3 can travel about four (on the same amount of energy). An electric scooter on the other hand can travel more than 80 miles with the same amount making the difference in efficiency, staggering.

Chart via Wired

However, it’s certainly not all plain sailing. The durability of the bikes and scooters as well as widespread vandalism, is putting the profitability of these business models into question as well as eroding some of the social and environmental benefits. It remains to be seen whether or not micromobility providers can avoid the fate of Ofo, the Chinese dockless bike provider, where damaged bikes and reliability issues has left them on the verge of bankruptcy. We therefore have to be wary about proclaiming profound changes in our urban landscape just yet, but if the operators can address these issues effectively, micromobility can thrive.

Time to adapt

Cities must adapt to support and encourage these new modes of transport. Street space and lanes previously given to cars should be redistributed to cater for the needs of smaller vehicles and public transport should be better integrated with emerging micromobility options. One of the best things about micromobility from a city planning perspective is that in providing a suitable last-mile service, they actually complement existing public transport infrastructure. Cities themselves should be looking at micromobility as a public transport offering in itself.

Here at Parkbob, we are experts in creating digital representations of policies on usage of public space. By transforming unstructured data into digital assets — such as: government information, satellite imagery, street level imagery, and tapping into the hyperlocal know-how of citizens ( our crowd users) — we are able to support the mobility ecosystem by helping operators make their service more efficient and help them to follow the rules. With the world’s largest data set for the last mile, we are able for example to support micromobility operators with demand prediction while providing ‘crowd’ based repositioning services.

In an urbanizing world the car is no longer appropriate for the majority of journeys. Its large size, energy requirements and high costs are making disruption by smaller more agile micromobility providers likely. This unbundling revolution will take place from the bottom, with more and more users opting for low power and cheaper micromobilty options. These smaller vehicles will gradually eat into larger chunks of the urban mobility market while car manufacturers continue to covet consumers with larger more profitable vehicles. The car was once king but is now too big, the revolution will be micro.


Maximilian Mayer is Head of Business Development at Parkbob. You can connect with him on LinkedIn.

Parkbob organizes the world’s curb-side data and transforms it into actionable information to enable better mobility decisions. Want to know more? Visit the services-section on our website or get in touch with us directly in order to explore the possibilities of a cooperation!

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