Three Signs This Might Be Micromobility’s Big Moment
12:01 AM EDT on June 17, 2020
Micromobility is in the midst of a major COVID-19 comeback — and it's raising questions about how advocates might use this historic opportunity to make our whole mobility system better for non-drivers.
After months of bleak news about pulled fleets and mass layoffs in response to the coronavirus pandemic, countless urbanist op-eds opined that the scooter- and bike-share industry was rolling towards an early death. But as states and cities begin to re-open, riders are beginning to emerge again — as are questions about what the trends mean for our broader transportation landscape.
Here are three signs that the micromobility industry may be having a moment — and three questions sustainable transportation advocates should be keeping an eye on as we watch it play out.
Stratospheric ridership jumps around the country
Early in the pandemic, mobility experts predicted that fears of virus transmission in indoor spaces would create a ridership death spiral on public transit in cities across America. They were right, of course — and even though public transit is quickly proving to be safer than originally thought (especially when riders wear masks), it appears that micromobility may be taking on at least some of the mode share that buses and trains have lost.
Gotcha, which operates fleets of shared e-scooters, e-bikes and pedal bikes in about 35 cities across the U .S., reported shocking spikes in the number of rides, the number of unique riders, and average trip length in many of its markets. Ridership in Syracuse, N.Y., for instance, soared a stunning 2,882 percent between January and May; riders in Baton Rouge, La. travelled 1,958 percent more minutes over the same period. Athens, Ga., Charleston, S.C., and Mobile, Ala. also saw huge wins.
"The increase in ridership over the last four months has proven micro transit – when executed correctly – it’s a critical resource for communities,” said Sean Flood, Chief Executive Officer of Gotcha, in a statement. "It has proven to be successful with positive system health statistics and retention of existing employees."
What remains to be seen, though, is where, exactly, all these riders are coming from. The company speculates that transit's bleed-out largely explains micromobility's recent successes, but there's yet to be a comprehensive survey on whether Gotcha and other networks like it are, effectively, stealing riders from beleaguered local transit systems, or whether the riders are shifting from somewhere else. Gotcha, for instance, is also offering its e-scooters at a steep discount for food delivery during the pandemic, which may have opened up a new market altogether for restaurants that previously used third-party, usually car-based delivery services, like Postmates. Shared public transportation deserves to be protected just like micro-transit — and street safety advocates should question claims that riders are choosing between them in the age of COVID, rather than getting out of cars.
Micromobility comes to new markets — and commuters get on board
The evidence is, so far, thin that Americans who are climbing onto scooters in droves are also abandoning the bus, but the news out of Europe may be more definitive. In the course of market research ahead of a planned European expansion, Ford-owned micromobility company Spin found that nearly 50 percent of people in Germany are already using or planning to use a solo transportation option for commuting needs — an alarming stat in country whose citizens uses mass transit at five times the rate of Americans.
But if that sounds like a carmageddon in the making, take heart — because the same research found that one third of Germans "believe there will be a reduction of car traffic around inner cities in a post-pandemic world and favor the use of micromobility vehicles such as e-scooters."
Spin is forging ahead with its pre-pandemic plans to unleash fleets in Deutschland, and it's making the same bet in the US: the company has announced plans to expand in Atlanta, Ga. and other unspecified American markets, too. Expansion is a a far cry from the seeming death knell to micromobility that rang through urbanist media as recently as last month, and it may be only the beginning — if the industry can hold on to its newfound commuter riders, which Spin says surfaced during the transit downturn. The company provided over 11,000 free rides to healthcare workers through the early months of the pandemic.
"Spin scooters are being used now more than ever as a utility rather than for leisurely activities,” said
Euwyn Poon, president and co-founder, in a statement. “Since April, we have experienced a 34-percent average increase in new daily active users week over week. We are also seeing a 44-percent increase in our customers’ trip duration (reaching a peak of 24 minutes per trip) in May."
Will e-scooter commuting continue to boom — and will showing up to work become as normalized as the perennial employee parking spot? That's a question to watch in the coming months.
Consolidated networks might prove more profitable — and resilient
Much has been made of consolidation in the micromobility industry during the pandemic — and most of it wasn't exactly positive. Viral stories like Uber's recent decision to offload its money-losing Jump Bikes program onto Lime — and scrap thousands of perfectly good e-bikes in the process — was largely heralded on Twitter as a sign that the industry was collapsing.
But new evidence suggests that consolidation might actually be making the industry stronger in the long term. Santa Monica, for instance, lost two of its four scooter operators during the pandemic, but worked with the companies that remained to keep the same numbers of scooters on the road — a move that those companies say could make it financially sustainable for them to stay in the region for the long haul.
The question that remains, of course, is who will benefit the most from a newly durable and consolidated scooter market — private companies like Bird, Lime, Gotcha and Spin, or riders themselves. The answer, for now, might be "both" — but the COVID-19 revealed the potential hazards of micromobility monopolies, as the largest providers pulled out of cities and left many riders stranded. Public transportation providers and anyone who advocates for them would be wise to explore the possibility of creating more public micromobility options going forward — at least until more Americans feel safe getting back on traditional, shared transit.
Kea Wilson has more than a dozen years experience as a writer telling emotional, urgent and actionable stories that motivate average Americans to get involved in making their cities better places. She is also a novelist, cyclist, and affordable housing advocate. She previously worked at Strong Towns, and currently lives in St. Louis, MO. Kea can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @streetsblogkea. Please reach out to her with tips and submissions.
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